Saturday, November 3, 2007

Imus, Act III

Let the towel-snapping begin, maybe: Don Imus, the vitriolic attack dog and shock-jock Lazarus of morning radio, is set to return to the airwaves on Dec. 3. Citadel Broadcasting Corp. made the announcement Thursday, confirming many reports that Imus would come back to East Coast morning drive time, this time on New York-based WABC-AM.

We all know by now why Imus’ return to the air is such a big deal. Imus was cashiered in April by CBS Radio, and his cable simulcast partner, MSNBC, after a controversy arose over his pointless, indefensibly racist “nappy-headed hos” remark about the Rutgers University women’s basketball team [see “Imus in the mourning”]. Since then, Imus retreated to his New Mexico ranch to lick his wounds, cash various checks received after a multimillion-dollar settlement with WFAN (CBS Radio’s flagship New York station) and plot his next move -- the one announced Thursday.

“We are ecstatic to bring Don Imus back to morning radio,” WABC Radio president and general manager Steve Borneman told the Associated 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.”

Imus’ latest comeback was bitterly contested by some African Americans, some of whom saw his return to the venue that led to his downfall almost as big an insult as the comments that got him fired. The National Association of Black Journalists weighed in again, following its initial outrage in April with a new broadside in October.

“It seems inconceivable that less than a year after Imus was dismissed from CBS Radio and MSNBC for his vicious insults upon the Rutgers women's basketball team, that Citadel Broadcasting … would consider putting him back on the air," Ernie Suggs, NABJ's vice president of print said in a statement.

On Thursday, activist Rev. Al Sharpton called on Citadel Broadcasting to huddle with advertisers and black groups to explain how they'd stop Imus’ recidivism to “his former vile and biased behavior.”

“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 told the AP. “Particularly since these are commitments he made personally.”

Despite the sound & fury from the black press and others, a wait-and-see attitude is what’s called for now. It’s inconceivable that Imus – banished from the national conversation, and reportedly chastened by this latest fall from grace – will revive the same racist, sexist, white-guy-under-fire, locker-room-banter business model that got his ass fired in the spring.

The brain trust at Citadel and others in the Imus camp may dig in their heels and resist the public’s protests, but it’s likely that at least some of the concerns of the wider community will be considered when Imus takes the mike on Dec. 3. In fact, Richard Johnson, Page Six columnist for the New York Post, reported July 16 that a source said “Imus has been scouting comedy clubs looking for a black sidekick who will take the sting out of any future racial cracks like the one that got him booted off the air.”

It would only make sense not to pick up where he left off: the same big-money advertisers that jumped ship en masse in April could be ready to move again if Imus’ new program doesn’t reflect his having learned some lesson from the Rutgers debacle. That bottom-line consideration can’t be easily dismissed, no matter what Citadel’s press releases and orchestrated statements say.

We’ll be waiting and listening – and marveling at how Don Imus’ appetite for self-destruction and instinct for survival seem to go hand in hand. As it is, though, Imus is set to contradict that celebrated quote by F. Scott Fitzgerald lamenting that “there are no second acts in American lives.”

Actually, there are second acts. Even third acts, if your ratings are good enough.

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