Watch Your Backs, MSNBC! Imus Can See You!

Not long ago, shortly after dawn, Don Imus sat behind a live microphone and let his mind linger for a

Not long ago, shortly after dawn, Don Imus sat behind a live microphone and let his mind linger for a moment on Hillary Clinton’s wardrobe. The day before, he had watched Harry Smith on CBS’s Face the Nation interview Secretary of State Clinton about such things as Iran’s nuclear ambitions. What, Mr. Imus now wondered, was with her red pantsuit? “I don’t know if I would have worn it,” said Mr. Imus. “It was not flattering.”

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It was the morning of Monday, Sept. 28, and Mr. Imus was at work in a new studio inside the News Corporation headquarters in midtown Manhattan. In just seven days, News Corp.’s two-year-old foray into financial reporting, the Fox Business Network (FBN), would begin simulcasting Mr. Imus’ morning radio show (which is currently broadcast by WABC and syndicated nationally by Citadel) into some 50 million American homes. This was a test run—which was airing on the radio, but not on television.


Over the next four hours, Mr. Imus took his listeners on a typically rollicking ride through the world of American politics and journalism. Along the way, he interviewed Rudolph Giuliani about terrorism prevention, joked that Governor Paterson would look cooler if he wore sunglasses, poked fun at Bo Dietl’s reading habits, tested Warner Wolf’s religious fidelity on Yom Kippur, reminisced about a shuttered Papaya King, questioned why American soldiers were still being sent to Afghanistan and called Bob Woodward a pompous jerk.

The new studio, Mr. Imus explained at one point to his listeners, was located on the third floor of the News Corp. building, overlooking Sixth Avenue, at 48th Street—not far from his former place of employment at NBC. For 11 years, MSNBC simulcast Imus in the Morning from a studio at Rockefeller Plaza. But in the spring of 2007, after Mr. Imus referred to the women on the Rutgers basketball team as “nappy-headed hos” and amid the subsequent uproar, NBC dumped him. “I can’t ignore the fact that there is a very long list of inappropriate comments, of inappropriate banter,” NBC News’ president, Steve Capus, said at the time. “And it has to stop.”

Some two and a half years later, on his first day in the heart of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, Mr. Imus took a sidelong glance back at his old lair. “You can nearly see our old office at NBC from here,” said Mr. Imus. “I’m just wondering if they ever found the cocaine in there. It was hidden in the walls.”

These days, of course, many of Mr. Imus’ new coworkers are locked in a multiheaded feud with NBC and would probably like nothing more than to see a team of drug-sniffing police dogs descend on the professional home of the likes of Keith Olbermann. But unleashing Don Imus to compete against NBC, the media company that shunned him in his time of crisis, might be even better.

“I don’t know to what degree Fox will let him nurse any grudge he has at MSNBC while he’s on FBN,” said Aaron Barnhart, the TV critic for The Kansas City Star. “But if the past is any precedent, I’m pretty sure they’ll say, ‘Don, let it rip.’”

When Fox executives first announced the partnership with Mr. Imus back in the early days of September, much of the subsequent media analysis focused on what the programming coup would mean in terms of FBN’s two-year-old, losing rivalry with CNBC. Since launching in October of 2007, as an explicit challenger to NBC’s lucrative cable financial channel, FBN has struggled to attract many viewers. Some critics now argued that the addition of Mr. Imus would finally present CNBC with a serious challenge. Others wondered if FBN was simply giving up on business news altogether. But, at least in the short term, the arrival of Don Imus on FBN is less likely to impact CNBC than it is another NBC franchise—namely, MSNBC’s Morning Joe.

“They are going to take a serious run at MSNBC,” said William O’Shaughnessy, the author and longtime radio executive. “Imus’ show will pose problems for them. I think it’s going to give [FBN] a hell of a boost. And I think they’ll take most of it out of the hide of Morning Joe. I don’t know who else they would hurt in the morning.”


AFTER CANCELING Imus in the Morning two-odd years ago, MSNBC executives held a bake-off among various anchors to see who would replace Mr. Imus. In the end, Joe Scarborough, the sharp-witted former Republican congressman from Florida, beat out the likes of David Gregory. Since then, Morning Joe has gone on to attract a slightly larger audience than Mr. Imus’ program ever did in its heyday. In September 2009, Morning Joe averaged 373,000 total viewers versus Imus’s 354,000 during his last full month on MSNBC, in March 2007.

Watch Your Backs, MSNBC! Imus Can See You!