When was the last time you went out to dinner with your friends from college, your hometown or even your job? Do you recall moving from one topic to the next over some libations and a well-cooked meal? Did you find yourself transfixed by that one person who worked in a completely different field or visited the one place you’ve had on your bucket list for years? The free-flowing nature of the night was something you probably held onto because your mind was stimulated just as much as your taste buds.
Now just imagine if that dinner became a TV show, with meals and drinks that were as sophisticated as the conversations.
That’s the premise of a new Hulu show developed in conjunction with Andscape, ESPN’s Black sports and culture platform, called The Conversations Project. The very idea of the show was born while ESPN and Andscape senior NBA writer Marc J. Spears enjoyed some wine, a charcuterie board, and some soccer at the home of his friend Chef David Lawrence. After a reworked pilot and the addition of Project Runway host and former Teen Vogue editor-in-chief Elaine Welteroth as a co-host, Conversations filmed six half-hour episodes each featuring an array of well-known and rising Black figures in various industries from sports and entertainment to astronomy to politics.
Prior to an invite-only screening of the show at Shell’s Loft in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn, Spears spoke with Awful Announcing about the show’s premise. He also discussed how Andscape supported his voice in a changing media landscape, and an understandable disbelief for being inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame as the Gowdy Award winner for his contributions to print journalism.
Awful Announcing: First, congratulations! Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. Is that something you’ve ever thought of when you got started in this work?
Spears: No. I mean, I think when you’re when you grow up as an aspiring sports journalist, before the whole internet arrival, which basically happened toward my college days, at times I didn’t know what the person behind the byline looked like. So there wasn’t really any representation for me. But I had an older cousin who used to write for the San Diego Chargers’ magazine, so he was the first sportswriter I met and probably my first role model. And he wrote for them in the 70s, which certainly made him a pioneer in that respect. So seeing him made it real for me because I didn’t know what I wanted to be until seventh grade.
I didn’t have any dreams about this (growing up) because I just didn’t think it was possible.
AA: You came into the industry as more people gained internet access in the mid-nineties, and bore witness to how that access – and mobile technology – completely revamped how we consumed media in the 2000s. Something that the internet did, however, was provide opportunities for more diverse voices to enter sports media in addition to those like yourself who were breaking through print, TV and radio. Do you think that building your career during these two-plus decades of media changes helped you build your voice to become a Hall of Famer?
Spears: I think it’s Andscape, it’s (previously known as) The Undefeated. You know, like, I always had a passion for writing about race and culture and sports. And to be honest, a lot of the newspapers weren’t as interested in that topic.
I wrote a story about the lack of white players in the NBA 20 years ago for the Denver Post. And I had a white editor who would light the story up because he didn’t want it to hear that. There was no problem with writing stories about the lack of Black players in Major League Baseball, so I asked “well, what about this?” They didn’t want to hear that! But at Andscape, I don’t have to be apologetic, I don’t have to sugarcoat. I have to be fair; I’m always going to be fair. But what I’m writing aren’t event opinion pieces, or what the videos I’m doing aren’t opinion pieces, they’re factual. The factual pieces that I hope have brought the light to people that needed the light.
I’ve been told that my stories have helped influence more general managers, Black general managers get jobs, more Blacks get head coaches, get more women in the game, help the gay community get noticed. And one thing I’m really proud about is writing about African basketball, the Basketball Africa League, players from Africa and the ascension of the African basketball player.
AA: So what made you want to get into The Conversations Project? Considering that most people know of you from the sports world, it’s interesting to see you interact with people of a wide range of backgrounds – some well-known and others up-and-coming in their fields.
Spears: Well, it’s because of that man (points) Chef David Lawrence. We were in Sonoma at his house, drinking some wine, watching soccer. And I got a call from Maria Taylor, who was still at ESPN at the time. And she was saying that she and her husband were going to come to Napa, and they wanted some advice on restaurants and obviously wineries. And Chef was like, “Well, how often do you get these calls?” and said we should do some with it. So initially, we thought about doing a website and then I said let’s do something bigger. Let’s dream big!
So we created a TV show concept. I wrote a treatment; the treatment became a pilot in which had Terrence Mann from the (Los Angeles) Clippers. We brought him to a vineyard in Napa called Charles Krug. I interviewed him in the winery. And in amongst the vineyards, Chef made a Caribbean meal because he has Caribbean ties. We brought it to a roundtable and had a dinner with (Clippers assistant coach) Brian Shaw and his wife, Chef Nikki Shaw, (comedian) W. Kamau Bell, and a lady named Brenae Royal, who is a Black woman in the wine industry. We had a great conversation after I interviewed Terrence. And then the next thing you know, we did a pilot, and they’re like, “well, we want to do a TV show – but we’d love the dinner!” So that’s how it became The Conversations Project. They took it, made it a dinner, and then added Elaine Welteroth as a host.
AA: Everybody who’s involved comes from different parts of the world and brings parts of their audiences into the show. Someone who’s watching, especially if they are Black or a person of color, may have all these different interests. But as one of the minds behind the show, what do you want him/her/them to take from The Conversations Project?
Spears: I was influenced by Love Jones. Mo Better Blues is my favorite movie of all time. Boomerang. And I think they need to see us in that light, the way that I saw them in that light in the movies. What I mean by that is just seeing successful Black folks of all genres in a positive light – and that’s the dinners we have, man! (Laughs.) When I go to dinner with my friends, they ain’t asking me NBA questions! They might ask me a couple, right? We’re talking about all kinds of things and our conversations are very deep. So the conversations you’ll hear (on the show) are like what I think a lot of successful Black people have every day.
And so the cool thing is, everybody’s not the same. But we have sports guys, me and Solomon Thomas from the New York Jets. We have rappers with Shyne and Jim Jones and Roxanne Shante. We have comedians like Ian Lara and Josh Johnson and Roy Wood Jr. Than we have like a transgender model and different actresses, different actors. We don’t know each other – obviously, I know the other two hosts, but we don’t know each other.
Where Chef comes in is that we have an appetizer and a main course, and dessert, which he curated, and each one came with a different topic. We highlighted a different Black winery with every episode, as well. But we want people to watch the show that aren’t just Black – we need everyone to survive so we can season two through eight, right? (Laughs.) But I want everybody to watch because I think people need to see us in this life. We’re not just athletes, just rappers, just entertainers. We are very intelligent people.
AA: You’re stepping into this newer realm where you’re not just speaking with people in sports but with folks in these different arenas. Were there any jitters, any nervousness?
Spears: This is how I talk all the time. What I watch is deeper than sports. I love sports, don’t get me wrong, but there’s a lot more depth to me than that. There’s a lot more depth to Chef than cooking. So I think I wasn’t nervous about it because I was just being myself. The only thing that was scripted was the topics. Everything else was natural conversation. Obviously, me and Elaine being the point guards at a show where we try to get them into the conversation as journalists. But none of it’s scripted, the responses are real. The disagreement is real, but the one thing is people respectfully agreed to disagree and got a respectful answer back right. And nobody got a drink thrown on them. (Laughs.) I was excited more than nervous.
AA: It wasn’t Love and Hip-Hop, that’s for sure. To that point, what about the guests? Naturally with these different experiences, there will be those disagreements and tensions. What were their responses to this project?
Spears: They were excited! It was something different, something they hadn’t seen before. Obviously, there’s a lot of talk shows, they’re Black talk shows. But these are these are truly successful Black people from all different walks of life. But you may not know everybody’s name right? By the end of the episode, you know everybody’s name.
AA: If you had dream guests, who would you love to have on The Conversations Project?
Spears: Barack Obama.
AA: Well, of course! Who wouldn’t want to bring on the former President? And who’s somebody you would love to introduce to the world through the show?
AA: A curator for the stars.
Spears: Yeah. I got friends like that, man! (Laughs.)
Launched on August 28th, all six episodes of The Conversations Project are currently available on Hulu.