Jim Rome takes one of his trademark pronounced pauses, measuring a way to make sure the server at the high-end Costa Mesa restaurant doesn’t take offense to what he is about to say as the ahi salad is set in front of him.
“I think the phrase I’m looking for here is … this pisses me off,” the 53-year-old sports-talk show host says.
The server doesn’t flinch.
For Rome, this is a major off-the-menu issue — the most noticeable dent in the latest incarnation of his media infrastructure. It’s the fact that, again, there is no easy way in Los Angeles to find his nationally syndicated CBS Radio show.
By every measure of today’s smack-talk consumer landscape, Rome’s show is more ubiquitous now than ever in its 22 years of syndication. About 200 markets carry it, accounting for more than 2 million listeners each weekday from 9 a.m. to noon. That’s when Rome grinds it out, solo, from a new TV studio home base near South Coast Plaza. It’s the evolution of a simulcast carried, since the first of the year, over CBS Sports Network, a cable TV channel that reaches some 70 million homes. Including many in L.A.
Anyone with a knack for uploading a variety of phone and computer apps, or who has access to Sirius XM Radio channel 206, or either a major satellite dish carrier or local cable system, can find it.
But since Rome left the Fox Radio Network for a multi-level CBS deal in 2013, his show became unplugged from KLAC-AM (570) and had only a short return to L.A. at KFWB-AM (980), the former all-news giant that went into limbo with an all-sports format, aka “The Beast.” It picked up Rome in August 2014, until the station was sold and reformatted in March 2016.
“I’m a Los Angeles native, I live in Southern California, this is my backyard. I’ve been in this market; I need to be in this market,” says Rome, who grew up in Calabasas and lives in Irvine with his wife and two sons.
Actually, he kind of is in the L.A. radio market. KCBS-FM (93.1), aka Jack FM, has an alternative HD channel that carries the CBS Sports Radio Network. It’s a service available on most newer car radios. Many people aren’t even aware they have free access to it unless they stumble upon it pushing buttons on the dashboard.
“It’s not as perfect as a straight AM or FM, but it’s there,” said Mark Chernoff, the CBS Radio vice president of programming who is also the program director of WFAN in New York.
Chernoff said the network uses L.A.-based Westwood One as a syndicating partner, but “L.A. has always been a tough sports market. It’s not that we’re not interested, but you have to find a station that, if not all sports, is close enough in inventory to get the target audience. We’d love to have him all the way in L.A., but we’re trying our best.”
If there remains a disconnect between the new show and a larger local audience, it rang true to Rome at the 24th incarnation of “The Smackoff” last month. For the first time, it had a TV presence. His show’s most famous callers — Brad from Corona, Leff in Laguna, Vic in NoCal, even Mike from Indy who came out of retirement — had some visuals to augment their trash-talk routine.
The reach for this year’s field included former Rome talent booker and call screener Jason Stewart, now an executive producer at KLAC and IHeartMedia in L.A. Yahoo Sports writer and author Jeff Passan dropped in with a bad cell connection. MMA star Chael Sonnen tried to wrestle away the title.
At one point, Rome said he noticed a photo come up of Terrance from Sierra Madre.
“I thought he was dead, because he never calls the show anymore,” Rome recalls. “I’ve asked him, ‘Where have you been?’ He says, ‘No, Rome, you got taken off the air and that was that.’ It just reminds me … some guys simply can’t find the show because they only listen on radio, in Southern California. It’s crazy.
“I could be walking down the street and someone yells, ‘Rome! What’s going on? You still doing this?’ Am I still doing this? I’m busting my ass. I’ve never been working harder at this.”
San Diego’s KWFN-FM (97.3), aka “The Fan,” is the only SoCal radio presence, but its 50,000-watt signal doesn’t skip very far up the coast. San Diego was the original radio home base for the UC Santa Barbara grad some 30 years ago, relegated to weekends at the landmark XTRA-AM (690). Back then, Rome wasn’t sure he’d last long. He heard it from the station owner for having the audacity to call people “blockheads” if they didn’t meet his standards.
The essence of the show hasn’t changed much. A formula endures with Rome’s commentary, newsworthy interviews, and snarky callers using his glossary. It’s been enough to spawn a recent listener-generated campaign to get him elected to the National Radio Hall of Fame.
These days, tweets replace faxes. Sons and daughters of clones are now upping their games. Additional podcasts augment the regular content at jimrome.com.
“For the longest time, I said I wasn’t doing a TV simulcast,” he says. “There was a mystique to the radio show. But the world changed, and they demand access, so I can’t be the only guy who won’t do it. We throw on the TV switch, and suddenly we’re in new markets we weren’t on for the radio show — Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, New York.”
“We are getting new callers,” Rome says. “The show regenerates. Some who lost it have found it again. We’re at a time when there are cutbacks, layoffs, reductions. It’s tougher and tougher to survive, much less thrive. CBS has made me still feel relevant. But some stations are hesitant about taking syndicated shows. They want local, local, local. I think I have more to offer.
“I’m at the point where I want to make sure I’m still putting in a certain amount of reinvention. I’m proud of the fact I’m still a stand-alone, single host. And the show, for better or worse, it’s still whether you like me or hate me.
“I know one day they’ll come to me and say, ‘Hey, old man, I don’t give a bleep about what you have to say anymore.’ But I know I’m doing everything I can to keep them at bay.”