Game Changer: How Matt Jones and Kentucky Sports Radio grew to dominate the conversation

Kentucky Sports Radio (KSR) didn’t start out with aspirations to become the biggest sports radio talk show in Kentucky. In fact, it didn’t start out as a radio show at all. Matt Jones, the spirited and at times controversial founder and ringleader behind KSR, simply wanted a website to host a hobby podcast he started in 2005.

A graduate of Transylvania University and Duke University School of Law, Jones was 27 and a successful attorney practicing in Louisville when he decided to launch a podcast as an outlet to talk about his passion: University of Kentucky athletics. When a local website, Kentucky Sports Report, wouldn’t allow Jones to host his podcast on its site, he created his own.

“The idea was to call it Kentucky Sports Radio and, maybe one day, we could get a radio show,” Jones said.

Over the ensuing 12 years, Jones hassu accomplished far more than simply landing a radio show. Kentucky Sports Radio has grown from a homemade podcast into a bona fide — if unconventional — media outlet. KSR’s website and social media feeds are, for many University of Kentucky sports fans, a primary source of UK (and often other) news. And the radio show Jones co-hosts with Ryan Lemond from 10 am to noon every weekday is broadcast on 38 different radio stations across the state.

Tim Ansted, program director for NewsRadio 630 WLAP in Lexington, said Kentucky Sports Radio is consistently the No. 1 program in Lexington during its time slot and usually ranks No. 1 across key demographics, including for persons ages 12 and older, persons ages 25–54 and among men ages 25–54.

Ansted declined to provide specifics, citing an agreement with Nielsen, only to say “their numbers are absurd.”

For fans; by fans

KSR’s appeal lies largely in its irreverent, by-the-seat-of-our-pants style. The show doesn’t follow a traditional format and rarely even attempts to come across as professional and polished. Rather, the aim is to present material in an entertaining, conversational manner that fellow fans can relate to.

“I saw a market deficiency,” Jones said of KSR’s unique position in the sports-media landscape. “Mainstream covers the team for other interesting fans — they covered what they thought was important — but I was a fan first, and so I knew what fans thought was.”

The chemistry among KSR’s hosts is another component of its everyman appeal. Jones and Lemond, often joined by Drew Franklin and producer Shannon “The Dude” Grigsby, have a very relaxed on-air demeanor. Many listeners may assume that hours of preparation go into each broadcast in order to appear effortless, which Lemond says is one of the biggest misconceptions about the show.

“We do not plan a thing,” he said.

For Cameron Manley, a 2015 UK graduate and an avid listener of KSR, the hosts’ rapport is a big part of why he tries to tune in every day.

“Drew gives you that feeling you’re talking to an old friend from high school who was, and still is, a clown,” Manley said. “While Ryan is the embarrassing dad of one of your friends who you’re jealous isn’t your dad.

“Matt is a multifaceted host. He may hush people too quickly, but his love for Kentucky as a state and for the people from here, paired with his genuineness, just helps create a place that makes a radio show feel like a community,” he said.

It’s obvious that the KSR crew like to have fun. Listeners get the impression that Lemond and Jones are sitting around, drinking beer and just talking and laughing about sports. They also don’t hesitate to let people know what team they’re rooting for.

“We’re just like everybody else. We’re fans,” Lemond said. “If one of our players gets hurt, we hurt. If one of our players does something great, we celebrate right along with everyone.”

Ruffling feathers

While the hosts of KSR are all fans, not everyone is a fan of KSR. Creig Ewing, a sports editor with the Louisville Courier-Journal from 1998 to 2014, says he often ran into issues with Jones and the KSR crew.

“There is not another person or organization that I got more complaints about [from staff] than Matt Jones and KSR,” Ewing said. “Either behaving horribly in press boxes or stealing, repackaging or repurposing content or photos.”

At its outset, KSR was accused of misappropriating photos from other news organizations for its website without permission or attribution — most notably from the Courier-Journal, Lexington Herald-Leader and the Kentucky Kernel — and received several cease-and-desist letters in regards to copyright infringement.

“A lot of the local media hated us and, some of them, to be honest with you, rightfully so.” —Matt Jones

More personally, KSR held a few punches in attacking other media outlets and on the air and online.

“We made fun of all the local media,” Jones said. “That’s why a lot of the local media hated us and, some of them, to be honest with you, rightfully so.”

In more recent years, however, the KSR crew has shown signs of a more mature approach.

“I think that maybe the people working there are growing up a little bit,” Ewing said. “They’re not quite as frat-boy-ish.”

Said Jones: “In hindsight, some of that was kind of mean and I regret some of it, to be honest with you. But I can’t deny that it helped our popularity.”

A critical juncture

Love him or hate him, Jones has worked and stressed endlessly for KSR to reach its current status. Still practicing law in 2009, Jones needed some help with content for the website. Using money from his day job as an attorney, he hired Franklin fresh out of UK as a writer. Franklin had started a goofy website of his own — called Horace Grant’s Halftime Report — that used crude humor to talk about sports. Like Jones, Franklin had not prepared for a life in media.

“I actually failed English 101 twice and had to take it three times,” Franklin said. “My degree is in marketing. I have no journalism or any kind of radio background.”

In 2010, the KSR blog had gained a substantial following and Franklin had become Jones’ right-hand man. That’s when Clear Channel Communications (now iHeartMedia) offered Jones a radio show on Louisville station WKJK.

“They put KSR on the worst radio station in the iHeart building,” Lemond said. “They said, ‘OK, Matt, we’re going to put you on WKJK.’ That’s the worst station. Nobody listens to WKJK. ‘And, oh yeah, by the way, Matt, we’re going to give you one of the worst time slots available: 10 to noon.’ Nobody listens to radio [from] 10 to noon!”

Jones persisted and had cycled through several different co-hosts by the time he asked Lemond, a full-time real estate agent and former sportscaster with WLEX-TV in Lexington, to sub on the show in 2011. Lemond was an immediate hit, and Jones asked him to remain as his co-host.

Jones was working nearly 100 hours a week by that time, he said, and had quit his law practice to invest all of himself into KSR. Jones worked and stressed so much that he “just wasn’t healthy,” he said. Jones gained weight and suffered several seizures, which he had experienced in the past during times of high stress and little sleep.

“For a long time, in my mind, KSR was Matt Jones and Matt Jones was KSR,” he said.

More recently, he’s allowed himself to step back, relax and delegate more responsibility to KSR’s staff, which now includes six full-time members along with part-time help and interns.

“Even in 2010, 2011 and 2012, all my money went to employees,” Jones said. “We didn’t show a profit until about three or four years ago. And then once we did, we started really showing a profit.”

Conversation starter

With a changed mindset and approach, Jones says the past year is the happiest he’s ever been. Which is not to say that he’s let his foot off of the gas. KSR is always seeking new ways to engage with UK fans. KSR recently hired a full-time producer to focus on video content, for example, which Jones says has become “crucial” in effectively reaching an online audience.

“I’m not going to fight the way people want to get their UK news,” Jones said. “Whatever way they want it, KSR will be the No. 1 brand.”

Jones is also the host, since 2016, of “Hey Kentucky!” a weekday talk show that airs on WLEX-TV.

Like his take on Kentucky sports and other controversial topics, Jones doesn’t shy away from airing his political views. He emceed the annual Fancy Farm Picnic in 2015 and, shortly after the Kentucky gubernatorial election that year, joined with former state auditor Adam Edelen to create the New Kentucky Project. The pair formerly launched the grassroots organization in 2016, which seeks to facilitate connections and conversation around new policies; initiatives and leadership that will help drive Kentucky forward.

“He’s got the personality; he can say that. He’s a good person to be that bridge to help people to have those discussions.” —Angela Evans, 6th District council member with the LFUCG

Angela Evans, a Lexington attorney and council member of the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council for the 6th District, said Jones approached her about becoming involved with the New Kentucky Project early on. She recognized his passion from Fancy Farm and interviews that he’d given, as well as his pinchant for stirring the pot and prompting honest.

“I get it,” Evans said. “He’s got the personality; he can say that. He’s a good person to be that bridge to help people to have those discussions, or at least to throw a topic out there and start the conversation.”

And any conversation Jones is involved in is sure to be interesting.

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