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Few things are as insipid in this life as sports radio. This fact has been acknowledged by ESPN in a recent spate of commercials, encouraging viewers to switch from their own local radio programming, staffed by hacks and idiots, to their own national brand of coverage. To suggest that ESPN has the best sports radio shows, however, is a bit like Michael Jordan holding a YMCA league scoring title—there’s no distinction without competition.


Taken as a whole sports commentary, on the radio or elsewhere, is rarely insightful or thought-provoking (HBO and NPR’s contributions notwithstanding). The most common strategy involves some combination of well-worn complaints (player salaries, player conduct, and/or coaching moves) and armchair psychology (idle speculation about the motivations of athletes and other notables).


To this, sports radio adds a handful of calls from avid listeners, drawn like moths to a 40-watt bulb in an effort to add their own inane comment to the drivel pouring forth from their speakers. The end result is the intellectual equivalent of listening to static—it’s as illuminating as it is predictable. 


Given the company he keeps then, the work of radio host Jim Rome is all the more extraordinary. Though many have dismissed him as an over-hyped sporting equivalent of a shock jock, Rome’s program has matured into a venue for both thoughtful and entertaining commentary in an arena where such adjectives are only offered ironically.


Such was not always the case, however. Rome began as one of countless local sports jocks, covering southern California sports in Santa Barbara and San Diego. In 1994, having moved to ESPN2, his biggest claim to fame to date came in an interview with quarterback Jim Everett, whom he repeatedly called “Chris” (after the female tennis player, Chris Evert)—until Everett leapt across the table and wrestled Rome to the floor in front of the cameras. Rome antagonized other athletes as well (such as hockey great Gordie Howe) from his radio pulpit, and gained initial notoriety as an “edgy” provocateur.


To date, there are many who continue to see Rome as aggressive and distasteful. He was lampooned by Oliver Stone in his football film Any Given Sunday as a smarmy, clueless reporter named Jack Rose. Still, for all his (largely contrived) demeanor, Rome has quietly extended the breadth and depth of his influence, while his radio show (known as “The Jungle”) has attracted an increasing number of affiliate cities.


The key reason for his popularity is not his personality, but rather the show’s ability to render, meta-textually, the driving ethos of the sports it covers: competition. While other shows give time to the rambling (at times, drunken) digressions of the callers, Rome is quick to hang up on those who fail to contribute to the program in an interesting or insightful way. His manta is “Have a take [worthy opinion], don’t suck.”


Is this obnoxious? Without question. It seems counter-intuitive that a radio host who refers to his listeners as “clones”, mocks them, then hangs up on them after hours on hold could be so popular. And yet not every caller is dismissed (or “run” in the show’s baroque lingo).


Each show, in fact, concludes with a “huge” call, rewarding the best caller of the day with the honor of hearing their call replayed (at times they can also win sponsors’ products—like almonds or industrial lubricant). The Jungle also featured a “huge fax” of the day, which over the years has shifted to the form of email and now text messages.


The effect of this daily competition renders the show itself a kind of sport. Frequent callers develop rivalries amongst one another, while first-time callers aspire to the ranks of veteran contributors. Their competition is based upon their ability to engage in something that every sports fan, to one degree or another, has participated in: “running smack”; that is, verbally supporting your favorite player or team, while dragging down a rival—something that even the most placid of fans enjoys.


Some, of course, take their smack-talking more seriously than others, and for those Rome offers a yearly “Smack Off”, an invitation-only show where the year’s best callers compete for championship status and bragging rights.  This super bowl of soliloquies engenders its own material. Most shows, in fact, feature commentary that is split between the actual sports world and the world created by Rome’s clones, one with all the intrigue that any other sport might possess.


This world is rounded out by the self-referential nature of the callers’ vocabulary. For the uninitiated, Rome’s website provides a lengthy “smacktionary” of terms used on the show and their definitions. As a result, a first listen to Rome’s show is a bit like being on the outside of one long inside joke. Eventually though, the references become familiar, and the persistent listener is offered a chance to become a part of this exclusive experience, rather than a passive eavesdropper on a more generalized radio program.


Of course such persistence is not universal. In creating his sport-within-sports, Rome can assuredly rub the casual fan the wrong way. This explains, in part, why his televised incarnation (previously on ESPN’s The Last Word and currently on Jim Rome is Burning), reading from a teleprompter and interacting only with an interview subject or two, is far less satisfying than his radio broadcasts.


On the air, however, is where Rome’s true genius takes wing, reimagining the possibilities of his medium and creating a space where fans can double-back, competing as they discuss competition, rather than merely observing. Rome’s product, then, is an ingenious twist of a moribund formula. We should hope that his continued success in raising the standards for his callers’ performance translates equally to his brethren in the booth.


Were the average sportscaster to call The Jungle, surely, Rome would “run” them from the phone lines. Sports fans’ airwaves should be as vigilantly patrolled.

Tobias Peterson served as PopMatters' Sport Editors and columnist (From the Cheap Seats). He holds an MA in English Literature (with a concentration in Cultural Studies) from George Mason University, where he studied representations of race in professional basketball.


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