How Bomani Jones went from Clark Atlanta to ESPN
Sports writer and on-air personality's wild ride to media stardomThursday April 23, 2015 04:00 am EDT
North Carolina has been a gateway to sports greatness for decades, especially in basketball, for the likes of Michael Jordan, Grant Hill, Kyrie Irving, Carlos Boozer, the Hawks' Elton Brand, and too many more to name. Though he never dribbled a basketball, for Bomani Jones, the co-host of "Highly Questionable," which recently moved from ESPN2 to ESPN, and "The Right Time with Bomani Jones" on ESPN Radio, the path to his success also ran through the Tar Heel State.
Born in Atlanta and raised in Houston, where he graduated from high school, sports was always a part of Jones' life. Still, a sports career never registered. During his college years at Clark Atlanta University, where he graduated in 2001, Jones considered writing but never radio or television. Toward the end of his college career, as he began publishing music articles, he thought he could make it as a music writer. "I didn't really have a real plan for life and somehow I thought I was going to be able to freelance and make a living out of it when I was 20 years old," he says, chuckling at his naïveté.
To make good on that, he pursued graduate studies in politics, economics, and business at Claremont Graduate University, about a half-hour outside Los Angeles. The move allowed him to invest in his entertainment writing career with some safeguards. Although he began placing pieces on such reputable outlets as Salon.com, Jones realized that writing was not a stable career choice. So taking cues from his parents, both college professors, Jones, well into his 20s, decided that a Ph.D. in economics would ensure job security.
Life had other plans. Enrolling at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to pursue that Ph.D. in economics proved life-altering for Jones. During his time there, the Tar Heels won the 2005 NCAA Championship. The renewed national prominence of the storied basketball dynasty on the road to that win and after greatly expanded Jones' writing career.
"I was in school there at the time so I was able to write stuff that had an interesting vantage from being on campus and that really got the ESPN relationship going," says Jones of his writing gig for ESPN.com. "There was something going on that it was good to be in the middle of." His ESPN.com stories led to multiple radio appearances in North Carolina and across the country. By 2006, Jones received a Masters of Arts, his second, in economics but discontinued his Ph.D. pursuit. Instead he found a comfortable groove in contributing to ESPN.com while living in Durham. It was during this time that Jones received another unexpected break. When members of the Duke lacrosse team were accused of rape, Jones found himself making memorable ESPN on-air appearances.
Those brushes with national prominence made Jones a big deal regionally. Radio fill-in work followed and that led to a full-time job offer with McClatchey Broadcasting. "I hadn't done anything like that, but I also didn't have a job," Jones explains. At one point, Jones held down the mid-day radio show "The Three Hour Lunch Break" during the week on 620 The Bull and "Sports Saturday with Bomani Jones" on 850 The Buzz on the weekend, both in the Raleigh-Durham area.
"Once I got into it, it was pretty clear it was going to work," Jones says of his then new career path. "I had an idea kind of somewhat instinctively of how to handle that medium and it worked out really, really well." So, for the first time in his life, radio became a realistic career option.
Highly educated and very outspoken, Jones appeared on his way. He was also making a name for himself on Twitter, regularly engaging those who listened to his show as well as those who read his writing. He even ended up on the HBO documentary Battle for Tobacco Road: Duke vs. Carolina in 2009 and was showing up on ESPN's popular sports-talk television show "Around the Horn."
Just as all was going well, Jones found himself jobless again when McClatchey sold out to Capitol Broadcasting and they let him go. But, thanks to his active Twitter status, Jones somehow attracted the attention of theScore Inc., a Canadian digital media company specializing in mobile sports platforms. The company had its own Sirius radio channel and offered Jones his own morning sports show, "The Morning Jones," that he did from his house in Durham in 2010.
With "The Morning Jones," Jones began carving out a niche distinctly his own. On air, he freely mixed his love of music, particularly hip-hop and Prince, with sports, punctuating it with his considerable capacity to break down complex intellectual concepts and his willingness to address race.
The influence from his years spent at Clark Atlanta is most evident in his hip-hop musical choices. "Hip-hop had largely been a regional thing," he says, explaining the state of the genre when he attended. "Not that you couldn't be a big deal nationally, but the way rap was then was very, very regional. So we all get to school and now all this is coming together at once. We're all being totally exposed to these completely different worlds because the schools really attracted students nationally at that time after Freaknik and School Daze ... so you just had a little bit of everything. It's like we made a stop in Atlanta and we wound up just kind of checking into black America for four years."
"The Morning Jones" ended after a successful 18-month run due to its parent company's financial woes. Jones produced a morning show through his own company, Old Soul Productions, and also continued the niche he carved for himself with the weekly Monday podcast, "The Evening Jones." Launched in 2011, the show was broadcast via the Internet and heavily promoted on Twitter. He even helmed "Bomani & Jones" for the SB Nation YouTube channel.
In 2013, his impressive sports IQ, incredible music appreciation, unbelievable intellect, and courage to honestly discuss race led him to "Highly Questionable," alongside Miami Herald writer Dan Le Batard and his father, Gonzalo "Papi" Le Batard.
Now with his own radio show again, Jones has come full circle. "'Highly Questionable' and doing 'The Dan Le Batard Show' on radio was the first time that I had to back up and work with and around other people," Jones says. "So doing 'The Right Time with Bomani Jones' feels comfortable because I probably spent more time doing this than anything else. This is what I'm most accustomed to."
Ask Jones what makes him stand out on air and he doesn't hesitate to answer. "It's just not purely about the strength of my opinions. A lot of it is just about being able to recontextualize things and give folks a different way to look at it," he says. "People get bored with the same interpretations of the issues."