ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith Talks Being a Black Content Creator and Bringing First Take To His Alma Mater

The Winston-Salem State University grad is one of the most highly-regarded commentators in sports media.

Stephen A. Smith is arguably the best-known commentator in the sports landscape, whether you agree with him all the time or not. His straight no-chaser approach to sports commentary has made him a household name and a go-to person when people get up in the morning and tune in to ESPN. But he had to start somewhere.

As a college student at Winston-Salem State University, Smith launched his career in journalism as a writer for the Winston-Salem Journal. He went on to write for several other notable publications such as the Greensboro News and Record, the New York Daily News, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and several others.

Since 2012, Smith has hosted First Take on ESPN, the highest-rated sports program on cable television where he debates the hottest sports topics of the day along with his co-host Molly Qerim. Additionally, he appears as an analyst on NBA Countdown and covers the NBA throughout the season on ESPN.

Expanding his reach beyond sports, Smith recently launched his podcast, The Stephen A. Smith Show, and released his book Straight Shooter: A Memoir of Second Chances and First Takes which is a New York Times Best Seller.

As an actor, Smith has had a recurring role on General Hospital since April 2016  where he plays Brick, a surveillance expert for the mafia. caught up with Smith and spoke about his bringing First Take to Winston-Salem, working with NFL Hall of Famer Shanon Sharpe, and the importance of Black creators owning their content. After years of being one of the premier talents on ESPN, you are now an executive producer on First Take and creating content under your own brand. How was it to make that transition?

Stephen A. Smith- First of all, I gotta give props to ESPN because one of the bosses Dave Roberts asked me to be an executive producer of First Take. The producers that I’ve worked with such as Antoine Lewis, who used to be there, James Dunn, who's still there, along with others whom I learned from and combined with what I already knew about television and the kinds of things that I aspire to do and be, they have a lot to do with it. So my competence comes from that, but there was a strong desire not to just be an employee, but to be an owner of my own content with what I'm doing on my podcast and not limiting myself to just sports.

I have the freedom to do other things that are incredibly imperative for me because I've accomplished a lot as a talent. In the world of television, what I haven't done is accomplished that as a producer, an owner of content, and somebody who can go about the business of creating additional content down the line as well. So those are the things that I have an aspiration to do and I had to have it in my contract with ESPN to be allowed to do it. I'm appreciative that they accepted my request so I'm really happy about it. At this stage of your career why is it important for you Black creators to work behind the camera and owning your content?

Smith: When we talk about Black folks, and being on the producing side of content, there have been limited opportunities for us as African Americans to be in these kinds of decision-making positions. Certainly, we've had the talent, we've been placed front and center, to be in a position where we could showcase our talent in front of the camera, but behind the cameras, in terms of being the actual decision-makers, they're very few and far between.

You change that by positioning yourself to have an ownership stake in a lot of things, so you control content to some degree so that's number one. If you get in that position, you're able to address diversity directly, instead of hoping that somebody else will do it for you. That's really what it comes down to. Also, you want to be in a position where ownership of your content is paramount in this day and age. You have to pay attention to what's going on and read the forest from the trees.

When you see the industry itself in terms of linear television, and how the audience is dissipating because people are transitioning to digital platforms, it's just about paying attention, keeping your eyes open, and recognizing the fact that the world may be very different in five years from now compared to what it is right now. Are you ahead of the curve or are you gonna be behind? I choose to be ahead. After all the success you have achieved in your career, you’ll bring First Take to your alma mater Winston-Salem State University. What do you anticipate that moment will be like for you?

Smith: I imagine it's going to be incredibly emotional for me. It was where I cracked my kneecap and half after being recruited to play basketball. I was there when my brother died. It’s where I started my journalism career writing for the Weekly Winston-Salem Chronicle, The News Argus newspaper on campus, and then ultimately for the Winston-Salem Journal. So much of what I've been fortunate and blessed to have accomplished in my life is because I attended  Winston-Salem University.

When I look at it from that perspective, it's hard to imagine that all of these years later, I will be returning to my alma mater, responsible for bringing a national television show to the campus to bring that profile to not only an HBCU but to my HBCU. I'm not avoiding the question in any way. I'm simply articulating that it’s going to be very difficult for me to imagine how I'm gonna feel come Tuesday (November 7) when a national television show on ESPN that I'm not only the star of but the executive producer will be on the campus Winston Salem. I can't even imagine how I'm gonna feel to be quite honest.

Shannon Sharpe Reportedly Joining Stephen A. Smith On ESPN’s ‘First Take’

Shannon Sharpe Reportedly Joining Stephen A. Smith On ESPN’s ‘First Take’ Lastly, NFL Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe, who is a graduate of Savannah State University has recently joined the First Take team. This has to be the first time where two HBCU grads are hosting a national sports show on TV. How has it been to work with him?

Smith: Shannon Sharpe is an elite Hall of Fame talent, a three-time Super Bowl champion. He's doing a fantastic job. I'm proud to have him and I'm proud of the job that he's done. He's been an incredible asset to First Take. We were number one, for 11 years and counting. We've been approaching number one for 12 years, he has a lot to do with that and he's been a welcomed addition to the team.

He’s about the business of winning and succeeding, which has always been my mandate. For me to have him on board, I can't say enough about him having him as a partner because he's been tremendous. The fact that we're both products of HBCUs, it’s a badge of honor and a reminder of what Black folks are capable of. There's a lot that we can do and bring to the table. I love him and love what he's done for the show. I love what he's doing with his brand with the Club Shay Shay podcast. He genuinely cares about doing a damn good job. And that's all this is about, man.

It's about getting the work done. I give him a lot of credit for it and I'm happy and I'm proud to have him on my team.

First Take’s HBCU Homecoming will air live from the campuses of Savannah State University (Nov. 6), and Winston-Salem State (Nov. 7) on ESPN.

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