Being the new kid on the block may not always have its perks, but being one of the younger rising stars at a familiar Chicago radio station can reap great benefits.
Dometi Pongo has worked at WVON 1690 AM for the past three years as an on-air news reporter—working alongside broadcast veterans Perri Smalls and Cliff Kelly. His “go-getter” grind and hustle has quickly launched him from working as an intern to writing, producing and filling the airwaves with informative coverage and a unique Black millennial perspective.
Raised by West African immigrant parents, education was extremely important in the Pongo household. He graduated from Illinois Southern University at Edwardsville, earning his B.A. in Business. After one year, he made a life-altering decision to leave his corporate job and return home to Chicago.
Growing up, he was heavily influenced by hip hop music—writing his first rhyme at 6 and gradually working his talents as a spoken word artist in college. His “Black studies” mixtape on campus was an underground hit and sealed his interest in pursuing a career in broadcast—later enrolling at the Illinois Media School.
Since working at the legendary Black-owned radio station, the opportunities for Pongo have been endless. One of these opportunities has him wearing a new hat—talk show host for a new webisode called “Image Makers.”
The Chicago Defender caught up with the 27-year-old Calumet City native to discuss his rising career in broadcast media.
In addition to working at WVON, how did this latest venture as the host of “Image Makers” first start?
It first started from a tech symposium at Northeastern Illinois University. As a WVON commentator, Carl West comes by the radio station a great deal. We shoot the breeze and he gives me advice. He informs me about the Tech Symposium where I ended up hosting the panel discussions.
Afterwards, Carl contacted me to discuss an idea he’s had for a long time. He felt now was the right time to make it happen. He asked me if I would be willing to interview ‘image makers’ in Chicago? I asked him what he meant by image makers? He said, ‘People who have taken what they have, what they started with and built it out into something great.’
Everyone can hear you on the radio, reporting the news with mid-morning radio host, Perri Smalls. How did that happen?
I ended up enrolling in the Illinois Center for Broadcast—now known as Illinois Media School. I got an internship at WVON. On the very first week I started, the previous news anchor put in his two-week notice. I came home and told my mom, I really think I can do this.
She told me to go ahead and apply. I told her that I couldn’t because I had never been on the air very long. She encouraged me and said, ‘Who says you can’t? What’s holding you back besides your own feelings of inadequacies?’ She had me thinking and I put in my air check (a demo recording of his reporting]. Todd, the program director, said it wasn’t that bad. I went in training for three months.
What made you feel that broadcast tugged at your heartstrings more?
It happened haphazardly for me. I wasn’t one of those people that said, ‘I’m going to be on the radio or television.’ I’ve always had an interest in business but I’ve always been a writer, whether it was poetry or hip hop. I’ve written for the Black Studies program. I produced a mixtape called the ‘Black Studies’ mixtape and started blogging before I knew that was considered journalism. They wanted me to review some albums and feedback. I didn’t really look at that as journalism or broadcast.
How do you transition your ‘creative’ into a news reporter? Also, hitting a different audience that may not be your ‘peer’ audience—what was some of the elements that you pulled from your spoken word/hip hop experience?
Hip hop is storytelling. Before we knew what it was like to be in Los Angeles—we knew Ice Cube. Before we knew what New York was like, we knew NAS. I could paint you a picture of a Harlem cat in the 1990’s or the early 2000’s by looking at the Dipset. It’s the story telling aspect that made it easy.
You can always tell the rapper in the room. He’s probably the loudest, the most boisterous, the most confident.
It’s the promo aspect of it. It’s makes you comfortable in front of a crowd. When I learned how to rap, I was listening to Twista and transcribing his words. I was figuring how he did these syllables. I noticed the difference between Twista and Bones Thugs and Harmony. Anybody who raps fast, he enunciates. When I started doing broadcasting, I did the same practice. I turned on the news and put on the closed caption. When I talk causally, [I listened to hear if I] am dropping the ‘g’s off my words, and I noticed that I have an accent. It was like learning how to rap again.
If [I] don’t understand the culture of hip hop, I would lose my creditability or respect. You have on timberlands over here and you have on dress shoes over there. If you’re authentic, people will connect with you.
Working with and interviewing some of the best people in the field who are image makers, how do you balance learning from them and understanding so much rich history before you?
When young people are around people with more wisdom, [I think it is important that] you listen more than you speak. If you listen to older people enough, they tell the same stories over and over. You’re going to pick up different things every time they tell the story. You listen and piece things together, you take mental notes.
Who are the top three people who have been influential in your life both personally and professionally?
There’s exactly three people: my oldest sister, Nunya– I wrote my first verse when I was six years old and she was 16 helping me to write it—she has such resolve; my other big sister, Afenya, is such a dynamic thinker.
The third person is Malcolm X. The first book that I read as an adult was “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.” Even when I had my troubles as a teenager and getting in the negative aspects of hip hop culture, I looked to ‘Red.’
If you had an opportunity to come back in another life as a hip hop emcee, who would you come back as?
I want to say Jay-Z. Who wouldn’t want to come back as Jay? I was just watching an interview with Clark Kent on a show called ‘Dream Champs’ and he said the only time Jay-Z didn’t have the hottest song of the summer is when he chose not to drop an album. To be able to manage these different artists, to call Warren Buffet, to be able to go from being a rapper to the President of Def Jam—to work with Lyor Cohen.
As I learn about leaders and read books on leadership, I see a lot of qualities in Jay-Z that I’d like to see in myself.