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Shocking But True: Imus Returns to Radio

The "Rasputin of radio" is back, ready to beat down the defenseless for more cheap laughs.
 
 
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Has it really only been six months? It seems like just yesterday that we had Don Imus to kick around. And his racist and sexist remarks about the Rutgers University women's basketball team seem as freshly offensive today as they did when he made them last Easter. Now, to no one's surprise, the self-styled "I-Man" is back, courtesy of the Citadel Broadcasting Corporation, which has announced that Imus will return to radio December 3 during morning drive time on WABC-AM in New York -- the same city where he was unceremoniously banished from the airwaves last spring.

To recap, briefly: Imus was up to his usual repugnant tricks of beating down the defenseless for cheap laughs when a sudden, perfect media storm erupted. The toxic combination of relentless, single-focus 24/7 news-cycle attention, sponsor desertion, and open employee revolt against executives at the corporations that distributed, enabled, promoted and protected Imus for so long suddenly toppled a man who had previously appeared immune to such pressures.

The surprising result -- after all, the loutish remarks and behavior of Imus and his on-air crew had been well documented for years -- was that, after first merely "deploring" their shock jock's characterization of the women as "nappy headed ho's," the corporate overlords at CBS and NBC were forced to suspend, and later fire, Imus for doing precisely what they had hired him to do in the first place: insult, "entertain," shock and enrage, thus creating controversy, boosting ratings, and making more money for himself, themselves, and the companies behind the whole pathetic crew.

Now the man even the normally staid Associated Press has taken to calling "the Rasputin of radio" is back from the brink, and, as the AP notes, "poised to do it again." I can't wait!

Neither can the I-Man's new bosses, apparently. "We are ecstatic to bring Don Imus back to morning radio," WABC President and General Manager Steve Borneman told the press. "Don's unique brand of humor, knowledge of the issues and ability to attract big-name guests is unparalleled. He is rested, fired up and ready to do great radio." And Citadel Broadcasting CEO Farid Suleman also defended Imus, telling The New York Times, "He didn't break the law. He's more than paid the price for what he did."

Las Vegas-based Citadel, which bought WABC and other ABC radio stations from Walt Disney Company last year, now owns more than 240 radio stations around the country. Its flagship station already airs other top-ranked, nationally syndicated right-wing talkers such as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Mark Levin -- a "galaxy of stars," according to station manager Borneman, who called Imus, "certainly an amazing addition to our station and for our company." And Phil Boyce, vice president of news-talk programming for Citadel, gushed to the New York Times that "The chance to get Don is something we couldn't pass up." Boyce also said he expected other Citadel radio affiliates to carry Mr. Imus's show, but declined to identify which ones yet.

WABC station representatives confirmed that they will bring back much of the original cast of Imus' previous show, including his longtime "news anchor" Charles McCord. No mention was made of fellow cast member Bernard McGuirk, whose hateful observations about the Rutgers women's basketball team provoked the affair that got Team Imus fired in the first place, but it's safe to assume that McGuirk will return in some suitably slithery role as well.

Although his supporters try to differentiate Imus from other conservatives who dominate talk radio, and claim he is "more liberal" because his guests include media luminaries (some slightly left of center) such as Frank Rich of The New York Times , David Gregory, Andrea Mitchell and Tim Russert of NBC, and political bigwigs such as Senators John Kerry and Bob Kerrey, the political dimensions and ramifications of the current round of hiring and firings at WABC seem fairly clear. The new Imus show will replace a more politically balanced program that was quite popular locally -- more highly rated, in fact, than the previous Imus show on WFAN, which it aired opposite.

The program Imus will replace on WABC featured conservative Guardian Angels founder Curtis Sliwa and radically left lawyer Ron Kuby. Although "Curtis and Kuby" had hosted the successful WABC drive-time show for nearly eight years, Kuby was told Thursday afternoon not to bother showing up for work on Friday. "I've had a fantastic, great run," Kuby told reporters, before adding pointedly, "Our show has enjoyed the best audience --intelligent, compassionate, decent and kind. The new owners don't want that kind of show."

Citadel honcho Boyce says he hopes to find another place on the WABC schedule for the conservative Sliwa -- but none for Kuby, a renowned civil rights lawyer and onetime protégé of the fiery William Kunstler. When asked to explain, he would make no further comment.

Nationally, the response to the return of the I-Man was quite predictable. Supporters and enablers hailed his 'resurrection," as if Jesus Himself had returned, only to talk 'on air' this time, rather than walk on water. Prominent guests such as former Senator Kerrey vowed to return to the Imus airwaves to support his friend. Meanwhile outraged critics from the National Association of Black Journalists and the National Organization for Women told the press the idea of Imus returning to the airwaves "is nearly as insulting as the crude comments that took him off the air." And Al Sharpton, who played a predictably prominent and recurrent role in the entire affair, said Citadel executives must meet with advertisers and minority groups to explain how the company plans to prevent a return to "his former vile and biased behavior" by Imus. "Mr. Imus has the right to make a living, but we have the right to make sure he does not come back to disrupt our living," Sharpton said.

Although no financial details were forthcoming about the new Imus/Citadel deal, "making a living" is not a real concern for him under any circumstances. Just before his dismissal, he had signed a five-year, $40 million contract with CBS. He later threatened to sue for $120 million after he was fired, and then settled in August for an undisclosed amount of money, presumed to be in the millions -- at the very least. There were also no details offered about the future national syndication of the WABC broadcast, or about any companion television deal. (The previous "Imus In the Morning" show aired nationally on more than 70 stations, as well as on the MSNBC cable network.

Imus' "resurrection" is not the first in his decades-long career, and given his lengthy record as a serial abuser of people, drugs and alcohol, it seems safe to say it will not be his last. So who will win from his latest return from the dead? First and foremost, of course, come the restored I-Man and his wrecking crew, led by McGuirk; also various racists and ranters and the people who like to listen to them; large media corporations and the single-focus greenheads who run them, along with the political and media elite, many of whom are already racing to embrace the I-Man in an evil exchange of their reputations for his audience; and probably even the likes of Al Sharpton, who is drawn to controversy (mostly for his own purposes and aggrandizement) like a moth to media light. Finally, in fairness, I must selfishly add that the resurrection of the I-Man also provides wonderfully endless fodder for media commentators such as yours truly!

Let's never forget, however, in the immortal words of WABC President and General Manager Steve Borneman, "Most importantly, the real winners are morning radio listeners everywhere."

Filmmaker and journalist Rory O'Connor is now completing AlterNet’s first-ever book, which is on the subject of radio talkers like Imus, and will be available early in 2008. O'Connor also writes the Media Is A Plural blog.