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Rome takes his act to CBS to get some fresh air

After eight seasons of hosting a daily talk show on the ESPN family of networks, Jim Rome realized that his TV "marriage" was losing its spark. "Rome is Burning" was just one cog in the machine of the Worldwide Leader in Sports, subject to preemption, changes in time slots and being shifted over to ESPN2.

The broadcaster, whose "Jim Rome Show" on the radio is an afternoon staple here on WGR 550 (noon to 3 p.m.), realized he wanted more out of his TV work. Earlier this year, he announced a deal with CBS in which he has a new daily talk show on the digital cable outlet CBS Sports Network. He also makes occasional appearances on the main network, on CBS Sports broadcasts, and sometime in the fall will begin hosting a weekly one-hour talk show on Showtime, another CBS property.

Rome, in a phone interview with The News last week, talked about the challenges of his new TV assignments, as well as why his radio show is still "the franchise" in his career.

"My feeling was I had done the same thing for a long time and I enjoyed it and I was treated well, but I felt like the TV show was getting a little bit stale," he said. "And I thought there would be a risk in not taking a risk. And at 47 I just felt like I had to take a shot. I had to develop a new muscle and stretch a little bit."

His new show, "Rome," airs weeknights from 6 to 7 p.m. (digital Channel 130 on Time Warner, 94 on Verizon FiOS, 613 on DirecTV). Unlike most of his time at ESPN, Rome enjoys the benefits of cross-promotion on various CBS outlets. During college basketball's Final Four at the end of March, he did a taped interview with coaches John Calipari and Rick Pitino that aired on CBS. He also made an appearance that month on David Letterman's late-night show, sitting next to Dave and talking sports in New York's Ed Sullivan Theater.

"I've been on TV every day for a lot of years, and I've been on the radio for a lot of years, but I'm telling you, when you sit down with [Letterman] – and that's a guy that I've watched for years – the adrenaline is pumping and your blood is pumping. If I were to say to you that I wasn't nervous, that would be a lie."

Rome's style is unique. He speaks with authority about nearly all sports, and in 20 years in the business has interviewed just about everyone. His sense of humor, sometimes edgy, sometimes a little sophomoric, frequently hilarious, can be an acquired taste. On his radio show, aka The Jungle, his callers are known as Clones because they try to imitate Rome's "takes" on the day's sports happenings. The show has a loyal listenership here on WGR.

"I love Buffalo," Rome said. "We had a Tour Stop there back in the day that had a huge turnout. Scotty Bowman came out for it, Darryl Talley came out for it. We ran O.J.'s white SUV through and the Clones loved that.

"You know, when I was at the Super Bowl this past year in Indianapolis, I was in a restaurant and [Bills CEO] Russ Brandon came right up to me and introduced himself to me. I got a kick out of that. I love the market because I love the ?Bills, I love how much the Buffalo fans love their team, and it's a market that's always been extremely loyal to me, so it's a very important market to me."

CBS Sports Network – formerly known as College Sports Television – has a long way to go before challenging ESPN for TV supremacy. A former columnist named Clay Travis wrote on last week that Rome's new TV show is averaging about 40,000 daily viewers, according to sources that Travis did not name. ("That's a smaller audience than the local news in Buffalo," added Travis, who is based in Nashville.) That figure would represent about one-tenth of the daily audience Rome had on his ESPN show.

CBS spokesman Dan Sabeen told us that CBS Sports Network "is seen in more than 46 million homes and available to more than 99 million households." He said the network is not rated by Neilsen and offered no estimate of ratings figures for "Rome."

"I understand what I signed up for," Rome said. "It's a relatively new network, and they're trying to get some buzz and they're trying to get some content and they're trying to get someone who can hopefully steer some eyeballs to that content.

"I don't even know how the network feels about the ratings or if they get ratings or not. I'm not concerned about that, I'm worried about doing the best possible show I can do every day. Again, you can't compare this to ESPN, which has a 40-year head start."

"Rome" won't be built in a day, but the TV show figures to pick up viewers as more of his radio listeners give it a try. Radio, after all, is still the meat and potatoes of Rome's career. According to Talkers Magazine, The Jungle is tied for 21st on the list of most listened-to radio talk shows in the country.

"I've always been a radio guy first and a TV guy second," he said. "I take pride in the fact that I've been able to stay on TV. The radio thing is the franchise and I'll always do radio."

The Jungle made headlines two weeks ago after an appearance by NBA Commissioner David Stern. Rome asked Stern about the perception that the NBA draft lottery, won by the New Orleans Hornets, who were then league-owned, may have been "fixed." Stern's response was a bit hostile.

He answered: "Jim, have you stopped ?beating your wife yet?," referring to the famous question with the you-can't-win answer. It was Rome's most famous on-air dust-up since back ?in 1994, when he angered quarterback Jim Everett by referring to him on his ESPN2 talk show as "Chris," as in women's tennis player Chris Evert.

"I can't really control what people think or what people feel," Rome said. "I think there's a really significant difference between the two of those things. When the Jim Everett thing happened, that was a really bad night for me. I made a bad choice, I was young, I was kind of abrasive and kind of impulsive.

"I really believe in my heart of hearts that the question I asked of David Stern was not out of line. ... From the email I get and the Twitter comments I get from my listeners, I know they really wanted to know the answer to that question.

"I've known David Stern for a long time, we've always had interesting conversations. And although there's been a terse exchange or two over the years, I always felt that there's a fundamental respect between the two of us. And now I wonder. Honestly, I did not think that that would be his response, and I did not think that he would object to it and go to the place that he went."

Rome says he enjoys the challenge of TV and being on the ground floor of a growing network.

"I just see myself as a content provider. And I want to make sure that I'm relevant, and that people still want to hear what I have to say. I want to stay on TV because I want to provide content across as many platforms as I possibly can, and I like the process, it's a challenge.

"And you know, the world is different now. It used to be that I had a radio show, then I had a radio show and a TV show, and now I've got a radio show, a TV show, a Twitter timeline, a Facebook page, a website, and there's all these different beasts that you have to feed. You have to feed the beasts constantly."?