Don Imus Returns to the Mic
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Coming up: the funeral of Washington football player Sean Taylor is today. His death has caused a huge outpouring of reflections on the perils facing young black men today. We'll talk with two men who wrote two of the most thoughtful commentaries to come out of this tragedy about what this all means.
But first, radio personality Don Imus is back on the air. Last April, CBS Radio and MSNBC fired him after he called members of the Rutgers women's basketball team nappy-headed hos. But today he took back the mic, hosting his debut show from a theater in Times Square.
(Soundbite of "Imus in the Morning" theme music)
Unidentified Group: (Singing) Imus, Imus, Imus in the morning.
MARTIN: Produced at WABC AM in New York, the new show - for now at least - is being heard on a fraction of the stations that carried the old one. It's being simulcast on the little known cable channel RFGTV. But many people wonder whether Imus will eventually regain favor with the political and journalistic elites who gave the show its panache in the past.
Joining me now to talk about all this is Richard Prince. He's author of Journal-isms, an online column about diversity issues in the news business. He's here with me in our Washington studio. Also with us, Mark Fisher, a columnist for the Washington Post, who writes about radio. He's on the line with us from his home.
Welcome, gentlemen. Thanks so much for speaking with us.
Mr. RICHARD PRINCE (Columnist, Journal-isms): Great to be here, Michel.
Mr. MARK FISHER (Columnist, Washington Post): Good to be with you.
MARTIN: Now, Richard Prince, there were reports of protests at some of the stations that have agreed to air the new show. He seemed to anticipate that right away, and he apologized again right up front.
(Soundbite of radio show, "Imus in the Morning")
Mr. DON IMUS (Host, "Imus in the Morning"): I was a good person who had said a bad thing. And I thought about how irrelevant that was, because whether you're a good person or not is completely unrelated. It doesn't give you a license to make any kind of remark you feel like making, and doesn't minimize the impacts it's going to have on who you make it about.
MARTIN: Richard, what do you think? Is this going to be persuasive to the people who are most offended by - having most offended by Imus in the past and who are still angry?
Mr. PRINCE: Well, I think if they listen to the show that Imus made a pretty persuasive case that he is contrite, and he made some points that some of the protestors would agree with. For example, he came out and rebuked a couple of black comics who had endorsed what he'd said. Damon Wayans and D.L. Hughley.
And I think that that is along the lines of what a lot of the critics would say, that we need to - this is really about elevating the dialog and about, in addition to personal responsibility for what one's done.
There's a larger here that I'd be concerned about in a lot of other sense. And that is the issue of who controls the airwaves, who owns these stations. And I think that if we can have that dialog in addition to what Imus himself said today, which is about - having this national conversation on race that we never had. I think that some good will come out of this.
MARTIN: Mark Fisher, WABC's program director, Phil Boyce, was a guest on this program. He dumped a show with better ratings locally in New York in order to bring Imus on and RFDTV executives say they want to broaden the reach of their station by bringing Imus on to the air.
What is it about Imus that gives him this kind of traction?
Mr. FISHER: Well, you're absolutely right. Don Imus does not draw a very large audience. In fact, if you look across the country, he generally got fairly low ratings. What's important to radio stations here is not the number of people listening, but who they are. And what Don Imus brings to WABC and the other stations that are bringing him back is the opportunity to charge more for their advertising rates.
And they are very frank about the fact that Don Imus brings in a middle-aged white audience, almost entirely men, who enjoy the banter, the locker room kind of mentality of the show, along with the semi-serious political and journalistic guests. And that combination brings in an audience that's generally hard to get on the radio, and that's the value that Don Imus brings.
MARTIN: Here's something that he said, you know, Richard Prince talked about how maybe this could be the occasion for kind of a discussion about racism and sexism and overall tone of our public discourse. This is something that Imus said this morning about how he envisions the program in the future.
Here it is.
(Soundbite of radio show, "Imus in the Morning")
Mr. IMUS: We now have the opportunity to have a better program, to obviously diversify the cast. I mean, that just makes sense. But the program is not going to change. It was a great radio program.
(Soundbite of applause)
MARTIN: Mark, what does that mean? How - you're going to diversify the program but it's not going to change.
Mr. FISHER: Well, he has a new sidekick on his cast, a woman named Karith Foster, a black woman, a comedian who does stand-up acts. In fact, her biography jokes that her first role was in her high school's all-white production of "A Raisin in the Sun." And she was on this morning briefly.
So that's the diversification of the cast that he's talking about. But the fact that the program is not going to change, obviously, you heard the applause there, the audience wants him to be the nasty boy that he's always been. And in fact, there's no reason to believe that that is going to change because the politicians are eager to come back on the show and take some insults from Don Imus.
What got him in trouble was that he broke from his usual pattern of insulting famous people and instead picked on the defenseless members of this college basketball team.
MARTIN: But some of the famous people he picked on in the past were also targets that some people thought were not worthy. I mean, you know, saying that, you know, Venus and Serena Williams should have been in National Geographic, not Sports Illustrated, I mean, that kind of thing. Sure, they were famous, but there are people in the past who felt that he crossed the line over and over again, not just with just racism and sexism, but also anti-Semitism.
So my question, I think, in part is, is that in part what the audience likes? They like the idea that he could make these kinds comments about people.
Mr. FISHER: Well, he's a guy who takes great joy and wins great success in trumpeting the fact that he's not going to be politically correct. And if that means insulting a bunch of people, he's perfectly willing to do it. He now understands that there are certain categories of people that he can't insult on the air, and so he's going to be somewhat more cautious.
The whole show this morning has a much more tentative and hesitant feel to it. So that's going to take some time to work itself out. But if he doesn't go back to his old shtick, then he doesn't have the appeal and he won't get the audience.
MARTIN: You think the line is public figures versus private figures.
Mr. FISHER: I think that's where they're going to try to draw the line; now, whether advertisers and radio station owners go along with that remains to be seen. But I think it's pretty clear from the history of these kinds of incidents that once the blow up is behind us, people generally go back to doing almost what they did before.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
We're talking about Don Imus' return to the radio, and I am joined by Mark Fisher and Richard Prince.
Richard Prince, do you buy that? Do you think the line is the public figure versus the private figure - public figure, fair game? Private figure, you're not fair?
Mr. PRINCE: I'm not really sure where the line is going to be drawn. I think that's still being worked out. But I think I want to just get back to this larger issue and I think one of the reasons why this became such a big deal is not because of the line - not only because of the line of public figure and private figure, but the sense of frustration by a lot of listeners that what are we becoming? Why is discourse on this level? And we have to start talking also about who owns these stations, who makes the decisions about who appears on these stations.
I mean, it took this uproar in order to get a black woman in that role in Imus' show. Why did it take all of that? At the same time, while all this is going on, the FCC is holding hearings about media consolidation and media ownership. A study just came out last week that showed that the number of people of color owning radio or television stations has actually declined in the last year. Why is that? If there had been someone who owns the stations that carry Imus, would have that taken place? Would he have felt comfortable in making those remarks?
I think those are some of the other issues that we should be discussing. And that I hope our part of the broader discourse that results from all of this.
MARTIN: But he said - one of the things he said, earlier this morning, was are we willing to have an ongoing discussion about race relations in this country?
Mark Fisher, do you think that he might be a vehicle or a catalyst for doing that?
Mr. FISHER: No, I don't see any reason to believe that. I think obviously he'll be somewhat sensitized. Obviously, he's going to hold back from some comments he might have made, particularly about blacks on his show. However, he is what he is, and his show, it's very important to them as a business - to the owners of those radio stations, as well as to Imus and his producers. It's important that he be recognizably Don Imus. And so he's going to continue being what he was. He made that very clear to his audience today. And I wouldn't expect to see much change except around the very margins of the program.
MARTIN: You know, Marc, you've said in your blog that, you know, radio has been homogenized, softened to appeal to a mass market. It's harder for Imus-like hosts to walk up to the edge. And yet, there have been - it's time after time, you've got these hosts, I mean, I know they don't - a lot of them don't like the term shock jock but that's a term that, you know, a lot of people use - who make these remarks. They get fired over and over again. Getting fired is like an occupational hazard.
So I kind of - you know, on the one hand, you'd say it's been homogenized. On the other hand, you have Richard saying that part of what disgust people is that there is a sense that the airwaves have been taken over by just a kind of coarse, inappropriate dialogue, you know, it's not safe.
Mr. FISHER: Right.
MARTIN: You know, cover your ears. Cover the kids' ears. So - which is true. I'm just - which is true and all that.
Mr. FISHER: All of these - all of the above is true. There's certainly been a really terrific coarsening of what goes on the air. But it's being done by a relative handful of people such as Don Imus, Howard Stern and so on - the few local deejays across the country, because it's very difficult for anyone to break into this kind of level of radio success anymore because the management has gotten so cautious about what goes on the air.
They're very happy to have the guys who are already famous for doing this, be as lowest common denominator as they possibly can be because they're kind of a known quantity. They're kind of safe in the minds of the radio managers. But it's very difficult for anyone to break in - either with the same kind of material, or God forbid, with some kind of new approach to entertaining people on the radio. There is this sort of sameness to radio these days.
MARTIN: So in terms of the question we asked at the beginning, you know, the kind of celebrity guests who frequented Imus's studio in the past. Now we know that John McCain was on this morning. Republican presidential contender John McCain was on this morning. Republican presidential contender Mike Huckabee is scheduled to be on tomorrow.
What about the other side of the aisle? Marc and Richard, I want to hear from you on this. Do you think that the Democrats will be making appearances, too, and if they do, does it matter?
Mr. FISHER: Well, Chris Dodd, the Democratic candidate, is also on today. James Carville and Mary Matalin, political consultants are on today as well. It sounds as if his old posse of political guests will indeed be back. But he has not mentioned a single journalist. And I think that's where you're going to see a big change. The journalists, who used to be a regular part of the cast, are simply not going to be there anymore, in part, because of the heat they got from their audiences and their managers about being associated with this kind of programming.
MARTIN: Mm-hmm. I haven't heard any guest of color except for this aforementioned comedian. Richard Prince, what do you think?
Mr. PRINCE: That's true. But I wouldn't look to Imus as the leader of the discussion. I think we have to be the leaders of the discussion - we, the public, we, the audience, we, the people, other people in the media. And I think that when we talk about these things such as ownership and who makes the decisions, we are the ones who should lead the discussion. I don't think we should be looking to Imus.
MARTIN: Richard Prince is author of "Journal-isms." It's an online column about diversity issues in the news business. He was kind enough to join me here in the studio in Washington. We were also joined by Washington Post columnist, Marc Fisher. He is the author of "Something in the Air: Radio, Rock and the Revolution That Shaped a Generation." He joined us on the phone.
Gentlemen, thank you both so much for speaking with us.
Mr. PRINCE: Thanks.
Mr. FISHER: Thanks, Michel.