“Those moments when I was there were probably some of the toughest moments for me because even though I put ‘News Director’ on my resume, most of the time my staff was just me.”
Dometi Pongo of Chicago, IL., is the host of MTV News’ “Need to Know,” a twitter live show that broadcasts newscasts, interviews and topical roundtables twice daily on weekdays. However, he got his start in broadcast media as a reporter and fill-in host for Chicago’s own, WGN Radio, a voice-over talent for WGN-TV and contributor to WCIU’s ‘The Jam Morning Show’. The award-winning journalist also works as a speaker and multimedia consultant through his firm, Pongo Strategy Group, which helps organizations tell better stories through multimedia.
Dometi is breaking down barriers and paving the way as a young black millennial in media and we don’t see him slowing down for anyone, anytime soon. Below he shares more about his journey, what it took to get there, and a few of his trials along the way:
How did you personally know that this was the path for you? What was that ‘aha moment’?
"There actually wasn’t really an ‘aha’ moment. It was like a series of small moments. I knew I wanted to get paid to be myself. Right out of college I was working at Target Headquarters and there was one moment in particular where I was in charge as a Business Analyst. I was in charge of inventory for all of the Target Stores for a specific department and a shipment had gotten destroyed with a case of crayons in it.”
“I remember talking to my manager about it and he looked so distraught that the shipment had been destroyed—and right then and there I told myself, ‘I don't want to be his age and crying about a box of crayons’. Mind you, I’m not trying to knock him as a person, but I was just like, for me, managing someone else’s affairs just didn’t feel right. So I quit without a plan and came back to Chicago.”
“As I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do next, at first (you know I was making music back in the day) so I was like ‘how can I formalize my passion for music into something that turns into a sustainable check?’. So I thought about going to Columbia to do Recording Engineering. I actually applied for Columbia and got in but I wasn’t about to get a second undergrad degree and go to school for 4 more years and take gen-eds all over again. So I ended up having a dream of me going to some school and them talking to me about a degree. In the dream I was like ‘I don't need another piece of paper. When I graduate, will I have a job?’ and, in the dream, the person said ‘Yes’.”
“So then my pastor brought up this broadcasting school that I should go check out because I was helping with the church’s multimedia department. So I go to the place and look at their mics. Their mics are terrible. I’m like ‘I got better mics at the crib. Why would I roll here?’. But I found a card to receive more information anyway and to make a long story short, I go visit the school again and the lady said the same thing in person that she said to me in the dream. So that’s when I knew that I was supposed to enroll.”
“I knew it was a spiritual thing because in the physical this school didn’t seem to have anything it could offer. I’ve been recording all my life and have been around the dopest mics, but the connections I made there led me to an internship at WVON. Which led me to be an Anchor, which led me to be a News Director, which led me to later coming back to that school to become a Program Director for the online radio station-- and doing panels about being a young black millennial in media. Which, then, one of those panels led me to a job in WGN Radio and so on and so forth.”
What are a few other achievements that you've had while being able to walk in your purpose so far?
“I’m really proud of this article that I wrote for the Chicago Sun-Times because I'm a much better broadcaster than writer. An opportunity came up through networking and I ended up doing lunch with one of the executives, at the time, of the Chicago Sun-Times. When we met she was like ‘Are you going down to Memphis to cover the 50th anniversary of the passing of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and would you be willing and able to write a piece for the Sun-Times?’. There’s a quote that rings true to me that goes: ‘Great people always do something a little before they’re ready to do it’. I definitely wasn't ready to write a piece for the Sun-Times, but guess what? I still said yes.”
“Then I went to WGN radio and one of my colleagues said, 'Yo, we should put a budget together to help you cover this MLK thing’. So we put a budget together and then we went down to memphis and created an audio documentary. Then I went to my VP and told him that I wanted to do that but I also wanted to write these pieces for the Sun-Times. And he was like ‘You sure you’re going to have time to write TWO audio documentaries AND produce these articles for the Sun Times?’ and I was like ‘Yeaaaah’ (laughs)."
"Of course, I didn’t know if I was going to be able to do it though, I just said it. But I did it and I’m very proud of it. So I wrote two articles for the Chicago Sun-Times and I interviewed the Reverend Jesse Jackson for the audio documentary and to my knowledge, it was printed in the paper as the WGN’s Special Report for the Chicago-Sun Times. So to go from growing up reading the Sun-Times and listening to WGN radio, then to contributing to both of them, and having not been formally educated in that field, AND covering black content and not having to compromise what it is that I believe in to do it, was very, very dope to me.”
How was your family life? What kind of things were you into as a child? Did you have any role models? What made you into the person that we all know today?
“Both my parents are from Ghana and in their mind, if you were not going to medical school then what you were doing had no importance man. So there was always this level of high achievement that they wanted for me. So me wanting to be in the arts or wanting to rap was kind of weird and foreign to them.”
“It forced me to have the mindset that if I was going to do something other than that then I better be DAMN good at it to make it make sense. So I tried to find ways to legitimize what I was trying to do to make it make sense. I told myself that if I’m going to be an artist, well then I’m going to start an open mic on my college campus because that made me feel legitimate; and if I’m going to write poetry then I’m going to move around with the black studies professor at school because that made me feel like I was legitimizing it. So it was this kind of thing they instilled in me. It keeps you humble, but it also kind of hits your self-esteem in a way because no matter what you’re doing, you kind of feel like you’re not doing enough.”
What trials have you been through in your life or a long your professional journey, maybe even in your upbringing that people would never know just by looking at you?
“I got into a lot of fights when I was a kid. In grammar school and in high school. In grammar school, because people would hit me with jokes or make fun of my name or whatever the case may be. And I didn't really know how to roast. I could rap. But I didn’t know how to roast. So I wasn’t gonna hit you with no jokes. I was just going to hit you.”
What trials have you been through in your life or along your professional journey, maybe even in your upbringing that people would never know just by looking at you? Did you ever have any moments where you felt defeated, complacent or stuck?
“Yeah, absolutely. Black-owned media companies face a lot of challenges financially for various reasons. Advertisers may not want to work with them or they don’t have access to capital. So sometimes they don’t get into certain doors. Unfortunately, that becomes a ripple effect and it trickles down to its employees.”
“Those moments when I was there were probably some of the toughest moments for me because even though I put ‘News Director’ on my resume, most of the time my staff was just me. So after you quit a full-time job and you go into a position where you’re hustlin’ and you got like 3 jobs, it gets tough. I used to wake up at 5 am and go to WVON and that ended at 12 noon, then I used to go from there to the north side to help my pastor with the media stuff, then from there to night school at that broadcasting school. So that was like 5 am to midnight and that was my day. So it was difficult.”
“It was hard with relationships too because when you're with a woman who feels like all your work and all that comes first that makes it hard. So it made it hard to have a social life and at the same time you’re working all these hours and it’s like where’s the payoff? Where's the benefit? And as you try to find yourself as a broadcaster you get to a point where you’re choosing between hip-hop or a newscaster, because a rapping news anchor just sounds weird to me.”
“So there was a book called ‘The One Thing’ by Gary Keller that was about how to best focus your energy, especially when you’re multi talented, into one thing, so that it could flourish. And that kind of helped me to redirect my energy and to find a voice that felt authentic, but still professional without looking like I had to forsake my actual vernacular and the way I speak and still be a respected journalist. So it was a difficult season. And I really don't feel like I got out of it until I moved to New York last November. I feel like I’m just now coming out of that. But new levels new devils and I think it’s important to find ways to be grateful in the current season and to find beauty in the current season that you're in and making sure that you’re not getting wrapped up in the challenges that await you rather than being grateful about the challenges that you’ve already overcome.”
What are a few things that you would tell anyone else who is pursuing their passion?
“There are no shortcuts and no two paths are alike. People use to say that I would have to go to a small market and work my way back to Chicago, and not only did I work through Chicago...I made it to a bigger market. So with that being said, its my path and their path is theirs. And as you seek mentorship, seek mentors that speak to you based on an understanding of your true potential and not where they see you or where they see themselves. Say yes to things that make sense and work it out later. Connect to your spiritual core. Everybody don't believe in Christ, but whatever that is for you, connect to it and believe that it works and believe in it because that will get you through some impossible situations.”