Say what you want. Jim Rome is the father of national sports talk, the dean who presides over shows that are less free-form and more tightly formatted than most.
Yes, there were those before him who hosted programs; whether once a week on Sunday nights like the brilliant Bob Costas or five times a week on the failed Enterprise Radio in 1981. But no one has been consistently saliently for 22 years and done so with a unique signature of smack, takes and clones.
A California native, Rome has been a bold leader in the space beginning in 1996 when Clear Channel Communications (now iHeart) began syndicating his local San Diego program nationally. Given the breadth of iHeart’s station footprint, Rome enjoyed pervasive national broadcast clearances almost immediately. Digital media was hardly an embryo then and his show on radio was novel. It opened then as it does now with a well prepared and deliberately delivered Rome monologue, followed by calls from listeners that are less dialogue and more brief dissertations which are occasionally truncated by Rome if the caller meanders aimlessly. Right from the start, the show caught on and then flourished.
In the years preceding Rome, there were others. ESPN Radio was launched in 1992, distributing shows weekends only. Their big names were a couple of fun gents, straight man Chuck Wilson and the dry witted Tony Bruno. Later, Nanci Donnellan was on-air daily for ESPN and took calls from listeners in conventional format. Having a woman host a national sports program then was a novelty. Nanci was dubbed the Sports Babe, a title that today, in a super sensitive social media culture, would likely come under fire.
Two years before his national radio debut, Rome was on ESPN2 where he provoked New Orleans’ quarterback Jim Everett, calling him, Chris (Evert). The ex-Saint lunged at him on the set and footage of the incident made the rounds on seemingly every television sports show in the nation. Rome later admitted that he went too far with the Chris bit. But it helped make Rome a national personality.
While Jim’s interviews are considered by many as among the best nationally, he got into a verbal spat with ex-NBA commissioner David Stern over suspicions that the draft lottery was tampered. Asked flat our whether the lottery is fixed, Stern retorted by startling Rome, asking him if he beats his wife. In the on-air exchange, Stern accused Rome of asking the question to get a cheap thrill. The polemics made for good copy across the country.
Rome eventually left iHeart to join CBS Sports Radio, giving personalities like Colin Cowherd and Dan Patrick opportunities to encroach upon his national turf. Rome himself seeded a tree of sports radio hosts like J.T. the Brick and Travis Rodgers who trace their careers through Rome associations. Rodgers was a longtime Rome producer and J. T. was a frequent caller who won a Rome “Smack-Off” contest. The Brick used the experience as a stepping stone to launch an on-air career of his own.
Behind most successful public personalities is a behind the scene doer. Kraig Kitchin ran iHeart’s Premiere Networks in the 90s and had the vision to syndicate Rome across the country. When Auto Zone showed interest in sponsoring Rome’s show, Kitchin and his sales team got top dollar from the chain by including naming rights to Rome’s studio. Historically, Kitchin and iHeart were the first to do so. Now corporate names label studio shows that span the gamut, locally and nationally, almost everywhere.
At the height of Rome’s popularity, he made tour-stops where his name was hot. Listeners and fans would elbow their way into arenas to see him. Today Rome, is available on podcasts, terrestrial radio, satellite, digitally and on podcasts. Rome’s show is also available on CBS Sports Network Television.
I had a chance to check in with the pioneering Rome through a Q&A.
You hit the national airwaves before names like Dan Patrick, Mike &Mike, Colin Cowherd Rich Eisen and Dan Le Batard. Would you consider yourself a pioneer of national sports radio host?
I consider myself fortunate to have found success in in this space. I was on the air early enough in the sports talk radio format to help shape the conversation and set the tone. You don’t think about that at the time. You’re thinking I’ve got a shot and I want to be different than anything and anyone else to make my mark. I determined myself to want to be different, to make a difference. When I set my sights on sports talk radio, there were just two stations committed to this format on a fulltime basis – The Fan in New York City and The Mighty 690 in Southern California. Lots of talk stations had one host or another with call–in shows. We built something that asked sports fans to be different, too, to have their own takes. I didn’t want to be asked what my opinion was on one subject or another. I wanted our listeners telling other listeners what they felt – I wanted their takes. The best takes won. The worst takes got run. Listeners piled on. It became a sports talk jungle where the best survived and got noticed. If you’re going to run that conversation, you have to be focused. I am. Today there a lot of choices; I have to work that much harder to differentiate myself.
You’ve been quite creative. In your early years you attracted younger listeners, introducing newfangled lingo that was embedded into sports’ nomenclature What does it take to remain current?
You have to know your listeners. You have to realize how quickly an opinion is formed now. How empowering social media is in making everyone capable of sharing their opinions. You have to be able to form your thoughts for interviews with questions not thought of. Conversations about sports are now a 24/7 on radio, on television, online and on Twitter. There are thousands of podcasters all vying for attention. Remaining current is all about having a sense of what your listeners want, and how they acquire their information and then staying one step ahead of all those looking for their opportunity, too. We’re in a competitive business.
How has the eruption of texting changed your show?
Texting puts people in constant contact with one another. It moves information faster. It’s gives a listener too timid to call in another voice; to share their written word. Tweeting – that’s an entire universe unto itself.
What’s the challenge for a national host as opposed to a local host?
Knowledge. Nationally, you’ve got to be well versed on what’s going on in every city you’re heard in, or seen in, and be able to speak on the topic with absolute resolve. You’re going to be challenged on your knowledge of any given team, in any given league, and the players and coaches and venues that define those cites.
Any thoughts of relaunching Rome’s tour-stops or are they simply a thing of the past? In the day, fans elbowed their way into arenas where you were showered with truly rock-star like love.
No thoughts, no. The World Tour era of The Jungle was a great time. We made nearly 40 visits, filling stadiums and arenas. My listeners have grown along with the program. They’ve got families now, and jobs and there are so many new ways for us to stay connected. We’ve moved on to new experiences, but those World Tour moments were epic and forever appreciated.
You’ve done great work for sponsors through the years, both voicing and doing implicit endorsements. Give me an example of one that resonates and moved the needle.
AutoZone is a great example. For years, we drove incredible traffic to those stores. So many of the listeners are in their cars already, listening. Connecting them with AutoZone to keep that ride going, and going well’ that was a natural. Our relationship grew to the point where we utilized AutoZone stores as our ticket distributor for 30 of our World Tour appearances. They distributed more than 400,000 tickets, meaning that many listeners drove themselves to an AutoZone store, walked in and in many cases, competed to pick up their tickets. The return was outstanding. Now I work with O’Reilly Auto Parts in a great partnership that involves all of their stores and their store management; they are cutting edge retailers who know their customer as well as we might know our audience.
You’re a Californian and yes, you launched your radio career as a college student at UC, Santa Barbara. Had you not done sports talk, what would you have pursued in your career?
This was not my first career. Office equipment sales was my first job out of college. It only reinforced how badly I wanted to do this for a living.