NEW YORK — “If your superiors every one or two months aren’t questioning some of your content, then you’re not pushing the envelope,” Jalen Rose says with a wry smile.
“You’re not doing it,” David Jacoby confirms. “We get emails.”
In their nook of a studio at ESPN’s new Seaport facility, no larger than a medium-sized walk-in closet, the two hosts of Jalen & Jacoby reflect on some of their failed bits and segments of the past.
“This is eight years in development and we’ve tried a lot of things that didn’t stay, and most of the things that didn’t stick didn’t stick for a reason,” Jacoby says. “One thing that comes to mind is, we had a character called ‘Durag Jalen.’”
“And this was before I was trying to get waves,” Rose quips.
“Durag Jalen was wearing an undershirt and he had a durag on…” Jacoby continues.
“That most people call that type of shirt,” Jalen interrupts while pointing to the card that says “wifebeater” hanging from a clothespin on a string among their retired words in the rafters of the studio.
“Yeah, we retired that word,” Jacoby explains. “But Durag Jalen we had one segment, and afterwards — you know, because we have great producers in Reggie and Harlan and our crew in L.A. — and they went, ‘Ummmm, maybe we should re-record that. Maybe that one’s not going to stick.’ So Durag Jalen will forever be in our hearts, but never will be on our TV screens.”
The rather unlikely duo have worked together for nearly a decade on a podcast that began as a passion project on Grantland under the guidance of “The Podfather,” Bill Simmons, and has turned into a midday TV show on ESPN. From a bi-monthly podcast, to a YouTube show, to a radio show, to a late-night TV program, they’ve touched on just about every available medium. Even as they’ve bounced around, the podcast has remained, with great care taken to ensure it’s a unique product even as their profile grows on TV.
As Rose belts out at the beginning of the show each day, their singular goal is to “give the people what they want,” and the people they’re serving first are their long-time podcast listeners — “That’s our audience,” Rose says. Jacoby jokes there are podcast listeners who know more about his life over the last eight years than his mom and wife, and there’s an expectation for what the podcast is that doesn’t necessarily exist for the television show.
“We’ve been doing it for so long that, like, we never want our podcast to sound like a television show. We make sure we include very conversational, unstructured podcast talk in the podcast and then we interweave it — Reggie, our producer, weaves it into the television talk,” Jacoby says. “We want to make sure the podcast feels like a conversation between the two of us without too much structure in a way that television is structured.”
“We started as a podcast that wasn’t in our contracts,” Rose continues. “It was a passion project that Bill Simmons allowed us to do and do and say what we wanted. So, that’s our core audience. So, when we’re out and about, people say, ‘I listen to you everyday’ more than, ‘I watch you.’”
The podcast audience has been around for years. They’re the people who stop Jacoby’s wife at the store to say hi and take a picture, which he jokes she did not sign up for when she married a producer. These listeners made the show as popular as it is to all but force ESPN to keep giving the bigger platforms thanks to an audience that followed them across channels, time slots, and mediums. They want to make sure they reward that loyalty by not forgetting where they came from and what made the show what it is.
Making sure the podcast maintains its own identity requires extra effort due to the rise of their TV show. They record podcast only segments like “Too Hot For TV” prior to their television taping, which Jalen now streams on Instagram Live in an effort to offer the audience another avenue into that world. It’s there that they are free to ramble, discussing their personal lives in a way they never would or could on TV. The same care and thought that goes into creating a unique podcast experience for listeners also goes into trying to do the same for television viewers.
As a midday ESPN show, the duo knows that a large number of people that see the show can’t hear them. ESPN is on in hotels, restaurants, lobbies, and waiting rooms across the country, most of which are on mute, which they embrace by trying to embrace the visual elements of their show, like using sight gags such as Jalen holding a bat at times and trying to be more animated in discussions, so as not to have it be a TV show that looks like a podcast recording.
They’ve found a comfort level operating in both the television and podcast space, in large part because of their comfort and connection with each other. But it took time to get to this point, where their rapport is so natural and their friendship is so strong.
“We were not this close. It would be, like, show up, do the pod, leave,” Jacoby remembers. “Like, he’s not even in my phone. I would text him and he wouldn’t text me back and we didn’t have a real relationship. It doesn’t happen overnight, there wasn’t like one dinner where we became best friends. We weren’t as close as we are now for a couple years. Then the more we spent time together, we had mutual interests and then more lunches. We started hanging outside of work and fast forward to now, like my kids call him Uncle Jalen. He’s over at my house, I’m over at his house and he’s just part of the family.”
“And that’s unique because, when we leave here, we’re going to walk down the streets of New York City and go to lunch,” Jalen adds. “And you’re going to see people happy to see us and also surprised to see us. We on the subway [and people will go], ‘Y’all hang out outside of work?!’ Because 98 percent of the time in this industry, that doesn’t happen.”
The natural and authentic bond built through the years makes what they do on camera and behind the mics no different than the conversations they have outside of work. They’ll have the same kind of discussions about a hot topic in the NBA on the subway to the studio that you’d expect to see on the show, and the kind of personal conversation you’d expect them to have off air while the light is on and the mics are hot.
For Jacoby, getting comfortable with his role as on-air talent took time. He had long been a producer at ESPN, happy to operate behind the scenes and enjoying the chance to shape shows off camera. However, the opportunity arose and he found that while he enjoyed his new role, he also struggled with the idea that he was worthy of it.
“There’s an imposter complex that comes with that,” Jacoby says. “There was like, ‘Oh, I’m not that good at this. I’m not that good looking. Look at how good all these other broadcasters are. Am I just faking this? Do I really have legs? Can this work? Over time I have some consiglieres, people who will be real with me, my friends, my wife, and they were like, ‘No you can really do it.’ And it takes a long time to get over the, ‘I don’t belong feeling.’ It took a really long time to be like, ‘Okay, I can do this,’ and you get your own confidence and get your foot underneath you. You commit and you’ve got to take a leap of faith in yourself. I was joking earlier about my basketball game that I’m mentally weak, but I’m not the most confident, like, ‘Yo I belong here, this is me.’ Jalen has that, like, ever since he was born, so that was something I had to get over.”
That confidence has been assisted by Rose, who helps him navigate his newfound fame and status as a public figure, but the relationship is symbiotic. Jalen picked Jacoby to be his co-host without even really knowing him, but he knew there would be ways that having David alongside him would be crucial.
Rose had long thought about life after basketball and how he wanted his career in the sports media to go. His major at Michigan was Radio, TV, and Film, and even while playing, he would pick up guest spots as an analyst, starting by covering the 2002 NBA Finals for The Best Damn Sports Show Period on Fox. He did odds and ends for the next five years with ESPN, NFL Network, and others before getting a full-time gig with ESPN in 2007, and always had a vision for being more than just an NBA analyst.
“I never wanted to get pigeonholed to only talking about basketball,” Jalen says. “And, initially I got hired to be an NBA analyst, and normally when you get hired to do that — I was doing NBA Tonight, NBA Countdown, Coast to Coast — but you’re required to talk about the current news cycle in the NBA. And so, this podcast gave me a different voice. What I wanted to prove to Jacoby and to Bill that not only was I knowledgeable about more than the NBA, but that I was going to be the hardest working person in the game, who just happened to be able to talk about sports and entertainment and all of that.
“I wanted to always prove to them that I had more in me, and that’s why I appreciate Jacoby, because being a producer and working with Bill, I was able to learn the industry in an intimate way,” Rose continued. “But also they allowed me to be creative in my own way and they didn’t stymie me.”
The result was a passion project outside of their contracts, one that offered Rose that opportunity he craved to prove his value beyond talking basketball and Jacoby a chance to step out from behind the cameras and soundboard. In the eight years since, both have been afforded the chance to branch out even more. Jalen has a regular spot on Get Up! where he gets to talk about more than just basketball, while Jacoby makes appearances on Around the Horn, has guest hosted High Noon, and more. Even so, the side hustle born out of their desire to do something else remains as important to them as it was in 2011.
Jalen & Jacoby is their release. It’s an outlet for them to do things they can’t anywhere else, an opportunity to put their full personalities on display, and, most importantly, a place for two friends to have a daily conversation.
On the TV side, that conversation has to, at least in part, touch on the major stories of the day, but they have their own unique way of balancing the necessities of being a daytime show on ESPN proper and keeping their voice and authenticity.
“I think one thing we definitely try to do is, there’s no secret that Jalen and I love hip-hop culture, but I think that you can’t be the hip-hop culture show on ESPN,” Jacoby says. “You have to organically and authentically weave that in to the sports news of the day. And I think that we’ve, over time, developed the right balance between sports and non-sports topics, and making a sports topic into a non-sports topic and vice versa.”
“Here’s a perfect example of that,” Jalen says. “‘Keep It Moving.’ Got Method Man in a minivan, fits our show.”
“But it’s all sports topics,” Jacoby adds.
“We now can mention the Pac-12 game that the world doesn’t care about, acknowledge that it’s happening, say a sentence about it, but keep it moving,” Jalen notes. Then come with something else we really want to talk about, hit the brakes, and talk about it.”
While the freedom on the podcast side is greater to go off topic, the TV show isn’t immune to going off the rails either. Jacoby’s showering habits are well known to frequent listeners, and they recently had a discussion of it with guest David Alan Grier, who was surprisingly understanding.
— Jalen & Jacoby (@JalenandJacoby) January 9, 2020
Rose has even talked about how as a kid he used to bite his toenails on television, to the disgust of his co-host.
— Jalen Rose (@JalenRose) November 22, 2019
On this particular day, a discussion of a rare hot shooting night for Jacoby in his rec league basketball game from the night before — that started off air and was continued on it — takes a significant turn as they record “Too Hot For TV.” Jalen, a keen observer of the human condition, notes that many of Jacoby’s basketball stories end with him getting home and going straight to bed and raises a point few would be willing to on a public forum.
“Another thing I noticed happens on nights you play basketball between the game and work,” Jalen says. “You don’t have any sexual intercourse.”
Despite Jacoby’s protest, a discussion ensues about their sex lives, including Jalen making sure he doesn’t put his co-host on blast without regaling the audience with tales of getting “the Heisman” stiff-arm in bed when he arrives home late at night.
There are few, if any, limits or boundaries to what they’ll discuss. Just the one guiding principle, sung before each episode: Got to give the people what they want.