First you laughed. Then you thought, I wonder how long this guy's
marriage is going to last.
Rich from Anaheim Hills was calling the Jungle--officially known
as The Jim Rome Show--from the maternity ward. His wife was in
labor, he announced, "just like Shaq's gonna be laboring to bang
a free throw." On this July morning in Southern California, the
news that Shaquille O'Neal was about to become a Los Angeles
Laker seemed less incredible than the fact that a father-to-be
was calling a sports talk show between his wife's contractions.
What kind of man dials an all-sports station while his wife
dilates? Massage your lower back? Honey, can't you see I'm on
the phone? Even the jaded and acerbic Rome, host and lord of the
syndicated sports talk show that is heard weekdays from 9 a.m.
to 1 p.m. (PST) on 37 stations nationwide, was taken aback. Said
he, "This guy's wife is cranking out a kid, and he doesn't care!"
To better understand the compulsive sports talk caller--to find
out what makes him tick, what makes him willing to rot on hold
for 30 minutes, an hour, two hours, just so some self-important
host can interrupt him, patronize him, hang up on him, flush him
down an imaginary toilet, blow him up with imaginary ordnance--I
ventured into the Jungle. There I met the 82nd Airborne Division
of sports talk callers, men trained in a harsh environment by a
ruthless taskmaster who harangues and abuses them, who forces
them to stretch, to be all that they can be. They are the
Clones, the Jungle's most fanatical callers, and Rome is their
Whereas Upton Sinclair, author of The Jungle, belonged to the
school of social realism, Rome, king of the Jungle, is a
practitioner of social Darwinism. "Have a take, and don't suck"
is the credo he preaches to potential callers. Those who
stutter, utter inanities or lose their train of thought suffer
the fate of Tim from Anaheim, who molders on hold for two hours
and 40 minutes, then speaks for 12 seconds before Rome presses a
button that sends him plunging through an imaginary trapdoor.
The Jungle goes wild.
We know this because today Rome is broadcasting from the
rightfield pavilion at San Diego's Jack Murphy Stadium. Many of
the Jungle's legendary callers are here. Some called in sick at
work; others, let's face it, have no work to call in to. Among
the characters on hand are the Mayor of Poway, Raider Mike, Irie
Craig and the brothers DiTolla (Jeffrey and Mike)--a veritable
Mount Rushmore of smack.
Smack, loosely defined, is a succinct opinion served with
impudence, insolence, attitude. Smack is the currency of the
Jungle. Smack is Rome's referring to Shaq as Clank-Fu, a
reference to the new Laker's fearfully erratic free throw
shooting. Smack is Rome's dissing the team that will play the
Padres at 2:05 this afternoon by calling them the Williamsport
Rockies--a dig at Colorado's Coors Field, which Rome describes
as a "Little League bandbox."
For the thousand or so Jungle dwellers at the Jack, today's game
is secondary. They are here to sling smack, to drink in the
ambience of the Jungle and just plain drink. Although beer does
not go on sale until the unconscionably late hour of 10:30 a.m.,
many Clones have had the foresight to fortify themselves in the
Van Smack, as Clones call the 31-year-old Rome, is juiced on
adrenaline: He doesn't often work in front of a live audience.
The Clones become increasingly chippy. When one of the show's
guests, San Diego Chargers tight end Brian Roche, arrives, a man
wearing too-short black polyester shorts and a Jack Tatum
Oakland Raiders jersey makes his way to the microphone. He is
Joe from Chino, who acknowledges that the Chargers made it to
the Super Bowl two seasons ago and then says to Roche, "But once
you got there, you were just a bitch for the NFC." I wonder,
while Roche is deciding whether or not to bludgeon this flaccid
little man, How did our country survive for so long without the
wonderful format of sports talk radio?
Roche also has a question: "Can I smack this guy?" Instead, he
dispatches Joe from Chino verbally, delivering a trenchant
insult that has to do with Joe's preposterous form-fitting
shorts. As Joe skulks back to his seat, his Jungle mates howl
Joe professes to be unconcerned. He's here for the camaraderie,
after all. "If my car won't start, all of these guys would be
over there helping me work on it," he says. "They're authentic,
And generous. The pungent marijuana odor permeating the environs
is our clue that some Jungle dwellers are sharing more than
their opinions on who will win the National League West. And
when Joe from San Diego decides to shatter his empty Jack
Daniel's bottle, he is nice enough to lob it away from his
Comforting thought: Industry mavens say that only 1% to 2% of a
sports talk show's listeners call in. Funny, but as I rub elbows
with the denizens of the Jungle, taking care not to step on
broken glass, I do not feel like part of an elite group.
On the flight home from San Diego, I am seated near three Boise
State assistant football coaches. Their BRONCOS FOOTBALL gym
bags give them away. Knowing that Rome's show can be heard in
Boise, I wonder if the coaches are hip to the Jungle. Before I
can ask, I hear one of them say, "I can't believe my wife wants
to take the kids to see this Clank-Fu movie."
What has gone wrong in the life of the caller? Plenty, judging
by the ads that run on all-sports radio. He is not drinking
enough of the right beer; his pickup lacks sufficient ground
clearance and horsepower; he is being betrayed by his body. The
average listener suffers, if the spots are to be believed, from
a grim menu of afflictions: male pattern baldness, chronic
halitosis, painful rectal itch.
Call it a niche with an itch. All-sports radio is the place to
hear plugs for remedies for athlete's foot and its more
embarrassing crotch-dwelling cousin. Fungus, in fact, provides
us with a useful metaphor for the rapid spread of all-sports
radio. When WFAN began broadcasting in New York City in July
1987, it was the only all-sports station in the U.S. Today there
are 157--although, says Robert Unmacht, editor and publisher of
the radio newsletter The M Street Journal, "in the last six
months growth has slowed down considerably."
The upside of sports talk radio, according to format veteran Lee
(Hacksaw) Hamilton of XTRA in San Diego: "It's dynamic; stories
change every hour." The downside? "At times it becomes too
tabloid," Hacksaw laments. "Too many cheap shots taken." Such as
when Hacksaw's detractors refer to him as the Butterknife. Or
when Hacksaw, during his tenure with a Phoenix radio station in
the mid-'80s, said of a local female sports anchor, "She oughtta
be in my kitchen doing the dishes, not on my TV."
Continuing his noble crusade against verbal low blows, Hacksaw
questions "the ethics of people hiding behind mikes. There's
gotta be some accountability." For instance, Hacksaw apologized,
albeit under duress, for having called a San Diego Union-Tribune
sports-TV-radio columnist "a faggot" on the air.
"Fairness, maybe that's the word I'm looking for," says Hacksaw,
soldiering on in his lonely campaign for decency in sports
radio. "Because behind the ballplayer who's struggling, there's
a wife and kids."
There may also be an ex-wife, but Hacksaw apparently is less
solicitous of her. That would explain his reaction last winter
to the news that Darryl Strawberry's former spouse was taking
the New York Yankees outfielder to court for alimony. "Get a
job, bitch," advised Hacksaw.
In all fairness--maybe that's the word we're looking for--it
should be pointed out that Hacksaw is not just reckless and
vicious. He is hardworking and knowledgeable, too. But everyone
has an off day. It was Hacksaw who breathlessly reported two
years ago that Raiders running back Napoleon McCallum was about
to have his injured leg amputated. Either McCallum has been
fitted with a remarkably lifelike prosthesis or Hacksaw got some
If they boot the odd story, sports radio people don't sweat it.
With a few notable exceptions, they seek not so much to inform
as to entertain. Their mission is not so much to break news as
to break, uh, chops.
Ask poor Rich Kotite, a coach treated so brutally by WIP in
Philadelphia that when the New York Jets hired him in January
1995, he actually looked forward to dealing with the jackals of
the New York media. Shortly before Kotite was fired by the
Eagles in December 1994, WIP, smelling blood in the water,
played cuts from the fictitious album A Staten Island
Christmas--Kotite lives in that New York borough--including It's
Beginning to Look like Unemployment, sung to the tune of It's
Beginning to Look (a Lot) like Christmas.
"A lot of the teams in this city don't like us very much," says
former WIP producer Ian Booth. He is wrong. All the teams in
Philadelphia loathe the station, which panders to bottom-feeding
listeners. And to get to the bottom in Philly, you need a
nuclear submarine. The station rarely does interviews; it deals
almost exclusively in opinion, innuendo and rumor. "There's no
accountability," admits one staffer. "It's dangerous, it's
mean-spirited, it's almost a disgrace that it works."
"Yes, we are negative," says Al Morganti, a member of WIP's
highly successful four-person morning show. "It's Philadelphia.
People want negative. They want to boo." Morganti is a hockey
analyst for ESPN and a former sportswriter for The Philadelphia
Inquirer. Though he has broken stories for WIP, he admits that
when he is at the radio station, he is not a journalist. "I
check in, and I check my conscience at the door," he says.
Conscience, taste, ethics--they just get in the way of what WIP
does best, which is tear strips off its victims. As a follow-up
to a recent Philadelphia Daily News story that raised the
specter of racism in the Caucasian-intensive Phillies
organization, WIP released a duet: the supposed voices of
Phillies manager Jim Fregosi and senior vice president-general
manager Lee Thomas singing I'm Dreaming of a White Dugout.
Only slightly less carnivorous than WIP is Boston's WEEI, whose
"talent" devotes much of its energy to churning out savagely
funny sketches that skewer an assortment of local louts,
bullies, stuffed shirts and hypocrites. And Albert Belle. No one
has taken more abuse from WEEI than the Cleveland Indians
slugger, who in one sketch responded to trick-or-treaters, "F---
off, I got no candy!"
The reason the focus is on entertainment, rather than pure
sports, is that the hard-core sports junkies who actually call
WEEI make up a tiny percentage of its audience. Which is not to
say some of the callers are not very entertaining. "Butch from
the Cape is as good a caller as we get," says program director
Glenn Ordway. "He's well-prepared, concise and funny."
And thirsty. At 10:40 on a sun-splashed weekday morning in
Hyannis, Mass., Butch poses a question to our waitress: "Is the
bar open?" It is. He orders the first of six beers he will drain
over the next 2 1/2 hours, during which time he will define his
role at WEEI. "I see myself as a professional ballbuster," he
says. "I like to remind these guys that there is a whole network
of people out here who know as much as they do."
For 25 years Butch, who grew up in the New York City area, paid
the mortgage and fed his family by knowing more than the next
guy about sports. He was a professional gambler. "I spent 25
years in the volcano," he says. He has a wife of 31 years, and
they have three grown children, one of whom is a lawyer in
upstate New York. For this reason Butch would rather we not use
his last name. Butch retired six years ago to Cape Cod, off the
coast of which he can often be seen at the helm of his 28-foot
cabin cruiser listening, on headphones, to sports talk.
Actually, Butch doesn't listen so much as monitor, waiting for
someone to slip up or say something parochial. Nothing gets him
on the phone faster than hearing a WEEI host shill for a New
England team. Butch is an enthusiastic Roger Clemens basher.
"The guy's a crapshoot. You never know who you're gonna get:
Clemens or Bluto," Butch says of the Boston Red Sox pitcher. Nor
is Butch sold on New England Patriots coach Bill Parcells. "He's
not a New York guy--he's a Jersey guy," Butch says. "We used to
wait for guys like him to come over the bridge on Friday night."
Butch has a valuable ally in Ordway, who assumed his post in May
1995. Having inherited an ill-considered lineup of hosts who
dwelled too long on sports minutiae and spent too much time
taking calls, Ordway laid down new ground rules: more
irreverence, less nostalgia--"We don't do dead guys," he
says--and fewer calls.
That hasn't hurt Butch. He spreads his calls around. You hear
him every so often on WFAN, whose signal he pulls in "clear as a
bell" on the Cape. He's also a regular on The Fabulous Sports
Babe. Butch recently answered a reporter's phone call with a
question: "Can you call back in 10 minutes? I'm on the other
line with the Sports Babe."
The Babe's real name is Nanci Donnellan, and her syndicated show
can be heard on 215 stations, including KTIK in Boise, where one
of her avid listeners is Boise State defensive line coach and
recruiting coordinator Barry Sacks, with whom I shared a row on
that aforementioned flight from San Diego. "Butch from the
Cape?" Sacks said once we got talking. "You know Butch from the
Around the time Butch is ordering his fourth or fifth cold one,
we wonder whether he is a fan of Ferrall on the Bench host Scott
Ferrall, the guttural-sounding Generation X, Mothers Against
Drunk Driving whipping boy who dispenses information and
opinions at auctioneer speed and who, like Butch, enjoys an
Ferrall actually knows a ton about sports, but he manages to
obscure his expertise by giving the impression that he would
rather be talking about when he'll be getting his next buzz on.
Listeners' requests for a beer (or a "brewski," in
Ferrall-speak) are met with the sound of a beverage being poured.
After idly wondering last Friday if it could somehow be arranged
for the eye of Hurricane Fran to go over his sister's house,
Ferrall observed, apropos of nothing, "People don't like me."
True--they either love him or hate him. Earlier this year
Ferrall's show was thrown off both KNBR in San Francisco and
XTRA after on-air tirades concerning, respectively, scheduling
and the unavailability of UCLA basketball coach Jim Harrick for
an interview. Now, though, his show, broadcast out of Westwood
One studios in Los Angeles, is syndicated on 76 stations (having
gained 14 in the past six months), including WFAN. Station
managers cringe at his glorification of alcohol but love the
huge ratings he pulls from the 18-to-24 frat-boy set.
Butch is no frat boy. "I like how he pours everyone a beer,"
says Butch. "But I can't understand him. It sounds like he's
always clearing his throat."
Like Butch from the Cape, the Mayor of Poway is not monogamous
in his talk-radio relationships. Recently he called the Sports
Fan Radio Network in Las Vegas to scold ignoramuses who
underestimate the difficulty of golf; then he phoned XTRA to
offer condolences to Steve Hartman on the passing of Hartman's
former midafternoon partner, Chet Forte, who suffered a fatal
heart attack on May 18. The Mayor concluded his eulogy: "I don't
want to belabor Chet's memory, but I guess it's in his honor
that I bring it up, so I guess it's not a belabor."
Clearly moved, Adidas director of basketball and emergency Forte
replacement Sonny Vaccaro could only say, "That's super. That's
The Mayor's calls to XTRA and the Sports Fan Radio Network will
end up as mere footnotes to his storied calling career. David
Graham--he hails from Poway, Calif., but he is not actually its
mayor; he got the nickname from Rome in one of his first calls
to the show--has done his best work, slung his most memorable
smack, in the unforgiving confines of the Jungle.
"I've had 170 calls to the Jungle, and 16 Huge Calls," he says.
(At the end of each show Rome recognizes a Huge Call and a Huge
Fax of the day.) "I've got 'em all written down on pieces of
paper in a big box in my room in Poway," the Mayor says.
He is 47 and looks every week of it. "I was in and out of jail
for 10 years," he says. "Drugs, alcohol, failure to appear." But
the Mayor's life is no longer unmanageable. He lives with his
two sisters and other family members, and he has channeled his
compulsiveness into calling radio stations. Once, he started
phoning Rome's show, which in those days began at noon, at 11:57
a.m. and--hearing nothing but busy signals--hit the redial
button continually until 3:20 p.m., at which time he got a ring.
The phone then rang for 25 minutes. Finally, after a station
intern picked up, Joe Tutino, the Jungle's executive producer at
the time, told her to tell the Mayor, "Call back tomorrow."
"That's my worst performance ever, in terms of being
compulsive," says Graham.
His extreme behavior extends to other realms. Following a period
of promiscuity in which he "chased everything in sight," the
Mayor says, he took a vow of celibacy in 1985. He now earns his
keep by working for his sister around the house and helping out
at a friend's driving range. (The Mayor says he is a golf pro
who washed out of PGA Tour qualifying school in 1978.)
The Mayor's decision to become a permanent bachelor has enabled
him to improve at his real job, which is getting on the air with
Rome and holding his own. It's not easy: Over the years Rome has
dumped him six times. But calling Rome and holding his own is a
job the Mayor can do better than all but a handful of people.
"I'm proud that I've been able to make a name for myself," he
says. "When I call with a real solid take, it's like, Hey, I
might just have an insight that's pretty damn right on."
The Mayor seems to be an easy target. Once you've taken your
shots at him, though, you're left with the fact that sports talk
radio has given him a small measure of dignity. How do you make
fun of that?
To meet the Mayor and Rome on successive days is to notice a
rough parallel: Both are recovering nicely from self-inflicted
wounds. Here is Rome justifying his ungentle manner with certain
callers. "I don't ask them to do anything I don't do myself," he
says. "If I'm having a bad day, they say, 'Romey, the show
sucks.' And they're not saying they suck."
Few people have entered broadcasting as prepared as this
smart-ass kid from the San Fernando Valley. In three years at UC
Santa Barbara (from which he graduated in 1986 with a
communications degree) he did seven radio internships. The
question that kept the undergraduate Rome awake nights was, How
am I going to get from Santa Barbara--market No. 174--to Los
Angeles? His conclusion: "I've gotta have more balls. I've gotta
ask the questions the other hosts won't ask. I need to have a
take, and I can't suck."
After 3 1/2 years at KTMS in Santa Barbara, Rome was hired at
XTRA in December 1990. "Most young talk-show hosts are afraid to
be too opinionated," says XTRA vice president of programming
Howard Freedman. "Romey was never concerned about ticking people
off." One afternoon Rome noticed that his callers were "really
tearing into each other," he says. Approvingly, he remarked, "If
you don't have it, you get eaten alive today--it's a jungle out
there." The name stuck.
The Jungle quickly achieved cult status. Like CB-radio buffs,
the Clones (so named because of their idolatrous imitation of
Rome's style) got off on the show's insider argot. The Jungle
glossary runs to 200 terms; they include Clank-Fu, smack, bugaha
(Omaha), cheating 'Diques (the Colorado Avalanche, formerly the
Quebec Nordiques), 'nad (gonad) and whack (dumb, taken from the
first line of a song from O'Neal's film Kazaam). The list is
maintained by a Clone on a Web site. But just knowing the
"gloss"--Jungle jargon for, well, the terms of Jungle
jargon--doesn't mean you're worth listening to, says Jeffrey
DiTolla. "Some of the Clones substitute gloss for analysis," he
says. (Jeffrey is a lawyer; his brother, Mike, is a dentist. It
is possible the DiTollas have more education than the rest of
the Clones combined.)
The gloss, combined with Rome's proficiency at flinging smack
and his insistence that callers actually give some thought to
what they say, lent the Jungle a hip, youthful edge. Athletes
liked it and wanted to come on the air. (And plenty of athletes
heard it. While the Federal Communications Commission limits
U.S. stations to 50,000 watts, XTRA's 77,000-watt blowtorch
signal, transmitted from a cliff outside Tijuana, Mexico,
blankets Southern California.)
Guests who swing into the Jungle and sling interesting smack are
rewarded: Their spicier remarks are "reset"--replayed on the
next day's show, after which Rome invariably says, "If you
missed that, you missed a great Jungle moment."
The quintessential moment of Rome's career occurred, ironically,
outside the Jungle. In April 1994 Jim Everett, the quarterback
who had just been traded from the Los Angeles Rams to the New
Orleans Saints, agreed to go on Rome's ESPN2 show, Talk2.
Everett had a reputation for softness, a rap the ambitious Rome
was eager to discuss with him. Rome baited Everett, thrice
calling him "Chris," after tennis player Chris Evert. Finally
the quarterback flipped a table, knocking Rome off his chair and
providing the young host with the national renown he had coveted.
Public opinion swung heavily in Everett's favor. Rome was cast,
with some justification, as an irresponsible,
do-anything-for-a-ratings-point villain. He taped a Los Angeles
Times clipping headlined IS THIS THE END OF ROME'S EMPIRE? to
the mirror in his bathroom. A year later, when it was clear he
had survived, he took the clipping down and "had a little
burning ceremony." In June, Rome signed a new multiyear deal
with Premiere Radio Networks, the Jungle's syndicator.
On the air he remains cruel. Last year the Mayor signed off on a
call with the sports talk equivalent of a pat on the butt,
growling, "I love ya, Romey." Rome's rejoinder--"You're not
going to ask me for a date or anything, are you?"--hurt the
Mayor. The next time he saw the host, at a Clonefest in a
Torrance, Calif., sports bar, he let Rome know how upset he was.
Rome approached the Mayor a few minutes later. What happened
next captures perfectly the caller-host relationship. Beaming,
the Mayor recalls the moment. "He says, 'You know I love you,
Dave.' And I said, 'I love you too, Romey.'"
If you missed that, you missed a great Jungle moment.