At first listen, Jim Rome hits the ears like an MTV version of Rush Limbaugh: a spoiled So-Cal punk dabbling in radio between his morning surf and afternoon tennis. He augments his staccato delivery with phrases like "grab a vine" (pick up the phone), "suck on some D-cells" (grow bitter), and other staples of mall-rat hipster slang.
But his wit is sharp, his targets are deserving. Underneath the attitude beats a cheerful, often tender heart. All of which have made The Jim Rome Show arguably the most powerful force in sports-talk radio, boasting 160 stations nationwide and featuring guests ranging from Michael Jordan to Wayne Gretzky. Rome commands a faith healer's devotion so sturdy that his public appearances -- a.k.a. "tour stops" -- are held in arenas to handle the adoring crowds, and fans trail him around the country as if he were the Grateful Dead. Cleveland has twice hosted tour stops that shook like rock concerts.
Listeners don't call The Jim Rome Show to chat about prevent defenses or the high strike. The program runs more like open-mic night. Instructed by the host to "have a take and don't suck," callers blend sports-bar soliloquies with the faceless rage of talk radio. These "clones," dubbed for the way they parrot his style, tend to be young and well educated, not the red-meat home-schoolers who typically gravitate to talk radio. It's a format that makes for inventive radio, where the callers are as much the stars as the athletes he interviews.
John Karliak made his first call in 1998 to rant against Baltimore in general and Indians deserter Albert Belle in particular. Only the stout of heart dare call. Like the emperor in the Colosseum, Rome will voice his approval or disapproval after a caller has spewed his take. To Karliak's delight, the host responded favorably. "He liked me, and I kept calling," the 36-year-old West Sider says.
Karliak began to call so frequently, in fact, he became known as "John in C-Town," Cleveland's most prominent clone. Tribe GM John Hart and recently deposed Ohio State football coach John Cooper were his favorite whipping posts. After the Indians bowed out of the 1999 playoffs, Karliak called to say David Justice had vanished to the side of the milk carton and "Mike Hargrove's been second-guessed so much he could be a college class at Cleveland State." Based on the strength of his calls, Karliak was invited to compete in the Smack-Off, an annual battle of top clones. "I thought it was pretty cool," Karliak says. "I was getting some notoriety."
"The fact of the matter is, John's the best caller in Cleveland," says Steve Legerski, program director of WKNR-AM/1220, which airs the show from noon to 3 p.m. weekdays.
As a psychiatric crisis counselor who, until recently, worked four 10-hour graveyard shifts a week, Karliak had the time and opportunity to hone his takes. He's also single and without children. But Karliak's fondness for the show went beyond breaking off the occasional call. When Legerski once preempted Rome to air a NASCAR event, Karliak called to voice his displeasure. Legerski invited him to lunch.
It wasn't long before Karliak's calls to the show began to sound sycophantic, even by clone standards. He informed the host of the excitement building for his tour stops. He suggested his meals with the monkey -- Rome-speak for program directors like Legerski -- had kept Cleveland's airwaves safe for the Rome community known as "the Jungle." He spoke of covering Jimmy's back. His deference to the host approached that of an equipment manager to the star quarterback.
"I think he comes off as more than just a little enamored with Jim," says John "Trapper" Alexander, an attorney and longtime Rome caller who lives in Dana Point, California.
A show staple is clones ripping other clones -- especially the ones who have reached "legend" status. Trapper is routinely humiliated for his often rambling calls and left-leaning politics. Soon, the callers had picked up on Karliak's tendencies to shade himself as the Jungle's sergeant-at-arms. E-mailers fired off jokes such as "Because of me, we have Thanksgiving. Sincerely, John in Plymouth Rock."
Karliak's tone didn't help. Off the air, he's a regular, goatee-and-ballcap kind of guy, someone who follows sports without painting his face in team colors. But when he's running smack, his voice takes a bitter, superior edge.
At first, Karliak was irked that he had become a target. "It took me awhile, but I subscribe to the theory that all pub is good pub," he says. "If they're not talking about you, no one's paying attention."
People were paying attention. At Rome's second Cleveland tour stop, at Blossom, Rome invited Karliak to take a bow on stage. He traveled to Houston for a tour stop, where listeners slapped him on the back and bought him drinks when they learned he was John in C-Town. "It's fun," Karliak says. "It's like your 15 minutes of fame. I defy anyone who would say they wouldn't want to go to a city they've never been to and people know you."
But fame, even at this curious level, has its price.
In August, a tape surfaced at Rome's Los Angeles studio. Someone had spliced together bits of Karliak's calls into a medley; the phrases "lunch with the monkey" and "because of me" were repeated liberally. For weeks, the show's callers and e-mailers went after Karliak like feral dogs. Karliak says he can laugh at himself, but the relentlessness of the parodies grew tiresome. A clone in California told him she saw a Rollerblader wearing a T-shirt that said "Lunch with the monkey."
"It was funny maybe the first 200 times, but you talk about running something into the ground," he says of the tape.
Karliak added his own kindling to the bonfire. In December, he flew to Los Angeles to catch a James Gang show with Trapper. He thought of the trip as a Christmas present to himself. During his stay, he and Trapper called Rome's show together. Trading takes as if they were street MCs, John and Trapper riffed on each other's politics, hometowns, and Jungle status. Solo, their calls can grate the nerves. Together, they were insufferable.
The listeners went nuts. Rome producer Travis Rodgers says the show received 1,000 e-mails within 40 minutes of the ill-fated call. The messages imagined John and Trapper sitting on each other's laps; Jerry Maguire jokes ("Trapper, you complete me." "John, you had me at hello.") had Rome almost speechless with laughter. "Those guys are targets," Rodgers says. "The clones love talking about them. I'm not sure why, but they love talking about them."
Karliak says now that he regrets the call, that he was merely following Trapper's enthusiasm. "In the first 30 seconds, I could tell the phone call was going to hell. It just didn't sound right, you could tell. I'm really personally embarrassed by it."
Adds Trapper: "I'll be the first to tell you, it was a total bomb."
The tape and the tag-team call might have eventually faded into Jungle lore. But on Presidents' Day, Rodgers, subbing for Rome, hosted a best-of show. The Trapper/John call was featured. What was striking was Rodgers's introduction: He said that Trapper was an OK guy, but that he found John in C-Town "vile and reprehensible. The dude makes my skin crawl." Earlier in the show, Rodgers had called Karliak an idiot.
Karliak was stunned. When did this stop being fun? he asked himself. The next day, he called to announce he was leaving the Jungle.
"What Travis said was personal, and it crossed the line," he says. "That's why I walked. Like I told Romey on the air, there's nobody in the last two years who has taken more shit than I have. For chrissakes, if there's anyone who can take a joke, it's me. And that's my whole point: It wasn't a joke; it wasn't smack."
Yet Karliak has a unique view of what should be permissible. He once taunted a female caller with the promise he'd keep the toilet seat up in case she wanted a drink of water. He said another spread easier than Parkay margarine. Those comments, he says, are within the Jungle's bounds of taste. "But when you say, 'You, John, I find you as a person . . .,' well, then, yeah, you're literally talking about me as a person, not as a phone caller."
Rodgers won't elaborate on his introduction. "I do my damnedest to keep a distance from those guys," he says only half-jokingly of the clones. He did confirm his comments about Karliak were the first of a kind for him. He also declined to set up an interview with Rome, who has consistently spoken well of Karliak on the air.
In the meantime, Karliak had a falling-out with Trapper. There was, apparently, an incident neither man will discuss. "My only response is, John is not reflective of all the great C-Town people we met at the tour stop," Trapper says. "I will also say he is not welcome in Dana Point or within arm's reach of me, ever."
Says Karliak: "We're not friends, but that's another story."
The scores of phone calls. The lunches with monkeys. The tour stops near and far. Karliak downplays how much the Jungle has defined his existence the last few years. In late February, a week after quitting the show, he's sitting in a Lakewood restaurant, drinking coffee and trying not to sound like a jilted lover. "I think I have a well-balanced life," he says. "The Jungle just happens to be a little part of life. Believe me, my life is going to go merrily along without ever calling the Jungle again, if I choose not to."
So will he ever call again?
"Never say never. I have something in mind, but whether I do it or not . . ."
But it's only been a week.
"I know it's only been a week, but if I were to call again, it would be the Smack-Off, to answer some people who have taken shots at me."
Alas, Karliak couldn't wait until the Smack-Off, which is held in mid-April. On March 4, the day after a tour stop in Phoenix, he called the show to say how much he enjoyed the company of his fellow clones during his visit to Arizona.
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