Bomani Jones’ first regular radio-host job was for a weekend sports talk show in the Triangle. The rise of his radio career reached another level Monday when he became ESPN Radio’s afternoon drive-time host.
Jones, host for an evening ESPN Radio show from last March until last Thursday, says that this next big national radio gig wouldn’t have happened if not for his producer for that first local gig — Shannon Penn. The two have a close bond that began while working together on “Sports Saturday with Bomani Jones” on WRBZ (850 the Buzz) from January 2008–October 2009.
“The guy put me in a place that made me comfortable basically to do any kind of radio show that I wanted to do,” Jones said in a phone interview from Miami. “So I had somebody that I had instant chemistry with, where I had ideas, he had ideas and then we just put them all together and we found out that they worked. I think, for both of us, we kind of opened up each other’s creativity to think about what we can consider.”
Penn (left) has been in Triangle sports radio since January 2006 (first with WRBZ, then WCMC, 99.9 the Fan), and has been the producer for “The Adam and Joe Show” (with Adam Gold and Joe Ovies) — the popular local drive-time show from 3–7 p.m. on WCMC — for three years.
Jones said that Penn made him “comfortable to try the things I wanted to try and then we found out that they worked for a broad audience. From there, that kind of made everything I did after that.”
Jones offers compelling radio and doesn’t shy away from provocative statements or arguments. He’s had numerous interesting Twitter battles when he feels strongly about a topic, even with fellow ESPN employees such as Colin Cowherd, Chris Broussard and Darren Rovell.
Jones gets the most undeserved grief of any media member I follow on Twitter, with The News & Observer’s UNC beat writer, Andrew Carter, a distant second.
“He does a ton of research all the time,” Penn said of Jones. “And I think that has helped him in his ascension up the ESPN ladder.”
Jones is like another family member for Penn, his wife and kids. The only Christmas that Jones, who is single, has spent away from his family, was spent with Penn’s family. Jones says that if he found out Penn’s mother-in-law was in town, he’d probably take her out to lunch.
“A legitimate friendship did come from all this,” Jones said. “It’s somewhat coincidental that we wound up in the same place to do these things. But the relationship itself is very, very natural.”
Since July, Penn has done double-duty, also producing from Raleigh “The Right Time with Bomani Jones,” a Miami-based ESPN Radio show that began in March. Last week was the final week it aired from 9–11 p.m.
There can’t be that many sports radio talk shows that feature a host and a producer who both have master’s degrees. Jones has two.
“Of all the radio producers, I’ve never had one that I trusted as much as Shannon,” said Jones, who also has done other radio shows, including one for Sirius Radio, and “The Evening Jones” podcast. “He makes my work way better. When I started the doing the show for ESPN, I had another producer, and it was cool. But the show is way better with him because he knows how to accentuate the best parts of what I do and put me in the right position. For other shows, I’ve had to micromanage a lot more.”
Jones isn’t the only successful member of his family. His sister is award-winning novelist Tayari Jones, and both of his parents have Ph.D.s. His mother, Barbara Ann Posey Jones, spoke at the NAACP convention in 1960 at age 17 and led student sit-ins in Oklahoma City in the early 1960s.
Jones joined ESPN nearly 10 years ago, originally as a writer. He lived in Durham from July 2003 to May 2013 before moving to Miami to become co-host with Dan Le Batard of the ESPN show “Highly Questionable.” He also was a regular on ESPN Radio’s “The Dan Le Batard Show” before getting his own show this year.
“He’s babysat my kids more times than he’d probably like when he was here,” Penn said. “It’s a close relationship. He actually signed as an official witness after my wedding.”
On Monday, Jones’ show moved to the 4–7 p.m. ESPN Radio slot vacated when Le Batard’s show shifted to the 10 a.m.–1 p.m. spot that opened with Cowherd’s departure. Jones still will co-host “Highly Questionable,” and hopes to continue his appearances on “Around the Horn.”
“I don’t think I’ll change the way I do things very much,” Jones says of the time shift of his show. “I think it will probably be a bit more quick-hitting given that I will have more news to respond to that’s happened during course of the day.”
Le Batard’s show airs on WCMC from 10 a.m.–noon, and Cowherd’s Fox Sports Radio show, “The Herd with Colin Cowherd,” runs from noon–3 p.m. on WDNC (Buzz Sports Radio, AM 620, FM 96.5 in Durham and FM 99.3 in Raleigh).
With WDNC airing a tape-delay presentation of “The Jim Rome Show” from 3–6 p.m., Jones’ show will air on tape delay from 6–9 p.m. All ESPN Radio shows can be heard live and on-demand on the ESPN Radio app or ESPNRadio.com.
The move of Jones’ show obviously created a time conflict for Penn, who has decided to leave WCMC. Penn’s deal with ESPN was finalized Friday, Penn said. He produced Jones’ first afternoon ESPN Radio show in addition to “Adam and Joe.” He won’t be back on “Adam and Joe” until next Monday, and his last day at WCMC is Oct. 8.
Producing two shows at the same time between 4 and 7 p.m. will be a crazy challenge in the next week or so. But at least Penn’s rigorous schedule of producing six hours of radio in an eight-hour period is over.
“Obviously the added income helps the argument,” Penn said of his decision this summer to take that second producing job. “My wife wasn’t too fond of the hours I was gone, but it’s a situation where you can’t turn down that exposure doing the show, doing the show with someone you like, doing the show that we had been talking about and having the opportunity to do that on a national platform. I couldn’t turn that down.”
Producing a Miami show from Raleigh meant having to use FaceTime to see each other during the show. Jones had done shows with a remote producer before, but didn’t have that luxury.
“For me, the producer is kind of a representation of the audience,” Jones said. “Having a face there, it’s helpful so that we’re not interrupting each other, and he can tell me when I need to shut up and move on.”
Gold, then WRBZ’s program director, set up their initial pairing on “Sports Saturday” in 2008 after Penn produced a couple of Jones’ guest-host appearances on WRBZ shows.
“We just hit it off right away,” Penn said. “Adam was listening, and he felt the vibe as well, and when it came time for Bomani to get the full-time Saturday gig, Adam recommended me, and it worked out fine.”
Penn had mainly a print journalism background when he was in graduate school at Norfolk State and looking for a radio internship. WRBZ worked out well since his girlfriend (and now wife) was at N.C. Central. He was part time for a few years, but has been full time at WCMC for three years.
“We were two guys who had similar visions of how we wanted to do a show,” Penn said. “We wanted to make it entertaining, but we wanted it to sound like something that wasn’t on, that you wouldn’t normally attribute to sports radio.”
Jones says they’ve had fun with every show they’ve done together, adding that it’s hard to do radio properly if you aren’t having a good time.
“It’s a very difficult sell for entertainment if you yourself aren’t having a good time,” Jones said.
Jones and Penn have successfully fought perceptions that they may not resonate with a key sports-radio demographic — middle-aged white men.
“Programmers are afraid that a white audience won’t relate to people who aren’t white men,” Jones said. “Something that we were proud of is our ability to really connect to that many people. You hear the people calling into our show, and it was a broader swath of audience than anybody had.
“For us, it was big to be able demonstrate that what we are doing is not foreign to people,” he said. “It might sound a little different to them, but ultimately we’re all people and we deal with the same sort of stuff. So what we’ve always tried to do is to connect to life in that way where everybody can relate to it.”
Penn says that black voices on talk radio often get pigeonholed by people who think they are going to get hip-hop radio.
“We used to joke that we had tender-friendly radio,” Penn said. “Women listen, a guy, different races and different ages. I think that’s one thing that people were impressed with back then and right now.”
Women in sports radio have a similar perception battle: The question of whether that key demographic wants to get sports radio from a woman. Jones was happy to see Lauren Brownlow get a regular radio gig as part of “The Morning Show with Mike, Lauren and Demetri” on WDNC.
“She’s really bright. I don’t think there’s any proving of herself that needs to be done,” Jones said. “The concern always is with the people in charge whether they will do enough to just kind of let her be the person that she is rather than find a way to squeeze into their concept of what that audience wants. If they let her be herself, I think she’ll be just fine.”
Jones, Penn and Brownlow have proven that when you do good radio, most listeners aren’t going to care who is behind the voices.
Starting Monday, Jones gets another chance to show that on a larger national-radio platform.
UPDATED SEPT. 28 TO REFLECT PENN’S DECISION TO LEAVE WCMC