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Jim Rome’s career wasn’t built in a day

Sports-talk king paid his dues along the way

SHARE Jim Rome’s career wasn’t built in a day

Long before Jim Rome became the most powerful voice in sports talk radio, he did traffic updates on a Santa Barbara radio station, reports that were, shall we say, slightly exaggerated.

The station was paying him $5 an hour to give these updates. But there isn't much traffic in Santa Barbara, so Rome didn't have a lot to report.

That bothered his boss. "He would get angry and say, 'Rome, I'm paying you $5 an hour to report accidents and traffic, now report them,' " Rome said. "There is no traffic in Santa Barbara. But I felt the pressure, so I made it up. 'There's an accident in the clearing stages off to the right, it won't slow your commute home.' "

Jim Rome no longer talks about traffic, he creates it. From virtually a standing start as an update guy at XTRA in southern California in 1990, the 36-year-old has risen to become a major player in sports and media. His Premiere Radio Network syndicated show is heard on 165 stations, including KALL in Salt Lake City (910 AM), and his "The Last Word" talk show on Fox Sports Net is the cable network's centerpiece. In sports society, "The Last Word" has replaced ESPN's "Up Close" as the power stop in the business.

Rome is to sports as MSNBC's Chris Matthews is to news and Oprah to social issues. He is an arbiter and a social critic for sports culture at a time when it has never been more multifaceted and prominent. At a time when issues, not scores, dominate sports, Rome's shows have become a clearing house.

He no longer has to chase down athletes and newsmakers. They come to him, looking for a moment at his pulpit. They also listen, which perhaps makes Rome as powerful a voice as anyone in the business.

DAD HAS RESERVATIONS: Long before the creation of The Jungle, Jim Rome's childhood was filled with sports moments with his dad, Jay, who passed away from cancer in 1992.

Jay Rome was a Boston native and Red Sox fan. Rome still has his dad's scrapbooks filled with autographs from Ted Williams, Johnny Pesky and Bobby Doerr. "He would tell me stories about going to the yahd and hanging out," Rome said. "He was a typical good chowderhead."

Rome's most fond dad memory is watching boxing. "It was always a great day when there was a big fight on TV," he said. "I'd wake up Saturday morning and be excited all day long, because I'd be watching the fight with my dad that night."

His parents were Kings season-ticket holders and regulars at the Olympic Auditorium during its boxing heyday. The family also played tennis, with Rome playing on his Calabasas High School tennis team.

Rome's affection for all three sports shows in his work. He was talking up hockey before Wayne Gretzky became a King, and he's the only area talk-show host who regularly talks about tennis.

Rome and his dad had several of the typical father-son arguments. "He had more than his share of takes on my career," Rome said.

While a student at UCSB, his parents once called and wanted to know what he was doing with his life. "They were worried that I might be pissing my life away," he recalls. "They had no idea what I was doing. 'What do you mean what am I doing with my life? I'm 25, working 100 hours a week, and I've got an ulcer from working three shifts a day. What do you mean what am I doing?' "

A few months later, the family bought a vacation home in Santa Barbara. When Jay and Jan introduced themselves to their new neighbors, the neighbors said "Rome? Are you related to Jim Rome? Oh, we listen to him on the radio all the time."

"A few months later, my dad said 'We're very proud of you.' Proud? You were ready to disown me."

Jay and Jan Rome clearly contributed to his moral compass in sports. Rome watched his father start and run a family manufacturing business and work his butt off in the process. At one point in his early 20s, Rome told his dad he wanted to work in the family business. Dad said no. When Rome finally landed a talk show at XTRA, his father was extremely proud. But those years were bittersweet. At the same time Rome was becoming a player, his dad was fighting brain cancer. He couldn't fully share the joy of his son's success and wasn't around to see Rome add television to his career.

"He got that the talk show was different," said Rome. "What he got most was that I was focused and motivated. But we couldn't have those kind of conversations about the show because of his illness."

THE JUNGLE IS BORN: Long before the first smack-off and birth of the clones, Rome was juggling college and radio work and trying to figure out what he wanted to do and how he would get there.

One quarter, he blew off his classes to work at a radio station, and he earned three D's and an F. His dad ordered him to quit the radio station. Rome refused and said he'd put himself through college. "He was afraid I wouldn't make it and get left behind," Rome said. "We had it out, and it got ugly. I finally said 'OK, dad, I'll quit.'

"But I didn't. I just kept working. I also went to the library, busted my books and made Dean's List the next quarter. I didn't tell my dad that for five years."

That exchange did force Rome to ask himself some difficult career questions.

"I asked myself 'Why me?' and I didn't have an answer," he said. "I wasn't a former athlete. I didn't have name value. I had a quirky radio voice, and I didn't have striking TV good looks. How was I going to be different than everyone else out there?"

The answer turned out to be his willingness shake the genre and outwork everyone else.

"AM radio isn't cool. I had to figure how to get people to go from FM to AM," he said. "If I was going to ask athletes questions, they had to be good questions. I always thought typical sports talk, the how-will-the-Padres-do stuff, was garbage.

"I thought I could do it differently. What do fellows do when they get together? They get off on sports. To reach them, I needed to be aggressive and well-prepped to ask questions and exchange views."

Rome, who worked for several different radio and TV stations while in Santa Barbara, sent out tapes of his work to every radio station he could, asked his peers in broadcasting for advice (including Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather), and worked the phones hard to get major sports figures on his show. He remembers tracking Chick Hearn down when the Laker voice was in Santa Barbara and bugging the Dodgers for guests, and calling Dick Vitale in hotel rooms across America.

"I didn't know anybody, but I knew where to find them. I had a (phone) calling card and could hunt the elephants. It didn't matter how many times I heard no, only the times I got a yes."

He took that same mentality to XTRA when he was hired in December of 1990. Within two years, he had already made an impact by raising the bar for callers, demanding they have something to add to the discussion — have a take, don't suck. Those who did became clones and good word-of-mouth followed. Soon after, his show had its own glossary and he was finding it easier to get athletes and newsmakers. The show was clicking with the key male 18-to-34 demographic.

"I knew there would be people out there who didn't get it, but it was definitely different," he said. "I had to be different."

ON THE TUBE: Long before Rome began interviewing athletes for a living, he followed one in his car.

Rome was a big Dodger fan and his favorite player was third baseman Ron Cey. As a teenager with a new driver's license, he once pulled up behind a car with the vanity license plate "3B 10."

"It was the Penguin, my guy, my hero forever," Rome said. "I wasn't into hero worship, but I wanted to tell this guy how much I thought of him." So he follows Cey, and soon Cey knows he's being followed. The third baseman changes lanes but can't shake Rome, so he eventually pulls off onto a residential street and stops.

Rome got out of his car and started to walk up to Cey, but Cey hit the accelerator and took off. "I am not proud of this story," he said. "I told it once on the air, and Cey heard it, and he later told me he always wondered who that nut was."

Rome today can land virtually any athlete he wants. In fact, athletes hit him up for a spot on "The Last Word," or call the radio show from their cell to interject a point or just say hello.

Two prominent sports figures helped Rome gain credibility. Rome once called the Kings seeking an interview with Tony Granato, and when the team called back, they said Tony would do it — and Wayne Gretzky also wanted to come on.

Gretzky had heard Rome talk hockey at a time when the Kings were still fighting for attention. Gretzky is now a regular.

The other figure was ABC announcer Al Michaels, who was booked on Rome's first TV talk show, "Talk2" on ESPN2, the night after the Jim Everett incident. Rome had been calling the Rams quarterback "Chris" for some time. Everett was booked as a guest, Rome called him Chris, and the quarterback dared him to say it again. When Rome did, the quarterback lunged over a table and both tumbled to the floor.

Rome was battered by TV critics for taking a cheap shot, but Michaels showed up the next night anyway. "He's Al Michaels, the most noteworthy play-by-play man in the business, and he clearly could have found something else to do that night," Rome said. "I would have understood if he (canceled). But he knew I needed help, needed a friend. I'll always remember that."

Rome regrets the Everett episode, but it's had no impact on his career. He has no trouble getting athletes to talk with him, even now after he's indicated he will ask the difficult question.

"He's very fair," said Dodgers first baseman Eric Karros. "If you're an idiot, or do something stupid, he's going to roast you. If you have a legitimate gripe, he'll talk about it.

"I hear a lot of one-sided opinions in sports talk. No matter what someone does, some hosts will say athletes are overpaid and leave it at that. They're just on you because they have a forum, and it doesn't matter if they're as dumb as rocks.

"Jim has intelligent views of things. He'll ask 'why' and look at the social aspect of an issue without just telling us what he thinks and who's wrong. He's open-minded, and a lot of guys will go on simply because they know it will be a good conversation and that he'll listen to your point.

"The fact that he's right up front and challenges his callers to be intelligent is different. He'll have an entire three-hour show without callers, and there aren't many hosts who could do that and still have something to say."

"I've been in it 10 years now, and (athletes) know what I'm about," Rome said. "I have a lot of good relationships, and guys know they'll have to answer some questions."

SUCCESS STILL MOUNTS: Rome's world continues to spin fast. Several of his callers and guests have branched out on their own, like former smack-off winner J.T. The Brick, Angels announcer Rex Hudler, former Arizona basketball star Tom Tolbert, and actor/comedian Jay Mohr, who has been offered a lot of sports-related opportunities since becoming a regular contributor.

Rome and his wife Janet, a 1977 graduate of Long Beach Poly that he met while both worked at XTRA, just celebrated the birth of their first child, Jake. His typical work day lasts 10-16 hours.

He's unsure how much longer he can do both radio and TV. He thinks the radio show has never been better. "The Last Word" is still a work in progress, a balancing act between issues, guests and tone. Some days are better than others, but the talk is always topical. The duality of TLW was visible this week. On Monday, Rome had a sit-down with baseball commissioner Bud Selig. Today, TLW will feature a "White Shadow" reunion with the actors that played Coolidge, Jackson, Thorpe and Salami.

"I'm still trying to figure out what I want to do," he said. "I like both shows for different reasons, and I can't pick. At the same time, I can't keep going 16 hours a day forever. There are some things I still want, like getting the radio show in a few more markets.

"I've had TV consultants say people want to hear me on other things. That interests me, but I can't go off half-cocked and start talking about things I don't know. If it ever happens, I have to be smart about it. I'm pretty comfortable working for Premiere and Fox. No one ever tells me I can't do this or have to do that.

"The truth is, I was always confident I could have success. But I never thought I would be on 165 stations, or have my own TV show, and have the kind of access to athletes where they would call me. I've done a lot better than I ever thought I would."