Without the influence of a Democratic presidential candidate and an MTV host, Matt Jones might still be practicing law and University of Kentucky basketball and football fans would be getting their daily sports fix from someone else.
But thanks to serendipity and an entrepreneurial drive, a young law clerk for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit found his way into blogging and then podcasting about his favorite home-state team.
“I didn’t think anybody would ever listen to it,” says Jones. “The first time I did a podcast it was just me and two of my friends. We looked after two days and 14 people had downloaded it.”
From those humble beginnings in 2005, Kentucky Sports Radio has grown into the largest daily show of its kind in the United States, even beating out jock-talk programs in New York and Los Angeles, according to Jones. For two hours each weekday, he and his KSR cohosts range over the latest news from Big Blue Nation as well as current events, pop culture, and even politics.
“We talk less sports now than we’ve ever talked and our audience is greater now than it’s ever been,” says Jones. “What I’ve tried to show is if you treat people with respect, you can talk about things that are controversial, but here’s what you can’t do... You cannot talk down to people. You have to treat them with respect.”
The Long Road from Bell County to Radio Stardom
Growing up in Middlesboro, Jones was devoted to UK sports, WWF championship wrestling on TV, and his mother, a local attorney who became one of the first women ever elected prosecutor in Kentucky. Jones says he loved watching her argue in the courtroom, which inspired him to study law at Duke University. But once he started practicing, he discovered there wasn’t much call for exercising his love of making logical arguments in the course of routine legal work.
“I realized unless you’re a prosecutor, you don’t really do much of that,” says Jones.
In 2004, while a law clerk in Washington, Jones attended an event sponsored by the Howard Dean presidential campaign about how to use a new format called a blog to communicate with young people. So the next year, Jones started his own blog about Kentucky basketball and football. Shortly thereafter, he heard MTV VJ Adam Curry talk about another new trend in online communications: podcasting. Jones decided to jump into that, too.
By 2009, Jones quit his legal practice to focus on Kentucky Sports Radio, evolving the podcast into a radio show, which is now on more than 40 stations across the commonwealth. In addition to KSR, Jones also cohosts an NFL pregame show on ESPN Radio, and co-owns a Lexington restaurant as well as Ohio Valley Wrestling, a developmental league for wrestlers hoping to make it to national fame on the WWE and WWF circuits. Jones says OVW will be featured in a forthcoming Netflix documentary created by Greg Whiteley, the director of the acclaimed “Cheer” and “Last Chance U” series on that streaming platform.
Dabbling in National Politics
Another moment of serendipity came along in 2015 when Jones was invited to introduce the political speeches at that year’s Fancy Farm picnic in Graves County. Organizers wanted to broaden the appeal of the annual event and asked the statewide radio host to be their first celebrity emcee. He says he took the job with the idea of making Fancy Farm interesting for people who weren’t political junkies.
“I’m a big believer that you have to make things entertaining for people,” says Jones. “If you try to be staid and boring, people are just not going to follow it.”
In his 10-minute monologue, Jones cracked jokes on the officeholders and candidates attending the event that year, including Sen. Mitch McConnell, then-Gov. Steve Beshear, and Republican nominee for governor Matt Bevin. While the ribbing helped rile up the crowd, not everyone was pleased with Jones’ sense of humor.
“They haven’t invited me back,” he says. “I think Mitch McConnell did not like some of the jokes I made about him.”
Political operatives within the national Democratic Party noticed Jones’ performance and recruited him to run against 6th district Congressman Andy Barr. But Jones wasn’t interested.
“I just knew that wasn’t for me,” he says. “I think people in the House of Representatives, most of them are insane – not all of them but most of them.”
What did intrigue Jones was a potential campaign against McConnell in 2020. Jones says he thought the senior senator needed to be replaced, and that he had the right mix of attributes to challenge the then-Senate Majority Leader: Jones was young and energetic, had a statewide following, and loved to talk about what he saw as McConnell’s shortcomings. He even took time off from KSR to write a book about why he thought the Republican’s tenure should end. “Mitch, Please” became a New York Times bestseller.
In the end though, Jones decided against the Senate bid. He says he didn’t want to risk giving up the audience he had built over a decade – an audience that got to know and like Jones as a sport radio host, not a liberal politician. Those listeners, he contends, would never look at him the same way if he had run for office.
“So I had to say, do I want to give up the platform I have – this ability to talk to people that are different than me -- for a race that I’m probably going to lose,” says Jones. “I just decided it wasn’t worth it.”
Jones, who describes himself as an “old-school union Democrat,” doubts he would consider another candidacy down the road, especially a run for statewide office. He says KSR gives him the opportunity to impact people’s lives in ways that only a governor or senator can.
But his potential candidacy did give Jones the leeway to discuss more political topics with a KSR audience that he says is 75 percent conservative. He says he’s not out to change people’s views on issues, but he does hope he can temper how they think about their fellow Kentuckians.
“All across the state there are people in every town who are different than the majority of people in their town, and a lot of times that’s a very difficult spot to be in – maybe it’s that they’re gay, maybe they’re a minority, maybe they just think differently,” says Jones. “Maybe you should give those people a chance. Maybe you shouldn’t just assume all these stereotypes about them.”
The Transfer Portal, NIL Deals, and John Calipari’s Future
So for now, the mix of jock talk with a little pollical discourse will continue for Jones. He says he hopes Gov. Andy Beshear and Attorney General Daniel Cameron will agree to debate each other on KSR this fall. Jones drew praise for his questioning of gubernatorial contenders in 2019, and in this year’s Republican primary. He says he strives to get candidates to move beyond their scripted talking points to show that they’ve really thought about issues impacting the commonwealth.
Jones says he also hopes Kentucky will continue to hold its gubernatorial elections in off years, rather than moving them to presidential election years as some politicians have proposed.
“If you move it to a presidential year, what happens is whoever people vote for for president, they’ll vote that party for governor,” says Jones. “I think our governor’s races will not be competitive here ever again.”
UK sports as well as collegiate and professional athletics in general will continue to be a mainstay for Jones. He says the transfer portal and name, image, and likeness (NIL) contracts are good for student athletes who should be allowed to play where they want and make money doing it.
“It’s more fair,” he says. “I think it’s the way the world should be, but it has completely and totally changed what college athletics are.”
Given the potential abuses that could arise, Jones says NIL and the transfer portal need regulatory oversight to help ensure that players get their educations, and that they’re not simply going to the schools that guarantee the best NIL deals.
And as for UK basketball, Jones says fans have had enough of lackluster seasons that end with early departures from the NCAA tournament. He says next season will be critical for coach John Calipari.
“We’ve got great players coming in,” Jones says. “We’ve got to win.”