Have a Take and Don't Suck: Inside the Twisted Minds of Jim Rome's Call-In Empire

Kyle Koster
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The hot-take artist is a relatively new species in the sports media landscape. Long before it roamed the Earth, there was only a single living organism capable of surviving in such sweltering conditions. It was born in the jungle and survived by going all Lord of the Flies in a battle for the father of all smack's approval. Only the fittest survived and flourished. Primitive clones built a civilization out of trash talk and meritocracy.

Over 25 years, the world has had access to the mind of the Jim Rome caller. And it's a been a wild ride as the Hall-of-Fame radio host has built an empire that embraces conversation over monologue. What follows is an attempt to study it from a safe distance by speaking to those closest to the action with the 26th edition of the annual Smackoff looming on Friday. The contest has seen it all through the years, including appearances from Jim Harbaugh, Chael Sonnen, Jeff Passan, and Tom Tolbert.

Nearly a dozen current and past show staffers and elite callers spoke to me about the Rome phone lines, including:

Adam Hawk, current executive producer of The Jim Rome Show

Jason Stewart, former 14-year talent booker and call screener at The Jim Rome Show

J.T. The Brick, winner of inaugural Smackoff in 1995, current host of eponymous show on Mad Dog Sports Radio

Kyle Brandt, former executive producer of The Jim Rome Show, currently on NFL Network's Good Morning Football

Steve in H-Town, show historian and creator of fan site StuckNut

Brad in Corona, five-time Smackoff champion, going for a threepeat

Sean Pendergast, five-time Smackoff champion, current host of Payne & Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 in Houston

Alvin Delloro, current 15-year board operator of The Jim Rome Show

Leff in Laguna, two-time Smackoff winner

Mark in Hollywood, 2013 Smackoff winner

Adam Hawk: To be a good Jim Rome caller you need to do the opposite of what makes a bad sports radio caller. We already have a guy who is good at hosting a sports talk radio show. We don't need anyone in the United States to try to do what he's doing from their car on a cell phone.

Jason Stewart: You need to come with something that makes the show better. You need to come with something that has a distinct opinion and take. Within the first 30 seconds of listening to somebody who is new and calls the show, I could determine right away if they are aware enough of what’s good.

The essence of a good caller is kind of having this self-awareness. Be confident but at the same time be self-aware. If you call up and you’re just spouting out something that shows you obviously have no barometer for what a good call is, then I instantly have to dismiss you. It has to be consistent with the show, which is, as you know, there’s a lot of inside jokes. It’s based in smack. It’s not a show where callers get through and ask Jim what he thinks about the Nationals this year.

Brad in Corona: Confidence. You can't be afraid. Apart from that, you can do anything. You can talk about sports, you can talk about the show. You can talk about whatever.

Steve in H-Town: First would be unique delivery. You have to set yourself apart form the other callers. Good smack. That's always good to get you a little further. The best of the best will go through an entire call without you knowing that they're reading a script.

JT the Brick: It has to be original. It has to be high-energy and it has to be delivered close to perfect. It's a performance. It has to be done to the best of your ability. It can't be 80 percent, 70 percent. It has to be the perfect storm.

It can't be popping all over the place. It needs a flow. The best calls on the Rome show have a beginning, middle, and an end. The beginning gets your attention. The middle is where it's flowing and you're getting all the information, and the ending makes it memorable. If you don't have a good wrap, you don't have it.

Sean Pendergast: My main thing was to keep it short. I never wanted the buzzer dropped on me. I had to get in and out in 2 or 2.5 minutes. His show is have a take, don't suck. That's a lot of latitude.

Kyle Brandt: This is the biggest factor, and it's not a sexy one, and it's not the fun one but I swear as someone who has helped judge many [Smackoffs], it's time. Brevity is wit. It kills me when they have good content but can't cut out their average stuff. I've heard a couple hundred Smackoff calls and there hasn't been one where I thought, "Man, that was too short. You should have kept going." No one has never lost because it was too short. I wish I could tell them that.

These guys think, "Oh no, that's not the high note. I'm getting to the high note." No, you're not. That was the high note. It got the big laugh, it absolutely crushed and you still have two pages left on your script. Do you know how good you have to be to talk non-stop on the radio for 5.5 minutes in a competitive format? If those guys were that good, they'd have their own shows and they'd be huge.

Alvin Delloro: One of the most important things, especially in a Smackoff call, is editing. If you have five minutes of material and you think it's gold, there's a good chance that's too long. You need someone to check you and help you get down to something tight.

Leff in Laguna: I think it's balance. There's three good things I always look at it in a call. One of them is sports takes, which have seemed to go out the window in past years and this year it will be interesting with the stoppages. Really good smack on the other callers and then rebuttal stuff, making jokes on something said earlier in the show.

Mark in Hollywood: You have to have a rapid energy but you have to talk slow, which is an oxymoron. The second thing you have to do is be funny during that whole time and you have to have a good point. What I like is when people are making a point but they are filling their time with humor. They're turning phrases to drive it home harder.

There are three types of calls. For the introductory call, you want a tight two minutes with big, high energy but be composed enough that he can understand you. The regular-season call when you're talking about sports with a take, and then the crackback call where if someone takes a shot at you during the season, you want to get in the next day. Then the Smackoff call, which is the granddaddy of them all. Four minutes, high-energy, keep those turn of phrases going. Don't spread yourself too thin trying to go after everyone. Have four targets in your head. That's what the Jim Rome calls are.

Alvin Delloro: No. 1: Clean line. No. 2: Clean line. No. 3: Clean line. You have no idea. That is the biggest thing. I can't stress that enough. We've had callers who are really good and it's staticky and terrible. A bad connection is Armageddon. There's no content if you can't hear it.

If you can't hear it the first time, there's no playback later on. And you have to understand, when people are listening they don't have the fancy headphones and speakers. If I can barely make things out, everyone else is shit out of luck.

The good callers know what to do. They don't bother with pleasantries, they get right to the point. Set it up, knock it down. Set it up, knock it down.

Jason Stewart: I was a caller at one point. So I know the nerves that exist when you go on a platform like Jim Rome. You need to have the confidence, the self-awareness, and the ability to perform once you hear that one distinct sound of you being live with Jim on the air.

Establish the run

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. But for wannabe Rome callers, it's a major one fraught with difficulty. How does someone manage to break through and get noticed in a crowded and talented field? Is there a magic bullet for becoming a recurring character? Even the legends suffered from some fits and starts.

Adam Hawk: The hardest part is the establishing-yourself call. You're trying to be a somebody but you have no credibility. You have to do something so compelling that people want to hear from you a second time. You also have to draw attention of well-known callers. The best thing that can happen to a new caller is that an established caller will bring them into it by mentioning their name.

Leff in Laguna: The first time I called was 2013 and J-Stew was answering the phones. I had been listening for five years but hadn't called. I had friends who listened who egged me on and I kind of did it as a joke. J-Stew answered the phone and asked my name and I said Leff because I didn't want to use my real name. He said, "Leff, that's not a real name" and hung up on me. I figured that was it for my calling career. It took me a long time to call in again.

Alvin Delloro: Very rarely does a call change too much from the beginning. Some can shake off the nerves but most don't. What will happen is a lot of new callers come on and think it's a piece of cake. Then they vomit on themselves.

Mark in Hollywood: I thought it was the kind of thing where people called in and left voicemails the night before. I didn't realize until I heard my first Smackoff that the callers were live. It took me until 2012 to get the courage to call.

I love sports, I love humor. But really, the motivation for me, my dad passed away in 2011. He loved Jim Rome and we used to listen together. My dad told me to call years ago but I didn't want to. There's something about crossing over and stepping into the ring. I didn't want to be one of those guys because someone would make fun of you and you'd be listening at the gym one day and your name will come up and it'd be jarring. I just wanted to be a listener. When he passed away, I finally took his advice.

When I first called in I spent the whole night before preparing because you don't get any leeway, you don't get any trust. Jim will run you if you go on too long, even if you're good. If you're too short you won't make an impression. I went on StuckNut, which is the archive of all the show calls, and I listened to a few known guys. I got a good time frame and an arc for what the best ones do. I combined it. Theirs were three minutes, so I'll make mine two minutes and talk about something topical, talk about Jim Rome's crew and insult them and talk about why I'd be good on the Smackoff. Then I broke down the sentences. If X was my subject and Y my predicate, I need to take a detour to get there and it needs to be really funny.

Brad in Corona: When I first called the show it was 2008, I was watching the NBA Finals and looking at Doc Rivers sweat. Noticeable, to the point where you were distracted. My buddy said I should call Rome with it. It's funny, no other radio show would take that call. I called in and the screener hung up on me. I called back an hour later and made it through.

Kyle Brandt: The guy who's been reigning for a long time -- Brad in Corona -- the first time he called it was like Ken Griffey Jr. at the plate. He was a natural. He came on and was so calm and articulate. And I'll never forget, he had a line that had to do with the Phil Jackson Lakers and circumcision. It was so funny and so gross and so inappropriate and Rome ran him. But it was one of those things where the whole staff was falling off our chairs laughing wondering who the hell this guy was.

During my early years there was a real boom of getting young premier talent in callers. It was like us getting our Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes. I feel like I was there for some really iconic callers and their emergence.

Jason Stewart: I was in college so the Jim Rome Show was such a big deal to me. He had a four-hour show and you could be sitting for three hours on hold. Every time I would call I was prepared to be on hold for as long as he'd have me on hold. I remember literally missing lectures in college to stay on hold to get my take out. That's how dumb I was and how passionate I was because I went to college to be the next Howard Stern, the next Jim Rome after they told me I wouldn't be the next Vin Scully.

My style at the time was just over-the-top brash college kid who has zero humility. I would call and brag about myself, brag about my teams. I would take pot shots at other callers. I fit the formula that still works. If you were to go back and listen to my old calls it'd be laughable. I used to record them on old cassette tapes and then I made a super-best-of tape. I had that cassette forever and I would listen to it while going to bed.

Sean Pendergast: This is how big of a radio nerd I am. I used to record my show on cassette tapes and I'd play my calls for my brother. He'd come into town and we'd sit and listen to my Jim Rome calls. That's how dorky and narcissistic I was.

Back in the day his website had a glossary on it with all the Jungle terms. I remember listening to the show the first couple of weeks and wondering what gloss meant. A guy glossed himself, well, what does that mean? It meant he'd given himself a nickname. So he had all the terms and what they mean. The show speaks its own language. It was even more that way back then. I went there and it was a mini Rosetta Stone to study.

His style was so different than anything that was on here in Houston. I remember he had a page devoted just to callers. They called them Jungle Legends. I thought it was cool that he made callers a central part of the show and that they became characters.

JT the Brick: We all cared what he thought. We all knew how good he was at coming up with this new genre in sports radio with Smack Talk. I always called initially because I disagreed and had my own New York-based opinions and he wasn't a New York guy. I liked the show and enjoyed the entertainment factor. I never called in to agree with the host, I called in to give my opinion. I thought my voice and my opinion on these topics needed to be heard because I didn't hear them from other people.

He let me riff. He let me fly. I took a portion of that to my career. I was on four hours today for Mad Dog SiriusXM and talked to about 15 callers. They're all different. Jim wanted people to get to the entertainment value of their phone call which distinguishes him to this day because there are so many bad calls on sports radio platforms now where the same caller will call into the same show with zero entertainment value. It's actually boring but they think they are making a difference.

Jason Stewart: Having strong takes about sports is one aspect. But with the Jim Rome Show, a lot of the fodder are the other callers. Or, in my case, members of the staff. In 14 years, I took a lot of crap on the air. If you were to call me and be like, "I want to talk about this sport and this is my take on it," and you’re confident and you’ve got your stuff down, and then you’re like, "You know what, I got some stuff for Brad in Corona, too. And this is it." That tells me that you’re completely locked in, you’re aware, and I can trust you, at least, for a first-time caller.

Brad in Corona: Don't call the show about LeBron James if you're trying to make a name for yourself. That's just not how it's done. What you want to do is find a guy to target. You get your material together and it has to be straight heat. Wait for him to call into the show and then you dial in. It can't be out of nowhere, it has to be timely. It's like the UFC or boxing, you can't just start at the top. You need to start at the lower level and work your way up.

Alvin Delloro: Some people are born with incredible radio voices. They have tons of confidence and command the room by saying crazy stuff. We've heard the same smack over and over. If someone comes on and is different, we can tell. I've heard everything. The screamer. The guy who's calm. The fast-talker. The-slow talker. I'm not saying you can't do any of those things, it's just that some people stick out.

Only the strong survive

It takes thick skin and brass balls to speak into the abyss and create something. There's an eerie silence on the other end when callers find themselves on-air, operating on a razor-thin margin and trying not to look down.

Sean Pendergast: Being on the air is like being on the trapeze with no net and a blindfold on. When you call other radio shows it's like you're applying to a community college. When you call Rome it's like you're applying to an Ivy League school. For every one that gets through, my guess is there are dozens that get discarded. I stopped having to do that, but for the first several times I called I basically had to roll through what my call was going to be with the screener before being put on hold. Then, once you're on hold, there's no guarantee you'll get on the air. That's Jim's intelligence in the whole thing. He's never going to cede control of the show to someone that's going to bring things down.

Mark in Hollywood: Sometimes you can't tell if a call is going well. You feel like you know what you got when you can hear him laughing. When you don't hear anything and then you hear the buzzer it hits hard.

Sean Pendergast: You hear comedians talk about being able to see people and interact. In radio, I have a cohost and I can see him reacting to what I'm saying or I am getting texts about it. You're getting validation one way or another. The only validation on Rome is a buzzer in your ear. That's the most nerve-wracking to me. You don't know how it's registering.

You never know when you're practicing but in the midst of doing it you deliver a joke or a take and it feels really good. And occasionally you'll hear Jim snicker a little bit. If you pause you hear a little something. That's like a B12 shot. Then you're really cooking. Ninety-nine percent of the time you don't get a reaction but when you do it's a big boost.

Jason Stewart: Over those 14 years, I got less patient with the callers who did not meet the standard. I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to hear before I would even let you be on the show. I was the tyrant. I wasn’t just going to let anybody get through. If you’ve listened to Jim Rome enough, the call screener gets crap from him if a bad call gets on the air. So you never want to compromise your job situation based on the idiocy of a radio caller, which, in my 25 years of experience, the radio caller is about as unpredictable and as completely chaotic an experience as you can experience. I would never put my life or my job on a sports radio caller.

One thing I've always respected about Jim is that he's always held the callers' feet to the fire. He still scrutinizes the callers for not making his show better. The way that talk radio has evolved is that shows that do take calls are very deferential to their callers. You'll hear stuff like, "Hey thanks for listening, thanks for contributing, thanks for calling in." You hear the desperation in their voice that he might be a meter and count toward their ratings. Jim has never given a crap about that. If he needs to make fun of a caller or be real hard, not only does it make for good content, it sets up a standard people need to reach when they call.

I think Jim was way ahead on this, he said, "If you’re not going to contribute to the show in a positive way, I don’t want you to call." He said on the air many times and I used to tell callers who I wasn’t going to let on the air: It’s okay to just be a listener. It’s okay.

Mark in Hollywood: The very nature of the show is that if you start calling regularly, you're going to get a lot of hate. It takes about three calls. If you're good, everyone will be on your side. Then the tide turns no matter who you are, no matter how many Smackoffs you have, it happens. People start calling and making fun of you. They'll get in your Twitter. I'm a writer and an actor so they love to say I'm an extra and I don't get any work or I have a big forehead.

You can't respond to everyone. If someone does make an impression and gets a really good call against you, the idea is to respond the very next day or later on in the same show. You take that night, get a good script going and then really come back hard.

Leff in Laguna: I don't think I was the best caller at the beginning but I think he liked me and saw I could get better. He gave me the rope and leash. Going back and listening to old calls is a bit cringeworthy but he sees who can be good. There's a lot of random callers who I hear and think are just great and Jim doesn't acklowledge it. But Jim has a great ear, he did the same thing with Rick in Buffalo that he did with me the first couple calls, pumping it up. He ended up being right there, too.

I had a longer honeymoon than some guys. I did the helicopter thing in 2015 and people were still really positive. That was a year into calling. Then 2016-17, when I won, it was positive. In 2018 was the first time I noticed where I was getting more negative mentions. It used to be a few but then it was 50-50. That seems to very much be the life cycle. Brad had that too where people couldn't stand him. They didn't like his voice and impressions. Now he's on Twitter interacting with people and they seem to like him.

Brad in Corona: I think if you listen to what is being said on Friday, none of it is really personal. We're volunteering for it. You have to have a good sense of humor about yourself. One of those things that Leff started in on a couple years ago, I had sent pictures in and there were powerlines in the background and people just went off on it. Pretty much every time I tweet out a photo of myself now I try to get power lines in it to lean into it.

Jason Stewart: If you think about it, the sports talk radio caller is a certain kind of person. I think there’s a lot of narcissism in there. "I am such a narcissist that I need to make sure people listening to the show hears what I have to say about it." In other words, this is all about me when I get on the air. Jim was like, "No, it’s the opposite." When you get on the air, it’s about this show. If you can’t make the show better, then just don’t call.

Adam Hawk: You know it when you hear it. You know it when someone knows what they want to say before they're going on the air. The worst caller is one who says they're just going to wing it. When you pick up the phone and someone says, 'I'm going to call this person that and say this about that person" and you feel a different voice, cadence and approach, that's a good sign.

Failure's not flattering

Best-laid plans tend to go off track. When people crash and burn on Rome, there's an army of Neros lining up to play their fiddles.

Brad in Corona: Calling in is low-reward, high-risk. The show is actually better when people fail and there's a pile-on. They become show fodder for the rest of their lives. It's difficult to overcome that if it happens to you.

Jason Stewart: There have been some calls, that ruination on the air have become iconic moments on the show. There’s a guy named Matt in Cleveland, you can probably Google the call, I think he’s only called once. The time he called, he was obviously good enough to get by me. But he went on the air and you could tell he jotted down words and he’s like, "I'm just going to riff when I get on the air." He goes on the air, he says a couple of words, and he starts hyperventilating. You can hear him losing his ability to breathe on the air. Then, of course, Jim dropped the buzzer on him. We legitimately thought the guy had died. He never called back. 

Jim has a little bit of forgiveness for the fact that people are nervous. So he kind of gives the screener a bit of a break. Here's the exception: if a guy goes on and I vouched for him and his takes and delivery suck.

Steve in H-Town: My favorite calls will be when someone's reading a script and it's very obvious they are and they'll mess up and pick back up on that line again. They'll go back to it and Rome will run them. It's the funniest thing ever because one of the rules of the show is that you're not supposed to have a script. Rome will act like the audio went out and ask them to start over and they'll do it line for line.

Sean Pendergast: He's at his funniest when he cuts them off and starts making fun of them. It's like those episodes of American Idol where they have William (Hung) on there and you laugh at the whole thing.

Adam Hawk: Jim does always say give me an A or give me an F. Give me the best thing I've ever heard in my life or give me the worst thing I've ever heard because they're both going to be awesome. The worst thing to do is to give me a C, something that's mediocre and boring.

Their No. 1 job is to be entertaining. It doesn't matter if you're smart, just be entertaining. People who have it, have it. Hundreds of people call the show and there are like five people I want to hear from.

Kyle Brandt: It's a very select group that gets through. They're the Charlie Buckets, Augustus Gloops, Veruca Salts. There's a lot of kids who want Golden Tickets but they don't get them.

Some of the most iconic calls in the history of that show are the ones where people can't make words and it's a barrel fire. Then the callers spend the next hours riffing on that. The bad calls were so funny that for three straight years we had the Hackoff. That was the idiot brother of the Smackoff, the 10 worst callers of the year in a slapfight for the best call. That speaks to the idea that they are so funny they could create their own event.

The Smackoff

The Smackoff is one-of-a-kind. A radio original. A year's worth of hubris and creativity jammed into three hours. Only one can emerge from the arena victorious.

Adam Hawk: The Smackoff call is the most important call. You have to bring three to five minutes of your best material and absolutely fucking nail it. We wouldn't say it's the Super Bowl of our show. We'd say it's the Super Bowl of sports talk radio. To have something that's been on for 26 straight years hosted by a Hall of Fame radio host going back to 1995, won by JT the Brick, it trends on Twitter nationwide. It feels like a really big deal. It is something you will see and hear from people you don't hear from much. It's the last great event radio.

JT the Brick: I made my initial Smackoff call on April 14, 1995. It was Good Friday and the stock market was closed. I made it in my empty building. In an office environment. I left my buddies at home, I knew I had to focus in a work environment to prep for the call and make sure it was the best it could be. I came up with the general concept a week before. Then I jotted down some notes I wanted to talk about on the call. Then I worked out the pace and speed of it.

For me, it was an epic performance because I couldn't have performed any better if I made that call 100 times. My call was the equivalent of six or seven rants and thoughts put into one call. I went into the call knowing I would win. There wasn't a doubt in my mind. There were great callers in that field. A bunch of guys who had been involved in the show for a while. I knew it was over, that I'd won as soon as I hung up. There were callers who didn't call in after me because they knew they couldn't beat me.

If I don't win the Smackoff I don't meet my wife at a Rolling Stones concert in Vegas because I'm not doing sports radio in Vegas and I don't have my two sons, I don't get hired by the Raiders and have a two-decade career there. I wouldn't have the experiences I had. I think it was fate, there was something guiding me big picture. A lot of things happened, man. You want to talk about a Smackoff that matters, it ended up launching my career. It ended up having me mentor a lot of radio hosts. It's put me in a position now where I can pass on a lot of knowledge to people who want to be in the business.

Leff from Laguna: [Winning Smackoff] was really cool, especially the first one in 2016. I'm a diehard Miami Dolphins fan and I think I remember saying I wouldn't trade this for a Super Bowl.

I had two days to prepare. I got a Golden Ticket the Wednesday before the Smackoff and I had to feverishly write something on the fly. I was new to it and it was hard. As the years have gone on I've done this a half-dozen times and I have a Notes App in my phone, almost what I've seen comedians do for their material. And if I think of something funny when out running, I jot it down. The week or two before I'll go through all the notes and start to formulate and organize. It makes that 24-hour cramming period that much easier.

Brad in Corona: I really never intended to call more than just that once. If Rome had just said, "Thanks for the call" after my first time, I would have gone on with everyday life and not done it again. But it felt like there was a good-sized reaction afterward.

I don't think I even thought about calling for like six months then someone emailed in talking about my call. It is interesting to think I could have stopped calling all together versus what it's become for me now.

There's a ton of pressure to deliver. It's all delivery. Any comedian, any performer, any caller you look at what they're saying on a piece of paper and it's not funny. The way they say it is what makes it work.

Leff in Laguna: What's really interesting is that I am less nervous for Smackoff calls than regular calls. I can say that for certain and I don't know why. Those calls are typically longer. You're on an island, you don't want to say it wrong. You'll get out of breath if you're talking too long. Your cadence needs to be on for five minutes.

More attention is paid to a Smackoff call. Your preparation is better and more intense. I get less nervous by a pretty wide margin. A regular call, if I haven't called in awhile, I realize it. There may be some rust to knock off. There's some nerves to it. Maybe because the RSVP call and in weeks leading up to Smackoff you get some reps. The same is true of the 2016 call where I finished it at Jim's microphone. I was more nervous at the beginning of it than when I was in studio.

Steve in H-Town: The gimmicks have really increased over the last 10 years. There's what Leff did. Mike in Indy and Chael Sonnen teamed up for a call to win. No one ever thought about doing a tandem call before that.

Kyle Brandt: I remember back in 2008 if you did a decent Jeopardy bit you could win. Now you'd have to show up with the actual Alex Trebek if you want to finish in the Top 5.

Jason Stewart: I was in the first Smackoff because I was fairly known to him. I was never that good. My Smackoff call in 1995 is infamously bad. My cadence was off. I said "basically" after every third word. I didn't have a fresh take that day for some reason. They replay that call all the time as a horrible call. When I was working there Jim used to play that call, which was bad, and say, "AND THIS GUY is in charge of letting callers on my show." It became kind of a running joke.

Mark in Hollywood: For the Smackoff you can have three or four minutes and it's basically the crackback call but it's on everyone in the field. The strategy is to ride the wave. You have a preset thing you're going to do but depending on when you call, that changes. Call early, you set the tone. Call later on, you come back at something said earlier.

Kyle Brandt: I've seen so many calls that aren't nearly as good as they thought they were. And if they just would have gotten out earlier they would have won the thing. It's like the guy giving the best man speech at the wedding. And he's said the cute line and everyone said, "Awwwwww." He made a beautiful toast with these great anecdotes and just when you think he's going to finish up he says, "And that reminds me of our college years." And you're like, "Oh dude, you're dying." Someone take a shepherd's hook and get this guy off the dance floor. I wish you could do that with callers but you can't.

Here's what happens. The Smackoff callers, they prepare their script. And they don't self-edit. They don't show it to anyone who tells them something's not funny, take it out. They have a 5.5-minute script and it needs to be three minutes at most. They don't have the self-awareness to know that my stuff is not that good and it's just going on too long. So what happened is, sometimes a guy will get to the 2:30-mark of his call it's excellent. I've even seen it where we think it's won it's so good, so funny, so sharp. And then it goes on for another 30 seconds and you want them to wrap it up. Then another minute and you're getting tired of this and eventually they play themselves out of it. They had the thing won but it just went on too long.

JT the Brick: It's much less about X's and O's now. It's about going after someone's weight or a city or region. It's all entertaining but when I won that Smackoff you knew you had to have that sports call.

Sean Pendergast: To me, the thing has been to always make it not too much one or thing another. Enough sports stuff because it is a sports show but enough smack because it is a Smackoff call where you're trash-talking. Different years I've gone after different callers. If there's a defending champ you go after the defending champ. I've had a bunch of people come after me. If I only had a dime for every Uncle Fester joke. Mine has been a combination. At the end of the day, Jim's show is so unique that you have to capture the ethos of it.

Always do it on a landline. Do it somewhere quiet without an echo. You can have the best call on paper but it's a quick exit in the Smackoff if you have a bad connection.

Alvin Delloro: Reacting to callers who call you out is a must. If I come on the Smackoff and don't react, I'm getting run. You have to rewrite as the show goes on. You may not get to your pre-planned stuff because you're responding to things. We give a lot of points to reacting on the fly.

People think the Smackoff is an easy show for us because we don't have to prepare anything. But it's super intense. You hope someone stands out and makes our job easier. The problem is when calls are so close together and it's a coin flip. We don't have a ton of time. We only have the five-minute breaks in between. We're debating the minor details. It's so subjective. Jim ultimately makes the decision but you hope that we pick the right guy.

JT the Brick: It was a shot of adrenaline. I made the call halfway through the show and headed home to my condo in La Jolla, all my buddies were there waiting for me. They knew I was in pretty good shape. We started partying with about an hour to go. We were confident we would win. That half-hour before they announced was great.

Brad in Corona: People supported me at first -- but after I lost the second year there was a lot of negativity. The more you win, you stop worrying about the stuff you worried about and it frees you up. After I won my third I felt okay, only two people have won that many. Now I'm comfortable with not being a flash in the pan.

Leff in Laguna: There is a spot where I'll go hiking or mountain biking it's kind of up in the hills a little bit. I've made almost all my regular season calls there since 2015. I'll just park my car up there, it's quiet with good cell service. For a brief moment there I was calling from a resort in Dana Point. They have a luxury pay phone booth that's soundproof. The acoustics are great so I was calling there for the better part of two years.

This is embarrassing but I was asked to leave last year when I was going through my Smackoff call because we had some impressions and a couple other people on the call with dialogue so I was practicing that. I don't know if someone had complained. I was in there for quite a while, maybe four or five hours. Locking myself in the payphone. A security person asked me to leave and I haven't been back.

The Unicorn

Jim Rome has spawned an army of internal and external copies. His coaching tree is deep. But there's nothing like the original, who saw the merit in embracing the public instead of keeping them at a distance. Provided, of course, they don't suck.

JT the Brick: Think of all the shows that don't even take calls. Popular shows. Because they don't want to give callers a voice. And that's what Jim's legacy is going to be. He gave the radio listener a voice, which is something that you no longer hear today. You rarely hear it.

Jason Stewart: Jim Rome comes along, it’s like, we’re not just gonna take calls and field questions. We need you to have your perspective. And your perspective can get you a lot of political capital in The Jungle. You could become part of the show. There was no talk show on Earth up to the point where Jim started, maybe Mike and the Mad Dog for a little bit, where callers were celebrities of the show. Unpaid staff members, per se. 

Adam Hawk: We often joke that if you don't listen to our show and you hear a clone call the show it's like listening to something in a different language. That being said, it's kind of addicting in the sense that everyone who hears a joke that they aren't in on wants to be in on it. It gets people listening in the hopes they'll get the reference or pick up something later in the show that helps you with it.

We would never discourage someone from being too inside the show. We have bred a culture where the show inside of the show is the most interesting part to a lot of people. We would never say hey, you're too Cloney or Smacky. It's up to everyone listening to get caught up with the speed of the show. The inside joke becomes something you can understand and it becomes really fun when you can speak the language.

Leff in Laguna: Jim's style is really interesting. His style is still what the core of all the calls are today. It's very tongue-in-cheek, sarcastic, parodies ... things like that. As a listener, you start to look at things that way in your own life. Since I started as a caller in 2014, I watch sports differently. I watch for stuff that I can point out, things that are absurd. So that style that Jim had, how he watched sports and reported on it, is how we learned to do it. That's part of being a clone.

JT the Brick: It's the freedom of having dialogue instead of shutting off the listener. Think of how ridiculous it sounds that you want people to listen to your show and buy the advertising and listen longer but you won't accept a phone call and let them talk.

There are times when you're listening to someone and it's a fake debate and the listener wants to call them out on it but they can't. A radio host that hosts the show knowing before the show that they aren't going to take a caller is scared of being exposed. They are scared so they build a wall around them where all they are going to hear is yes people telling them they are correct.

Mark in Hollywood: I just like to be part of the legacy of the show. I haven't gotten any benefits. I mean, I've gotten attention and Twitter followers but that and a quarter can't get you a phone call so who the hell cares?

Sean Pendergast: That's how I got my first radio job. I was front-of-mind for them because I had five Smackoff championships. They wanted to try something different and that got me in the door.

JT The Brick: It never crossed my mind once that this could lead to what it did. I had a six-figure job at Merrill Lynch as a stockbroker. Had a good career going and I had no interest in doing anything else. That's the great legacy of the Smackoff. If I came in second, you would have never heard from me because it wasn't a passion. A lot of people bullshit and say, "I went to bed with a transistor radio." I had no intention in doing radio at all. Even calling sports radio was a hobby. It didn't dominate my day, I had a job. I got into it only because I won and people started to encourage me.

Hard to pin down

Callers will go at each other's necks with great gusto. They are out for blood. But what happens in the shadows when the game is over? Could it be that these people have found a strange new respect for each other?

Adam Hawk: The callers have turned The Jungle into their own version of professional wrestling. These guys are very good at it. They've crafted storylines and rivalries over years and years that predate me.

Sean Pendergast: For those 10 years when I was just a caller I felt like I got a lot of support. The only time that people would turn on me, I get a lot of appearance calls. There's a guy who called me Cablinasian the Friendly Ghost because I'm pasty-white and bald. I get that a lot. I don't think there's anyone who would say this guy's an asshole or something like that. For as edgy as the show is, the Rome callers are a really cool community either online or when we would go to tour stops and things like that. People were really friendly.

The whole thing's a wrestling promo. It's a lot like the wrestling community. Wrestling fans are a close-knit community because there's a lot of people who don't understand them. They don't understand how you can love wrestling so much unless you love it. I think Jim's show is very similar to that. I think sports talk radio in general is like that. Rome has a cult following. And they're passionate about something the public doesn't understand. That's what binds the community together. That's why it's not fragmented.

Mark in Hollywood: The majority of the Smackoff guys talk outside of the show. Most of the guys know it's professional wrestling. There's a few who don't and take that attitude and run with it. That I don't like. Those dudes are annoying. You know, it's better when it's pro wrestling. Right now we're all communicating -- how's your Smackoff call going, knowing that we're all going to be going at each other. There's maybe two or three outliers who will be ultra-serious about it and those guys never really last because they take it personally. None of the guys who are good have ever crossed the line with me.

Steve in H-Town: There's a whole network of people. It's a whole different language. You know all the callers. You know all about the show within the show. If you're listening for the first time ever and Rick in Buffalo calls in, you're going to hear him talking about another caller. You're not going to get a sports take. That throws everyone off. I've never seen anything like it. I'm glad to be part of it.

Leff in Laguna: It's pretty cool because it's a really unique community that Jim's built. I don't know of another radio show or talk show that's like it. We see it all the time, people will travel across the country to meet other clones. I've met dozens of listeners. My wife and other people who don't understand it have a hard time grasping. What are you doing? All listening to a radio show? It's weird and cool and he created that from the beginning. To have a little notoriety is cool and I do it just to make those people laugh.

I've met most of these guys and everyone's great. I've gotten along with everyone. They are fun to hang out with, have a beer with. It's a small fraternity. Like any other sport, you go against each other and want to win but when it's over you chat about it. It's interesting to see everyone's process.

Brad in Corona: There are some dudes over the years that I genuinely don't like but if I met them in person I'd like them. That's sort of what the show is. It''s not personal. You're just trying to win.

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