Sunday, June 11, 2000

Sports On TV-Radio

CloneFest proves Rome rules airwaves

By John Fay
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        CUYAHOGA FALLS, Ohio -- If there was any question whether Jim Rome was the King of Sports TV/Radio, it was answered on sunny, hot afternoon at Blossom Music Center here.

        Rome's Clones, about 20,000 of them, showed up to see Rome Saturday. Which is to say they came to see him talk a little smack, do a few gags and, well, just be Rome. The Tour Stop comes with all the trapping of rock concert. There were huge video screens with highlights. There was a fairly elaborate set. And there was a monster sound system.

        There are bands that have been on the cover of Rolling Stone and have platinum albums that would have killed to play to a crowd like the one at Blossom.

        CloneFest was free. But how do you explain thousands of people showing up to see a talk show host?

        Rome can't.

        “When I started doing these I'd be happy if five or seven people showed up,” Rome said. “Then when I got 200 and filled a bar, I thought I had arrived.”

        “Now I look out there and see all those and think, "They're here to see Radio Guy. What's up with that?' It's surreal.”

        Tour Stops are a celebration of Jungle life. The Jungle is Rome's syndicated talk show. It's heard from noon to 3 p.m. each day on HOMER (WCKY 1360 AM). Rome gets the best rating on HOMER, but he doesn't rule Cincinnati like he does Cleveland. He drew 13,000 to Convocation Center at Cleveland State at a 1999 Tour Stop.

        “That was one of the best days of my career,” Rome said. “No, I should say one of the best days of my life. To have 13,000 people there, it was just an unbelievable feeling to walk out there.”

        Saturday topped that.

        Rome brought out guests. Chris Spielman of football fame. Jared Wright and Steve Karsay of the Indians. Carmen Policy of the Browns. Denny Neagle and Rob Bell of the Reds.

        Neagle was the best guest by far. He did his train whistle. Told a great joke. And he told the Clones he'd be playing for the Indians when his contract is up. (We'll see if he was playing to crowd or letting out a secret in 2001).

        But the show was Rome's. He ran smack usual, and the Clones cheered like they would if Mick Jagger was singing Satisfaction.

        The Clones love Rome. They speak Rome gloss. They wear Rome gear. They live their lives around his radio show.

        Rome, 35, is the talker of young and hip set. His Los Angeles-based show is fast-paced and lively. There's plenty of talk about serious issues. Rome also pulls some of the best interviews. While other talkers rely on writers and announcers that cover teams, Rome gets players, coaches and general managers.

        But the biggest part, and probably the biggest lure of Rome's show, is inside stuff. Rome's gloss. The talk about Orenthal (aka O.J. Simpson).

        The inside stuff may be the reason the Clones identify so strongly with Rome.

        The Rome Phenomenon is growing. He is in 150 markets now. Four years ago, he started the syndicated show with 16 stations. He's thrived recently, despite competition from ESPN. The Worldwide Leader in Sports put its No. 1 talent, Dan Patrick, head-to-head with Rome. ESPN has been able to get into a lot of markets. Patrick and co-host Rob Dibble get great guests. But it's sort of like David Letterman and Jay Leno: Leno gets the great guests, but Letterman's show is always funnier.

        Rome says he doesn't concern himself with competition.

        “I can't speak to that,” he said. “The reason is I don't compare myself to other talk show hosts. I just try to do the best show I can. If we do that, we'll be successful.”

        Rome recently signed contract extensions with Premiere, his radio show syndicator, and Fox Sports Net, for which he does The Last Word.

        The Last Word, which tweaked its format to become the Nightline of sports, is one of FSN's hottest properties.

        Going to TV full-time is an option.

        “I can't see me doing both forever,” he said.


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