For good and bad, Matt Jones stirs passions in Big Blue Nation

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University of Kentucky men’s basketball coach John Calipari, center, talks with Matt Jones on Oct. 4 in a parking lot behind Memorial Coliseum while Jones was doing a remote broadcast of his daily Kentucky Sports Radio show. At right is Drew Franklin, one of Jones’ staff members. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

Love him or hate him, it is hard to ignore Matt Jones, who has built the Kentucky Sports Radio franchise he created eight years ago into a major force in the Big Blue Nation.

As the University of Kentucky men’s basketball team prepares for Saturday’s annual game against archrival Louisville, huge numbers of UK fans will be reading Kentuckysportsradio.com, which Jones calls the “largest independent sports blog in America.”

They will come for an entertaining mix of news, commentary, rumor and humor, delivered in what the blog calls “the most ridiculous manner possible.” Jones and his staff are constantly posting comments and links to the blog on Twitter.

Each weekday morning, many of the blog’s readers also will listen to Jones’ two-hour radio call-in show, which is broadcast on 24 stations throughout Kentucky, including WLAP-AM in Lexington. The show is one of the most popular sports podcasts on iTunes.

But since basketball season never really ends in Kentucky, this won’t be much different than a typical week.

Last summer, Jones and sidekicks Ryan Lemond and Drew Franklin spent five weeks doing remote radio broadcasts all over the state. When the tour came to Lexington, hundreds showed up at Whitaker Bank Ballpark to watch them talk.

Nearly 200 fans attended their remote broadcast Oct. 4 from an asphalt basketball court behind Memorial Coliseum. That was during the annual campout of UK fans waiting to get tickets for Big Blue Madness, the official start of basketball practice.

Justin Whited of London was one of them, and he was eager to pose for a picture with Jones. “They talk about topics we like,” he said of the KSR crew. “They’re funny, too.”

Jeff Swann, who waited in line for Jones’ autograph, said he listens to the show every morning with co-workers at the Ford Motor Co. assembly plant in Louisville. “We get a kick out of the callers,” Swann said. “And he has good guests.”

Midway through the broadcast, the best possible guest made a surprise appearance: UK Coach John Calipari joined Jones for a few minutes of banter as spectators hung on every word.

“Calipari was a huge part of our success,” Jones said in an interview, noting that the popularity of his blog and radio show soared between the time Calipari arrived in Kentucky in 2009 and three years later, when he led UK to the NCAA championship.

“Our site exploded as Cal exploded, as the Internet exploded,” he said. “Right time, right place.”

Jones also credits KSR’s success to his embrace of emerging technology, such as Twitter, and his basic approach to business: “My goal every day on the radio show and on the website is to give the consumer what they want.”

KSR’s approach also has included attacking traditional sports media. Individual journalists have been lampooned in blog posts and manipulated images. A few social media posts about them have been personal and vulgar.

But journalists say what angers them most is that KSR writers lift their reporting without credit, a violation of journalism ethics. Jones counters that much of that material comes from news conferences, which he considers fair game.

“They get mad because I’m not sitting there and I have the same stuff they do,” he said. “That’s just petty.”

Lifting photos is a bigger issue. The Herald-Leader, the Courier-Journal, the Kentucky Kernel and other news organizations have repeatedly demanded that KSR’s blog stop reposting their copyright photographs without permission.

“I think Matt Jones and KSR act as though they’re traditional media when it suits them, but they turn on traditional media when it suits them,” said Creig Ewing, sports editor of the Courier-Journal in Louisville. “They play it both ways.”

Jones’ media model has become common in the big-money worlds of sports and politics, where the values of journalism have been replaced by the values of show business. Jones is more Howard Stern than Tom Hammond.

“I think we’re hated by everyone” in the media, Jones said. “But I like that. I’ll be honest with you, it doesn’t bother me. So long as our fans like us, I don’t care what our competitors, or peers, or whatever think.

“I’m not a journalist,” he added. “I consider myself to be somewhat of an entertainer and a news processor. Am I objective? I think I would say I’m as objective as any UK fan that wants his team to win.”

Always a fan

UK sports has always been a passion for Matthew Harper Jones, who was born in Lexington in 1978 and lived in Cynthiana before his parents divorced. His mother, Karen Blondell, married now-retired school teacher Larry Blondell in 1985, and the family moved to Middlesboro. She is the commonwealth’s attorney in Bell County.

An only child, Jones went to basketball games with his late grandfather, including watching future UK star Richie Farmer play high school ball in Clay County. The family didn’t have tickets to Rupp Arena but went to the Southeastern Conference Tournament almost every year.

Jones graduated from Middlesboro High School and Transylvania University before earning a law degree from Duke University. He clerked for three federal courts before practicing law for five years, first with the firm Frost Brown Todd and then on his own as he was starting Kentucky Sports Radio.

In addition to sports, Jones is passionate about politics. His liberal bent led him to support Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor who ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004, while Jones was clerking in Washington.

Dean’s candidacy fizzled, but his campaign’s pioneering use of emerging Internet technology fascinated Jones: “I sort of thought about all of those things and said, ‘That stuff can be done with Kentucky!’”

Jones began doing a sports podcast for the website Kentucky Sports Report, but the arrangement didn’t last long.

“They thought it was too controversial, so I started Kentuckysportsradio.com as a place to put the podcast,” he said. The podcast had few listeners, but a blog he added attracted a following. “I’ve often said it goes to show the randomness of life,” Jones said. “If (Kentucky Sports Report) had just let me put my podcast on there, I probably would have done it for a few weeks, nobody would have cared and I would have quit.

“But once they sort of said ‘You can’t do it,’ I was determined to show them that I could be successful,” he said. “A lot of things we’ve done has been my belligerence at being told ‘that’s not going to work’ and me saying, ‘Well, I’m going to show you.’”

Building a franchise

Jones co-owns the KSR website with a friend, Andrew Jefferson. It employs two full-time writers, Drew Franklin and Tyler Thompson, who works from her home in Nashville, and a part-time writer, Ally Tucker. It also uses unpaid student interns.

When people complain about the blog’s frat-boy humor, Jones notes that two of his three paid writers are women. “I’m proud of that,” he said.

The blog averages more than 150,000 unique visitors a day, with page views ranging from 180,000 up to 220,000 at the height of basketball season, Jones said. All content is free to readers, with revenues coming from advertising and merchandise sales. Jones wouldn’t disclose profits, but he said the site “is much more successful than I ever expected.”

The blog’s success led three years ago to the radio show partnership with Clear Channel Communications. Jones’ on-air partner is Lemond, who covered sports for WLEX-TV for 11 years before leaving in 2007 to sell real estate, which he continues to do. He joined KSR in 2011.

Jones and Lemond said they think the show appeals to both men and women because they not only talk about sports, but about their lives as UK fans and the culture and lifestyle that has grown up around Kentucky basketball.

“As a journalist, you’re not supposed to be a fan,” said Lemond, who does the show from a Lexington studio while Jones usually works from a studio in Louisville, where he lives. “But on this show, you can be as much of a fan as the people calling in.”

Jones said he thinks the show’s secret ingredient is his personal chemistry, on and off the air, with Lemond, 47, and Franklin, 28, who joined KSR in 2009 after graduating from UK with a marketing degree. They describe each other as close friends, almost brothers.

“He comes across as abrasive on the radio, but he has a big heart,” Lemond said of Jones. Added Franklin: “Matt’s great to work with — probably the smartest guy I know.”

Jones has expanded the KSR brand to other media gigs, which include a one-minute commentary on WKYT-TV’s late-night newscast and work as a sideline reporter for UK’s official radio broadcast team.

He and Louisville radio personality Tony Vanetti do Cats-Cards debate segments for WAVE-TV and the Voice Tribune, a weekly newspaper in Louisville.

“He’s got the invaluable trait that radio talk show hosts have to have — he gets under people’s skin. That’s gold in this industry,” Vanetti said. “He does his homework, and he’s a great debater. I love to get in the ring with him.”

Vanetti said they are good friends, but he understands why Jones rubs some fans and other media people the wrong way. “He can be harsh,” he said. “He gets personal, no question. He is playing to his audience to the Nth degree.”

Beyond UK sports, Jones has provided color at big events for the Tennis Channel and Twinspires.com. He worked the Masters golf tournament for a partnership between Izod and Maxim magazine. Jones even had a cameo appearance in actress Laura Bell Bundy’s new music video, Kentucky Dirty.

Jones blogged about college basketball for CBSSports.com, but the deal lasted only six months. “I sucked at it, because I didn’t care about it,” he said. “They wanted me to be a reporter, and I’m not a reporter. I’m an entertainer, a commentator.”

Friends and critics alike say Jones, who is single, can be an intense, volatile personality. “I create strong opinions, pro and con, in people,” Jones said.

For a KSR blog post celebrating Jones’ 35th birthday Aug. 28, Lemond contributed a humorous list: Top 10 Things You Need To Know About Matthew Harper Jones. Three of the 10 were: “He yells at people a lot.”

Jones spent two years as host of Kentucky Sports Television on Time Warner Cable, then called Insight, but his contract wasn’t renewed in June 2012. Those who worked closely with him there declined to comment on him or the circumstances of his departure.

“I was very difficult to get along with for a period of time, and that’s my fault,” Jones said. “I wish I had some of that time back.”

“Matt’s a big personality,” said Kenny Colston, who was a political reporter at Insight when Jones was there and now edits The Oldham Era newspaper near Louisville. “You either love him or hate him.”

Many Kentucky sports journalists fall into the latter category. Several said they dislike Jones because of the way he has treated them or others. There have been a few nasty exchanges between them and Jones on Twitter and Facebook, but none wanted to speak about him for attribution in this article.

The Calipari factor

Jones said he accepts some of the blame for his poor relationships with journalists. But he also said he thinks many of them are jealous of his success — his audience, his good relationship with Calipari and the access that has provided.

“A huge part, maybe the most important part of them not liking me, is the access we have,” he said.

“Coach Cal does have his go-to guys, and that does rub people the wrong way,” Lemond said. “But everybody had equal opportunity to get to know (Calipari) and get on his good side.”

When Calipari took UK’s 2012 NCAA title team on a bus tour across Kentucky to show off their trophy, Jones was invited to ride along.

“Everybody assumes, ‘Well, Matt just does what Calipari wants,’” Jones said. “Let’s face it: 98 percent of the things Cal does I agree with. We have a similar mindset. I would ask the average person, ‘How many times has he screwed up?’”

“Remember, I ran this site when (Calipari’s predecessor) Billy Gillispie was here,” he added. “And when Billy Gillispie was here, he wouldn’t speak to me.”

Part of the tension between Jones and others in the press box stems from their radically different views about the role and ethics of news media in college sports. Jones said he appreciates good journalism, but he’s running a business.

“In no other business is it the case that not giving the consumer what they want makes sense,” Jones said of journalism. As an example, he cited the Pulitzer Prize the Herald-Leader received in 1986 for exposing cash payoffs to UK basketball players, a scandal that led to major reforms in the program.

“To the average fan, that’s the worst thing you all have ever done,” he said. “My goal is not to win the state journalism award. My goal is to make the consumer happy.”

Jones thinks journalists should focus less on controversy and more on what fans want to read and hear. KSR doesn’t ignore “negative” stories about UK sports, Jones said. Once they break, he and his staff comment on them. But they don’t go looking for them.

“I like breaking stories, but I don’t like to break the bad-news stories,” Jones said. “I let someone else do that. For my customers, breaking bad news doesn’t help me.”

“Clearly, KSR has found an audience,” said Peter Baniak, the editor of the Herald-Leader. “But there also is a strong audience for journalism that examines sports, the business of sports and other institutions from every angle.”

The biggest issue KSR has faced with other media is its use of their copyright photographs without permission or payment. KSR has received many “cease and desist” letters. Jones hasn’t been sued, but that could change.

The Kentucky Kernel, UK’s student newspaper, reported Nov. 6 that two tires had been slashed on senior guard Jon Hood’s Toyota Tundra and he had gotten a $25 ticket because he couldn’t move it from a university parking lot. Much of the Kernel’s online report, including two photos, was quickly copied onto KSR’s blog.

“We have made a claim to him and he’s denied it, and we’re in negotiations with him,” said Jon Fleischaker, a prominent Louisville media attorney representing the Kernel. “I am hopeful that we can do that without litigation.”

Jones declined to comment on the Kernel issue. But he said access to photos is a big part of the partnership he announced Dec. 9 with 247Sports. That company operates the website CatsPause.com, which hires freelance photographers to shoot UK games. Since then, those photos also have been appearing on KSR’s blog.

What’s the future?

For the first time since he started KSR in 2005, Jones said he is satisfied.

Jones attributes much of the company’s success to the team he has assembled. Maintaining that team chemistry and keeping up with emerging technology will be key to holding and growing KSR’s audience, he said.

“You have to have traffic to succeed,” he said. “We’ll just have to adapt with the times. Whatever the technology is out there, (I want to) make KSR the No. 1 brand.”

Jones blogs less than he used to — “blogging is a young man’s game” — and that has him thinking about his own future.

“I’m an OK writer, but I’m not really a writer. There are a lot of people better than me,” he said. “I’m OK on television, but I’m not great on television. But I’m good at radio. When you’re doing something you love and you can feel it click, you just want to keep doing it.”

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