Lance Taylor and Ian Fitzsimmons nod in affirmation, taking timeout from their cocktails at a local Homewood watering hole to acknowledge a loyal listener. They are indeed the guys responsible for the four-hour, week-daily, talk radio exhibition known as “The JOX Roundtable.”
The man who identified them – a slightly built, young ad exec with stylish black threads and carefully arranged hair – doesn’t exactly fit the stereotypical mold of the sports talk radio devotee.
“And hey, what happened? I miss the stripper.”
But then again, it appears the Roundtable might not fit any particular mold, either.
From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday through Friday on WJOX 94.5 FM, L.T. and Fitzsimmons roll through a miscellany of topics, smashing together the worlds of sports and entertainment in the same way the Large Hadron Collider smashes protons and particles of light, except without black holes. And without dead air.
L.T. considers four hours on the air an eternity, but Fitzsimmons scoffs. He insists that the number of topics they have usually overwhelms their time slot.
Take for example last Thursday, when hours of pre-show planning were shot to hell by a new flare-up in the always-smoldering Alabama/Tennessee rivalry. The top ten signs your woman’s a tramp? That was packed away for a slower day. The five most likely ways the world will end? We’ll have to wait.
The ability to know which topics to front and which to shutter away is a sort of intuition that can only be developed from copious hours behind the mic. And these two have logged in some serious hours.
They met as students at the University of Alabama 19 years ago, became quick friends, and soon developed a repartee tailor-made for radio. After school, Fitzsimmons landed briefly at ESPN before returning to Birmingham to host a show on WJOX called “The Cheap Seats.” L.T. wound up in Birmingham alternating between sales and radio, before settling on both. He was so desperate to get on the air that, for a period of time, he worked for free.
By the time Fitzsimmons came back and “Cheap Seats” made the air, L.T. was contemplating giving up the business and moving on to something else. But a trip to the Florida panhandle in 2000 changed everything. John Ed Willoughby’s WAPI morning show invited L.T. to come on and discuss how Spring Break vacations had changed from innocuous to scandalous over the past few years.
“This was when Girls Gone Wild was getting started up,” L.T. reminds me. Fitzsimmons, who knows the story well, can barely contain premature laughter.
Better than just offering a second-hand opinion, Lance suggested that he provide live beachside reports for WAPI during Spring Break. Fitzsimmons’s “Cheap Seats” wanted in on the action as well.
“Ian said, ‘Hell if you’re going to do it for them, you’re going to do it for us too.’”
So L.T. convinced his wife that he had no choice but to leave for the Panhandle, telling her he was staying out of GGW ground zero (Panama City) in favor of more conservative Destin. Before too long, though, he was reporting live from ground zero.
“I was doing final reports and they had called my wife and had her on the line listening,” L.T. says.
Fitzsimmons interrupts. “Hold on…”
“That was your idea!” L.T. interjects.
“She called me first and asked me ‘Was this your idea?’” Fitzsimmons explains. “And I’m like ‘Whoa, what are you talking about?’”
L.T. is skeptical: “Ian planned the whole thing.”
Either way, Mrs. Taylor was listening live as her husband give the final results of the day’s wet t-shirt contest when she decided to pour a little cold water of her own on L.T.
“They said, ‘Hey, there’s someone here who wants to talk to you’,” L.T. recalls, not at all expecting to hear his wife’s voice at the other end of the line. Initially, he didn’t recognize her when she began talking.
Fitzsimmons hijacks the story: “She said, ‘Lance?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, what’s up? Who’s this?’
“‘You know damn well who this is.’
“And his next words were, ‘Uh oh.’”
“Yeah,” L.T. recalls, “she called me a 29-year-old loser.”
“This city was talking about it for a month,” Fitzsimmons remembers. “That’s when I knew we’d make a great team.”
It would take seven more years to convince WJOX management of that, but in July 2007, the two teamed up for “The Roundtable.” Now the guys, both 36, could finally push their repartee wide open. The final piece of the puzzle was producer/musician Sean “Rockstar” Heninger, 27, who punctuates the patter of a combined 30 years of broadcasting experience with impeccably-timed, matter-of-fact, self-deprecating humor.
The secret of the show’s success is that it’s not really a show at all. It’s simply the four hours out of the day when these two lives are broadcast hundreds of miles in each direction from atop Red Mountain.
“It’s almost as if these things aren’t even here,” Fitzsimmons says as he points at the microphones during a break. “The best shows are the ones where the hosts talk to each other and the people feel like they’re a part of the conversation.
“If they’re yelling at their radio or laughing their ass off, then we know we are doing our jobs.”
Every show is a house under construction, framed but unfinished. The first hour is the most important, as it sets the show’s tone and primes the listeners. At 11:35 a.m., it’s time for Trash on the Table, where the boys joyously read and react through a pile of strange-but-true news stories. For instance, we learn that a woman’s new 38 KKK bust has broken a world record.
At noon, it’s the “Six Pack at 12.” At 1:35 p.m., it’s news and notes. At 1:50 p.m., it’s the closing ceremonies. Though the show’s direction can shift at any moment, as it did last Thursday, rarely do those time-stamped staples lose their place. “Pavlov’s dogs,” Fitzsimmons remarks off-hand as he slides on his headphones and prepares to welcome back listeners after a bottom-of-the-hour break.
Despite the always-controversial “Trash” or the occasionally deviant double entendre, The Roundtable crew is not as depraved as some conservative listeners might conclude. In fact, that’s one misconception that L.T. and Fitzsimmons would like to clear up.
Both men are doting husbands and fathers who are much more likely to be found at home reading a bedtime story aloud rather than out late at a club. Before the show started last Thursday, Fitzsimmons’ big news from the previous night was that his youngest was able to finally sleep soundly after days fighting a respiratory flare-up.
“My family is everything to me,” Fitzsimmons says. “I’m the most whipped man in America. Am I proud to say that? No. Is it embarrassing? Yes.”
“This guy,” pointing over at Lance, “is the most loving dad you’re going to find on the planet. But to the average listener, they probably think we don’t care about our kids, we’re out to 3 a.m. every night and we’re horrible fathers.”
L.T. agrees. “I think people believe we’re swimming around bars all the time.”
“That’s only when we’re out of town,” Fitzsimmons jokes.
Back to Thursday afternoon, as the closing ceremonies wrap-up, L.T. teases Paul Finebaum’s 2 p.m. show and both sign off for the day.
“Man, that was a C+ show,” L.T. says.
Why such a poor grade for a show that featured news that a woman walks among us with more than a gallon of silicone in her chest?
“Not enough back-and-forth between the two of us,” he explains, that intuition acting up again.
Breaking news threw off the “sports-to-bullshit ratio” (which Fitzsimmons prefers at 65-35, L.T. at 50-50) that drives their conversation, which draws the listeners in and makes both men feel like they’ve done their jobs. Today, they weren’t talking with their listeners as much as they were talking to them. There’s a sense that the job didn’t get done.
The next day at the watering hole, neither prefers to discuss ratings (Fitzsimmons holds up one finger to indicate where the show finishes in its time slot, but avoids the jinx by refusing to say it aloud). Neither wants to discuss the future. (No one plans on going anywhere; they pray Rockstar won’t as well.) All they want to discuss is tomorrow’s show, whereupon, hopefully, you’ll find out if your girlfriend’s a tramp.
And how the world will end.