In entertainment, everything has a logical arc. Whether we're talking about a television series, a radio show or a particular personality, they all have a shelf life as to how long they can remain compelling, a shelf life with a beginning, a middle and an end.
The end is rarely pretty, and perhaps the most difficult aspect of the arc is knowing when to eject, identifying the point at which you leave the audience wanting more forever. From a creative standpoint, that's really the trick.
Along those lines, this past Friday afternoon, the shelf life of Jim Rome's Smack-Off, the annual contest which Rome uses to name his then current "best caller" and "King of Smack," finally expired.
I've often said that we all "dork out" over something, meaning we all have at least one thing that we follow a little too closely, spend a little too much time obsessing over, and truth be told, your loyalty to whatever that thing may be is probably a source of some closet embarrassment for you.
I'm not ashamed to admit that The Jim Rome Show, for years, had been one of my objects of "dorkism." (Other have included Star Wars, professional wrestling and the "Similar Hitter" statistical category for players on baseball-reference.com. Go ahead and insert "joke about me NOT dorking out over getting laid" here.)
I bring this up solely because there's a good chance that by the time you are done reading this, you will probably be saying, "Dude, it's just a radio show. Why are you so emotional about this? Turn the page." And that's fine, I would just politely request that you ask yourself, "Self, what is the one thing that I dork out over, that my friends just don't understand why I like it so much?"
Then pretend that whoever is in charge of the creative well-being of that one thing decided to take such a huge metaphorical dump on it that you were looking at your watch the second the metaphorical shit landed on said thing because you knew that the arc on "your thing" had reached its logical conclusion, that it was over and you needed the exact time of day so you could pronounce its death to yourself in your head.
Friday, May 18, 1:54 p.m. Central Standard Time.
That's what time the Smack-Off on The Jim Rome Show died, because that's about the time that Rome was announcing last-second Smack-Off entrant and UFC loudmouth Chael Sonnen as the winner of what has forever been the caller-driven event to end all caller-driven events in talk radio.
Yes, an MMA fighter who had never called Rome's show except a couple times to do interviews promoting his fights in the last couple years won what for 17 years had been a "callers only" contest that Rome himself called "the most important day of the year in the Jungle."
(Quick point: Some may submit comedian Jay Mohr as evidence that at least one celebrity has been able to get an exemption into the Smack-Off, as Mohr has been a perennial top 10 finisher over the last decade, but at least Mohr calls the show on occasion and frequently guest-hosts when Rome is on vacation. Mohr and Sonnen, apples and oranges. Mohr winning would have offended far fewer people, and not offended me at all.)
If you're not a longtime fan of the Rome show, Rome's allowing Sonnen to participate (much less win) won't sound like a big deal to you. If you are a longtime fan of the Rome show, you probably feel like they just took your favorite hole-in-the-wall pub and turned it into an Applebee's.
For years, in the warped little corner of the universe where sports talk radio matters to everyone, a mere invite to the Smack-Off was enough to get you the respect of the constituents of that figurative locality. In mob lexicon, a Smack-Off invite made you a "made guy" of sorts. If you actually won the thing, you became a de facto boss. (And if you won it five times, you wound up with your own radio show and the title of "King of the Dipshits," I guess.)
Nobody who's been invited to Rome's Smack-Off would ever admit it, but back in the day, if you put a television camera on a Smack-Off invitee the second they heard their name as being one of those asked to participate, people would probably see him (or her, on occasion) jumping around and fist-pumping like one of those bubble teams hearing they just got a 12 seed into the NCAA basketball tournament. However, over time, the show became less and less about the callers, a trend I actually outlined in my Smack-Off recap in this space in 2010:
In the last few years, the show has evolved into a more mainstream-sounding show, a likely function of "getting bigger meaning getting more corporate" along with Rome just maturing and getting older. The show day-to-day is now more built around interviews and Rome's take on whatever is making the sports world tick. It's way more vanilla, not nearly as edgy, and not nearly as caller-centric. It bears mentioning that it's also a cash cow, for Rome at least.
For those of us that used to call the show back in the day, the gradual near-extinction of the caller in lieu of more interviews has been depressing. It's like someone took our own personal radio "Fight Club," told 400 cities about it, and then converted it into a Dave & Buster's.
One of the side effects of the metamorphosis of the show over time was that fewer callers getting on the air made the longtime callers become a bit disenfranchised and also meant that there was a lack of new callers to backfill us/them, a trend which took us from Smack-Off invitations feeling special to Rome's producers practically begging invitees on Twitter to RSVP in the days leading up to the event so they would have a full field.
Now, to be fair to Rome, that dearth of caller "talent" only really mattered to his bottom line one day a year, and that day was the Smack-Off. The rest of the year, the show, while becoming somewhat boring and vanilla, was still a huge financial success, even if it had become a creative null set.
Also, to Rome's credit, he's still been able to sell and promote the Smack-Off like it's a big deal, even if it's become a bit repetitive and stale. New listeners liked it because it was something different, longtime listeners liked it because it was the one day out of the year that took us back to a time where the show was brash and unique. Again, back in 2010, this is how I put it:
However, much like Pretzel Day to Stanley Hudson on The Office, once a year we still have the Smack-Off, the annual event where Rome invites the best callers to line up and bludgeon each other, four minutes at a time. Rome and his staff (the "xr4ti Crew") decide via a scoring system that can best be described as "extreme subjectivity" who had the best call that day, and the winner is declared "King of Smack" for the next year (or until the next Pretzel Day, whichever comes first).
The Smack-Off is Rome's signature show, and a "must listen" even if you're no longer an avid Rome fan. Former champions of the Smack-Off get lifetime exemptions and don't need to "play their way into the field" throughout the year anymore, which is tough to do what with Jim taking about four calls a month.
Radio, like any entertainment genre when it's done well, is about getting consumers to emotionally invest in the personality of the principals. Since the mid-90's, Rome got his listeners (his "clones") to rally alongside him in his "us against the world" quest to become the king of sports talk radio. We showed up at Rome's nationwide Tour Stops, we "banged our monkeys" (Rome-speak for "harassed our affiliate's program directors") when they messed with the show, we bragged about how long we'd listened to Rome when he returned to television on ESPN in 2003.
Along the way, we tolerated the homogenization of his radio show the last few years because (1) anyone with a brain knew it was just an unfortunate part of the arc I discussed earlier (and a by product of the show becoming a billboard for corporate America) and (2) at least we still had the Smack-Off. That was the one day during the Rome calendar year that the callers and diehard listeners mattered once again.
Until last Friday.
For that was the day that, on the "most important day of the year" in the Jungle, a day in which callers normally had to earn their spot by continuously calling the show somewhat compellingly over months and years, Rome allowed a professional athlete to cut to the front of the line and in a contest where the scoring system is a subjective one based entirely on who Rome feels like anointing as the champion, the host handed the title (and, I guess, a valuable prize package that included a big screen TV) to said athlete.
Don't get me wrong, it's Rome's show, he can absolutely do with it as he pleases, consequences and backlash be damned.
Just know that about a decade ago, at his defiant and edgy best, Jim Rome went on Late Night With David Letterman and called UFC "human cockfighting." Last Friday afternoon, ten years later, he gleefully handed the title of "best caller" to his program to a UFC fighter.
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Arc over. Good night now.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on 1560 The Game from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m. weekdays, and watch the simulcast on Comcast 129 from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanCablinasian.