CLEVELAND – It’s an an hour or so before the Cavs tip-off against the Miami Heat on a Monday, and Jefferson is seated at his locker deep inside Quicken Loans Arena, methodically slipping on his socks and shoes. Earlier in the day, Uninterrupted, the athlete-centric media platform co-founded by Jefferson’s teammate LeBron James and his business partner Maverick Carter, announced that Jefferson’s increasingly popular podcast, Road Trippin’ with R.J. and Channing, where he, Channing Frye and Fox Sports Ohio sideline reporter Allie Clifton talk about, well, anything with various Cavs players for an hour or so during team road trips, would officially be housed under its umbrella.
And while that’s a big deal for a podcast only 11 episodes old, Jefferson just wants to make sure everyone keeps things in perspective.
“I believe this is more of a partnership than it is, hey, now we have Uninterrupted so we’re successful,” Jefferson says with a wry smile. “We were doing something well, and they wanted us under their umbrella, and we believe that they can improve our outreach as to who we can get to interview and talk to.”
Jefferson is fiercely proud (and somewhat protective) of his audio phenomenon, a pet project he’d had floating around in his head for some time before approaching Clifton with it in January. Jefferson arrived in Cleveland as a free agent ahead of the 2014-2015, and Frye, who he’s long known as both are Arizona products, was shipped over at the trade deadline the following season.
The two have a rapport similar to a married couple entering their late 80s (Frye can often be found on Snapchat asking Jefferson why he’s so cranky), and their personalities fill up every inch of whatever room they happen to be in. So when Jefferson approached Clifton with the idea, with Frye included as his partner, and asked her to take on hosting duties, she was unsure how it would go.
“I was a bit hesitant just because of how dynamic and how dominating their personalities are,” says Clifton, who has covered the Cavs since 2012. “I thought to myself, ‘Am I going to be able to keep up?’ But then I thought, this is something that hasn’t been done before and it’s an opportunity that really could help excel me in many different facets as well.”
Jefferson’s concept was simple: bring on teammates during the immense amount of downtime NBA players have on the road and allow them to talk about whatever the hell they wanted to.
After initially shopping their idea around to various outlets and receiving a lukewarm response, Clifton, Jefferson and Frye decided to record and distribute the podcast themselves. They linked up with Cavs Spanish radio announcer Rafa El Alcalde to handle the production and editing side of things, and on the night of Sunday, Jan. 15, ahead of what would be a blowout loss to the Golden State Warriors the next day, they hit record for the very first time.
That premiere episode was akin to Jay-Z selling CDs out of the trunk of his car.
Inside of trainer Stephen Spiro’s hotel room in San Francisco, Clifton, Jefferson and Frye sat around a wine glass with a microphone taped to it. As the podcast opens, there’s a clink of wine glasses, Clifton asking whether or not they’ve started recording, and then what sounds like someone opening a bag of chips. Kyrie Irving, who was scheduled to receive treatment from Spiros but chose to join the podcast instead, abruptly leaves in the middle of an early conversation before returning. The sound quality is, to put it nicely, like listening to someone talk into a soup can.
“It started very casual,” Clifton says with a laugh.
By episode two, they’d graduated to three microphones, though they were all handhelds. On episode three, which took place on a team flight that had been delayed to Dallas, both Irving and LeBron James joined in, which made for a fantastic episode but also a scarcity of mics, causing Clifton and Jefferson to pass one back and forth while the plane’s engine roared in the background.
It was a ragtag operation, but the content was groundbreaking. There’s Irving admitting how unprepared he was for life in the NBA after being drafted by the Cavs in 2011. There’s Jefferson and Frye detailing their favorite bars at Arizona. And in one of the most genuine and real moments in any of Road Trippin’s now 12 episodes, there’s LeBron telling Irving that his kids look up to the point guard like he’s a superhero. It’s the sort of unfiltered rawness that a reporter would kill to get from a player even once during the season, and it’s what’s turned the podcast into a weekly appointment, not just for Cavs fans, but for a national audience, too.
“We’re taught to give things in 30 second answers,” Jefferson says. “On (the podcast), you can talk about how you played, what you do in your off time, what happened a week ago, how your injury is. You can talk about whatever you want for pretty much as long as you want. And that’s where you start to get guys getting more and more comfortable.”
That extreme comfort acts like a truth serum, and it led to Road Trippin’s first headline-inducing moment. On episode seven, released just before NBA All-Star Weekend, Irving divulged to the group that he believed the Earth was flat. His comments spread like smog over Hong Kong, to the point where Irving was asked about it at almost every public appearance he made in New Orleans. Road Trippin’ was making news, and in a sense, it had arrived.
“In the moment, I didn’t think anything of it,” Clifton says of Irving’s flat Earth theory. “I didn’t know Kyrie was that deep-minded of an individual. I didn’t know he read books like that. That’s what’s so cool about it. This is a platform that allows these pro athletes to be human. It allows a fan to understand who they are as individual people and not just basketball players.”
Kyrie Irving, the flat-Earther, officially became a thing. Jefferson was spotted wearing a “Flat Earth Champions” t-shirt a few days later, and that episode’s popularity landed it at No. 1 in the Sports & Recreation podcast category on iTunes, the second time a Road Trippin’ episode had reached the mountaintop.
Despite the publicity Irving’s comments garnered for Road Trippin’, Clifton still bristles at how people missed what she feels was Irving’s true purpose of sharing his beliefs.
“The park that sucks is that I think his deeper message of doing your own research and freeing your mind kind of got lost,” Clifton says. “People need to understand that this is a guy who allows himself to be free. It’s a lot of what he’s learned and developed and started to realize about himself over the last several years. It’s cool to see how much he wants to allow that to be heard and be known about him, that he is a curious individual, and he will stretch his mind as far as it can go.”
Clifton pauses, then chuckles.
“But I’m not complaining,” Clifton adds. “There was a lot of publicity and it attracted a lot of people to the podcast. So it was cool.”
Clifton often acts as an orchestra conductor, nudging Jefferson and Frye and their guests toward certain topics and lassoing them back in when someone goes off on a tangent, but the podcast is at its best when Jefferson and Frye are their free-flowing, garrulous selves. Frye is the dark horse, sometimes making a guest laugh so hard that they don’t speak for upwards of a minute, like he did when he told LeBron his nickname used to be “Killa Slaya” on the most recent episode.
“Channing: 100 percent,” Jefferson says when he asked who is the funnier co-host. “Because you don’t know what the hell he’s going to say.”
Even before the interest from Uninterrupted, the podcast’s popularity led to Jefferson investing his own money into new equipment, like purchasing microphone headsets during a recent trip to New York City and acquiring mics that they no longer have to hold. And as Jefferson’s NBA career comes to a close and his passion for broadcast intensifies, he’s acutely aware of the unique value and content opportunities Road Trippin’ provides.
“There’s no better route to tell your story than you,” Jefferson says. “Every single time we walk in (the locker room), there’s 25 people waiting for a tidbit, or this is the article I want to write or this is my idea. It’s like, or, you can sit down and listen to us crack jokes for 45 minutes and talk about how we played sh*tty in the month of January and how everybody is grumpy and how Channing emotionally eats fast food if he’s not playing well. There’s something there that you will never ever get from a normal interview.”
While Clifton admits that, as a media member, some of the stories various players have told on Road Trippin’ would be a dream for any sports media outlet to unearth on their own, there’s a certain naturalness to the way they’re presented on the podcast that’s impossible to replicate.
“I think at the end of the day, we as media members work our tails off all the time,” Clifton says, “and we’re trying to get those stories and find out the interesting things, on and off the floor, about these guys. But what this podcast has done is it allows you to hear these stories first hand from (the players). And they’re not holding back.”