ESPN Is Now Targeting You Via Online Radio

New technology looks to fill 'huge hole' in the radio industry

As part of a companywide effort to up its digital ad game, ESPN is looking to innovate in an area often shunned by tech advancements: radio. 

For the sports giant, the online radio and podcasting arms of the business are surprisingly robust. The ESPN Radio mobile app has registered over 3 million downloads while popular podcast titles like Bill Simmons' B.S. Report have attracted tens of millions of downloads over the years. To take advantage of this audience, ESPN digital audio is unveiling a dynamic cloud-based ad insertion program with the hope of targeting listeners by device, location, age and gender in real time across live national broadcasts. 

The new technology, developed with online radio provider Abacast, is a departure from the standard, static ad insertion platforms available to online radio providers where ads must undergo somewhat cumbersome coding and delivery processes.

Essentially, this means that during large radio broadcast events like last month's BCS Championship game, during which ESPN Radio hosted nearly 110,000 mobile audio streams, ESPN will be able to serve individual ads to each one of those listeners during live breaks. While it may sounds obvious, for online radio it is a first-of-its-kind technology for an industry largely behind the times in digital ad technology. 

"This was a huge hole in the radio industry," ESPN Digital Audio senior manager Blair Cullen told Adweek. "Before, it was one stream to thousands of people, and it didn't make sense that we were targeting women with a lot of the ads that were running. Now, hundreds of thousands of people are going to get different ad breaks. You could be in the same car as your friend wearing different headsets, and you'll still be served a different ad than that person," he said.

While this is a first for live programming, the ripple effects may be slow across the radio industry. ESPN is in a very small class in terms of scale, with large listenership and four physical radio properties in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Dallas.

For local radio stations, the new technology is a definite advancement, but probably not one with much application for smaller players. However, as the digital audio business continues to grow across mobile, sophisticated targeting methods may add a new, stable revenue stream that could help to supplement the low CPMs currently plaguing mobile display ads.