“I think I’ve had some history of defending friends of mine that have been in uncomfortable circumstances,” said James Carville. “I defend the speaker, not the speech. If there’s no redemption, what are we here for?”
Mr. Carville, speaking by phone to The Observer on Monday, was referring to his former boss, President Clinton, but also to another public figure undone by his own indiscipline: Don Imus, the irreverent, sensitive, occasionally boorish, and strangely compelling radio talker who in April was fired from CBS for referring to the Rutgers women’s basketball team as–remember 2007?–“nappy-headed ho’s.”
Redemption! Since the dark days of April, Mr. Imus, 67–a denizen of Central Park West, and one of the paradigmatic radio heroes of the 90’s–has accomplished the beginnings of a media resurrection. Last month, he siged a 5-year deal with Citadel Broadcasting, through which he’ll return to the radio on December 3rd, as the host of a morning drive time show on the company’s WABC, the top-ranked AM radio station in New York City. The agreement, which will end Mr. Imus’ six-month sabbatical, is reportedly worth between $5 and 8 million annually—a pay-cut from Mr. Imus’ $10 million annual salary at CBS.
Still, his freedom will be curtailed: CBS kept him on only a five-second tape delay, which it rarely used, according to Martin Garbus, Mr. Imus’ lawyer. But a wary WABC told The Observer they’ll have him on a 21-second delay, giving them ample time to bleep out anything…troublesome. It may not be pure democracy, but at least he hasn’t abandoned the wide-open spaces of AM radio for the paywall of XM.
Crucially, many of Mr. Imus’ big-name guests from the worlds of politics and media appear ready to welcome him back with open arms, unconcerned about the inevitable charges that by returning to the scene of the crime, they’re accessories to buddy-buddy bigotry. Indeed, Mr. Carville—not a man known for turning down opportunities for publicity—told The Observer that he’s already locked in as a guest on Mr. Imus’ first day back.
The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta was similarly unequivocal. “I said I wouldn’t go on at the time of the controversy,” he told The Observer. “But I wouldn’t make that same claim today. Because I think people deserve second chances. If you believe in rehabilitation, if you don’t believe in the death penalty, you believe that some people can be reformed and changed.”
Of course, for Mr. Imus’ new employer, redemption and rehabilitation are secondary concerns. “Obviously, there are a couple of reasons to look at him, but the biggest reason is the revenue opportunity,” said Phil Boyce, WABC’s operations manager. “There’s a lot of money to be made there. And we’re in the business of making money.”
And even after his fall from grace, Mr. Imus would appear to be a safe bet on that score. Mr. Boyce said that a number of national advertisers had already lined up behind Mr. Imus, though he declined to name any. “I can tell you from talking to our sales force that’s out pitching the show, I don’t think they have had a great deal of resistance,” he said.
Mr. Imus’ reach will be diminished, at least to start off. At the end of his tenure at CBS, his show was syndicated on about 60 stations around the country, giving him over 2.5 million listeners a week, according to an estimate by Michael Harrison, a talk-radio expert and the publisher of Talkers magazine.
But WABC execs say they have syndication deals in the works. They wouldn’t elaborate, but Mr. Harrison said that with the syndication and the muscle of the ABC radio network behind him, Mr. Imus could get his audience up to as high as 6-10 million listeners a week, within the next year. “Citadel has a lot to prove,” he said. “This is their first major aggressive move. They’re going to want to make it work.”
And publishers are guessing that his former power—second only to Oprah, say industry experts—to move books off shelves simply by using his show to give a platform to authors, will be undiminished. “I don’t think he’ll miss a beat,” said Seale Ballenger, a publicist at William Morrow. “I think his show will pick up right where he left off, and I think it’ll be just as important as it was in its previous incarnation.”
According to Mr. Boyce, for the past couple of weeks since the deal was inked, Mr. Imus, who declined to be interviewed for this story, has been micromanaging every facet of the soon-to-launch program, from the sound of the jingles to the look of the clock, to the frequency and timing of the commercial breaks. “He’s intimately involved with these decisions,” said Mr. Boyce. “This isn’t a guy who is sitting back with his feet propped up letting other people put this show on the air.”
One of Mr. Imus’ priorities seems to be bringing back his old gang. Charles McCord, Mr. Imus’ longtime on-air sidekick, will return to the show, according to Mr. Boyce. And Bernard McGuirk, the producer who, during an on-air call, goaded Mr. Imus into making his fateful comments about the Rutgers team, is rumored to have an off-air role—though Mr. Boyce wouldn’t comment on it.
Bloodied but unbowed, the show should retain its strange appeal. Over the years, Mr. Imus developed a broadcast style that mixed interviews with power players from media and politics with frequent—and often boring—stretches of meandering observations about whatever he happened to be interested in that day, from a new book, to a band, to the campaign by his wife, Deirdre, to abolish toxins from cleaning products. The effect—of a rambling, unpredictable adventure, rather than a carefully polished corporate production—built a remarkable degree of loyalty from guests and listeners alike.
“Every time Imus goes on the air, you get a pretty smart show,” one frequent guest, the musician-cum-artist-cum-comedian-cum-Texas gubernatorial candidate Kinky Friedman, told The Observer. Mr. Friedman said he was looking forward to returning. He added that Mr. Imus “got shafted”; that the country needed more voices like Mr. Imus and the late Molly Ivins, who aren’t “part of this homogenized, sanitized culture”; and that he was surprised by “the cowardice of the media elite.”
As for Mr. Imus’ critics: “In the beginning God created one perfect man,” Mr. Friedman said. “His name was Al Sharpton.”
Perhaps one reason Mr. Imus’ is being welcomed back is his indisputable record of good deeds. With Deirdre, he dedicates each summer to hosting kids with cancer or blood disorders on his 4,000-acre cattle ranch. And as a recovering drug addict and alcoholic, who over the years has wrestled openly with his addictions, he has leavened his cowboy persona with enough genuine vulnerability to make it hard for those who know him not to end up on his side.
Not everyone is happy about Imus’ return. Richard Prince, a member of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ), who writes the widely read column Journal-isms for the Maynard Institute, said Mr. Imus has a long history of sullying the public airwaves. “The whole business about Imus is that it’s not just about once incident,” said Mr. Prince. “It’s about a pattern of incidents. It goes back years … I think it would be interesting if you were to find black women, white women, men of color who are saying, ‘oh, there’s nothing wrong with this, so give the guy a break , he just made a mistake.’ I don’t know how many of those you’d find.”
But another prominent African-American journalist, Clarence Page, isn’t holding a grudge. A Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Chicago Tribune, Mr. Page once got Mr. Imus to join him in a pledge to, among other things, “cease all simian references to black athletes”. But he told The Observer that, if asked, he would appear on Mr. Imus’ new show, and that he disagreed with his friends at the NABJ who feel that Mr. Imus should be barred from the public airwaves. “You make a martyr out of him,” said Mr. Page. “It’s not worth it. He’s not worth it.” Efforts to reach Gwen Ifill, an African-American journalist whom Mr. Imus allegedly once referred to on air as a “cleaning lady” (Mr. Imus has denied it), were unsuccessful.
Tim Russert is playing things a little more conservatively. In a recent interview with Aaron Barnhart of The Kansas City Star, the Meet the Press host seemed to equivocate, saying he would consider returning to the show, pending his bosses’ permission and the nature of Mr. Imus’ interest. “If he asked me to come back and talk about political developments, I would absolutely do that,” said Mr. Russert. “But I guess I’ll have to check with the folks at NBC.”
“That’s a pretty conditioned acceptance from a guy who was invited on Imus’ show countless times,” Mr. Barnhart told The Observer on Monday. “Especially for a guy who was there solely to promote Tim Russert.”
Meanwhile, other journalists’ hands, perhaps conveniently, are tied. Over the years, a number of Newsweek staffers and contributors—including managing editor Jon Meacham, editor-at-large Evan Thomas, and columnists Jonathan Alter and Anna Quindlen—have been regular Imus guests. But a Newsweek spokesperson told The Observer, “We are standing by the policy we announced in April. We will not participate in the Imus program.”
But Sam Tanenhaus, the editor of The New York Times Book Review, is under no such constraints, and said he would return. In April, soon after Mr. Imus’ firing, Mr. Tanenhaus—whose biography of Whittaker Chambers Mr. Imus supported on the air—wrote a ruminative and ambivalent essay for The Times exploring his own complicity in the affair. “Those of us who benefited from his attention can only feel saddened now,” wrote Mr. Tanenhaus at the time, “… because we too played a part in the performance he carried too far.”
But on Monday he told The Observer: “The whole business felt a little heavy-handed to me. There was a lot of piling on. I was one of the piler-on-ers.”
“I assume he’s a little chastened, a little chagrined,” Mr. Tanenhaus added. “So let him start all over again. Why not? When I make my own inevitable disastrous screw-up, I hope someone gives me another chance.”