“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.