Imus Returns (Quack-Quack)
The I-Man returned to the airwaves this morning, in New York and a few other cities (though not yet in Washington). Don Imus's radio re-entry, live from the stage of Town Hall in Manhattan, is so far a little rough around the edges, but otherwise shows few signs of damage after his eight-month banishment for calling members of the Rutgers University women's basketball team "nappy-headed hos."
"I was a good person who had said a bad thing," Imus told his audience in the opening minutes of his return show. But being a bad person "doesn't give you a license to make any remark you feel like making." He said he will now "diversify the cast--that just makes sense." But to rousing applause from the live audience, Imus quickly added: "But the program is not going to change."
Many of his sponsors were back, including Subaru, NetJets, Bigelow Tea and Optimum internet service. The political guests seem perfectly happy to return, with Sen. John McCain appearing during the first two hours back on the air and fellow GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee scheduled to follow tomorrow. James Carville, Mary Matalin and Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Chris Dodd are also coming on the first edition of the new show. But Imus hasn't mentioned any journalists as guests; that may be the one part of his old posse that feels too much heat about making a return to the show.
McCain and Imus were as chummy as ever, and Imus managed to be his usual cranky self, getting a little snarky when the senator tried to dance around a question about the military's don't ask, don't tell policy toward gays in the service. McCain said he would reconsider the policy if the generals told him it was a problem, prompting Imus to ask the question a second and third time. When McCain asked if he had finally answered to Imus's satisfaction, the host replied, "No, I want to know what you think."
Imus's decades-long sidekick, newsman and writer Charles McCord, is back, egging Imus into dangerous waters. When McCord announced the pardon of the British teacher who was jailed for letting a student in Libya name a teddy bear "Muhammad Bear," there was chatter about how she should have chosen "Tickle Me Habib."
The cast of the show now includes a black woman, Karith Foster, a stand-up comic who notes in her biography that she started her career with a role in her high school's all-white production of "A Raisin in the Sun." On today's show, Foster thanked "a grumpy old cowboy"--Imus--for giving her the opportunity to get up at the crack of dawn to do a radio program.
In the opening hours, Imus and the rest of the cast seemed a bit stilted and hesitant, with little of the rolling comfort, confidence and cool that has marked the deejay for more than four decades on the air.
Imus's redemption was enabled by his long track record as a ratings and revenue machine, his satisfied advertisers and loyal stable of high-profile on-air guests, and the widespread sense in the radio industry that the incident that got him sacked was a quirk, something of an aberration. It also helped that ABC Radio was bought by a company, Citadel, that was looking to puts its own stamp on the stations it has recently acquired.
Phil Boyce, WABC's program director, told the Associated Press that Imus is back because the station's owner determined it could charge higher ad rates with him on the air--a simple matter of arithmetic. "He'll obviously be wiser, smarter and a bit more careful," Boyce said. "I'm not concerned that he'll have a repeat. Obviously, we are doing this because we think we can make more money. There's an opportunity to charge more for our advertising rates. I am not ashamed of saying it is about the money. We are running a business."
To be sure, Imus and his crew routinely issued insults of the sort that was leveled against the Rutgers basketball team, but Imus fell victim more to the new YouTube gotcha society we live in than to anything else. Had the slur against the athletes not been simulcast over MSNBC cable and captured on a YouTube video, the moment would have gone the way of so many such comments before it--into the ether, one more bit of radio ephemera.
So Imus is not back on MSNBC, though he does have a deal with a small cable channel specializing in rural entertainment, agriculture and equine issues.
Around the country, many stations that formerly broadcast the Imus show are hanging back, waiting to see whether advertisers (and guests) rejoin the program. Even at the show's flagship station, WABC in New York, some executives argued that keeping the current and successful locally-oriented morning show, starring former Guardian Angels street vigilante Curtis Sliwa, made a lot more sense than taking on the controversial but generally low-rated Imus program.
In Washington, Clear Channel's conservative talk station, WTNT (570 AM), has been coy about whether it will resume broadcast of the Imus program. Since Imus's sacking, the station has filled its morning drive hours with the unspectacular and virtually unnoticed Wall Street Journal business new program.
Imus certainly has the star power to make a splash on his return. While he may not ever regain the ratings numbers he amassed during his heyday as a Top 40 deejay in New York in the 1970s and 80s, he has carved out a valuable niche as someone who can draw a small but highly desired upscale male audience. Imus's unique blend of locker room humor and serious political and journalistic chat draws an audience that is much smaller, but a notch or two more affluent and educated than a Howard Stern or Greaseman might attract. And Imus's format fits reasonably well on conservative talk stations and on sports talk or even country stations.
In the new show's second hour, when someone mentioned how the Teddy Teacher might have been better off choosing a different name for the bear, McCord quipped, "Lots of things would be better in retrospect."
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