Jim Rome is Melting

If you don’t haunt sports radio, you may not know Jim Rome. I didn’t until I switched on The Team one afternoon and thought their regular 20/20 Sports Update guy was on vacation. This newbie (I first thought he was a young local producer pressed into service) seemed to be trying too hard to make an otherwise-average voice sound radio-rugged and testosterone-friendly. (And it cracks under the strain fairly regularly.) He allowed substantial pauses in delivering his opinions and had no fear (or awareness) of repeating himself. I didn’t know it that first time — I switched it off before long — but I had stumbled into The Jungle, into The Jim Rome Show, one of the biggest talk-radio programs in North America, which goes to show what I know…

Rome is known as “Van Smack” to his “clone” listeners (as in talkin’ smack, which used to be called trash-talkin’, which was once known as poor sportsmanship.) “Have a take. Don’t suck” is the challenge to callers, who try to write their way onto the radio, leapfrog their fellow Clones and attack the sports world’s Target du Jour. They consult their Putdown Thesaurus for the most caustic comments and fight-ring ridicule they can manage, hoping to get “racked” for their verbal punches without being “run” for going below the belt. Though I often find it more of a sociological study — “The American Male in His Basement Habitat” — I have warmed to Rome and his followers. It takes a much younger man than me to find the Jungle as funny as it thinks it is, but I often grin at the sheer goofiness of it. It’s a guilty pleasure. (It makes my wife wonder who she married, though. My vegan anarchist son wonders where he came from.)

Rome is very well-prepared, never slips into ums and ahs, and loves some of the best in sport alongside the cheapshots, cheek by jowl with the masculine gossip about the low points of athletic and other celebrity infamy. (Hello, Barry Bonds! Terrell Owens, who’d you push under the bus today? José Canseco, Paris Hilton, come on down! And how can we mock Michael Jackson this week?) The “King of Smack” also manages to pull in a great roster of guests, ironically enough, because his interviews are as bunny-soft (even fawning, at times) as they are meticulously researched. Rome knows his stuff, knows his demographic, and has parlayed it into a radio empire and a TV show called Jim Rome is Burning, which apparently is a condensed and Clone-free version of the radio program.

There is also a distinct thread of morality that runs through the Jungle. Juvenile my town’s not as stupid as your town rants and freakish obsessions with the screwups of the rich and silly are IN, but racism, homophobia, and primitive attitudes toward women are OUT. It’s oddly touching, the line Rome walks while alternately encouraging and mocking the sophomoric preoccupations of his core audience. But he is a loving husband (Allegedly!) and father, too, and he’s not afraid to get soft and squishy or even to go beyond the pro sports playpen.

Case in point: the Jason McElwain story. (It’s the autistic-boy-makes-three-point-good story, the “Miracle at Greece Athena High”. I wrote about it here.) Wednesday, Rome interviewed J-Mac’s coach, Jim Johnson, and yesterday it was his Mom. The whole thing is heartwarming (though I’m a little worried about Mother-Mac’s talk of a movie deal). These are good people to whom a memorable and soul-stirring thing happened. The coach was a great reminder of what sport should do and be. Jason’s Mom reminded us of what families (and especially, the kids) with special needs go through. “Not a week used to go by without Jason being picked on or teased somehow. Maybe that’s over now. We just hope he’ll be able to get an education.” It was sweet and refreshing, and it was obvious that the Jungle felt good about itself for having invited in such a ray of small-town light.

I like it when Rome gets sentimental, and the Clones eat it up like starving men (and a few deeply appreciative women). It feels like spring cleaning, like a warm and sunny weekend after a dull, slushy work-week. It was a fine series of interviews and commentary on its own, and a superb counter to the smack-tacular content of the average Roman day: dissing and dismissing soccer or the Olympics because there’s no tailgating for it in LA. And hey! Nobody’s masculinity seemed threatened at all.