Don Imus Gingerly Steps Back on Air

After eight months, Don Imus returned to the airwaves on WABC-AM in New York with a new cast, including Tony Powell, right.
After eight months, Don Imus returned to the airwaves on WABC-AM in New York with a new cast, including Tony Powell, right. (By Richard Drew -- Associated Press)
By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 4, 2007

NEW YORK, Dec. 3 -- Eight months after the controversy that made him a national symbol of intolerance, a contrite Don Imus returned to the airwaves Monday and was cheered like a rock star -- at least by several hundred fans who filled a midtown theater to give him a hero's welcome.

A live studio audience -- consisting mostly of white, middle-aged men -- streamed into the theater before 6 a.m. to catch Imus's first show since being fired by CBS Radio and MSNBC last spring for uttering a racist and sexist slur. An air of celebration prevailed as the broadcaster received multiple standing ovations during his four-hour show, which was staged as a $100-per-person benefit. Even Imus's sidekicks were greeted with raucous cheers.

Imus, decked out in his familiar cowboy hat, duster jacket, jeans and boots, wasted little time in addressing the matter that led to his dismissal: his on-air reference to Rutgers University women's basketball players as "nappy-headed hos."

In his first public statement since being removed from the air, Imus on Monday called his Rutgers comment "reprehensible" and reminded that he apologized to the team in April during an emotional four-hour meeting. "I will never say anything in my life that will make those young women regret or feel foolish that they forgave me," he vowed, "and no one will say anything on my program that will make anyone feel I don't deserve a second chance."

As a benefit for Imus's charitable camp for children who have cancer, Monday's show was broadcast from an ornate, 1920s-era concert hall that has hosted the likes of violinist Isaac Stern. Onstage, Imus and his crew were arrayed around a long desk; behind them was a cathedral window and a backdrop depicting a forest scene. An eight-piece band fronted by Levon Helm, best known as drummer for the Band, provided the music.

Imus's show was a cautious, even stilted affair, especially compared with the freewheeling satire and commentary that characterized his program before the controversy. The most irreverent Imus got Monday was when he declared, "Dick Cheney is still a war criminal, Hillary Clinton is still Satan and I'm back on the radio!"

Imus, 67, mostly played straight man to a series of guests and a panel of sidekicks that included two new cast members: Karith Foster and Tony Powell, both of whom are black. Powell, who handled the "sports talk," appeared on HBO's old "Chris Rock Show"; Foster is a veteran of such shows as "Last Comic Standing."

Otherwise, it was pretty much business as usual. Imus reintroduced his longtime news reader, Charles McCord, and producer Bernard McGuirk, the man who triggered Imus's infamous comment by referring to the Rutgers players as "hard-core hos." McGuirk made very few on-air comments Monday. Several advertisers of Imus's previous show (Bigelow Tea, Sirius Satellite Radio, the Mohegan Sun casino) also returned, a testament to his drawing power, particularly among men.

The cantankerous Imus also was joined by some of the same newsmakers who used to banter with him on his old show. "Good to have you back, my friend," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who phoned Imus from New Hampshire, where he is campaigning in the Republican presidential primary. Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) phoned from Iowa, where he is campaigning. "Drive-time radio has been so boring, so welcome home," Dodd said.

None of the guests -- who included historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, political operatives James Carville and Mary Matalin, as well as Imus's wife, Deirdre -- mentioned the Rutgers controversy.

Imus's program now originates from WABC-AM in New York and is heard on 17 other stations across the country, although Boston is the only other major market in which his show airs. In Washington, WTNT (730 AM) -- which carried Imus's program before its cancellation -- has said it intends to begin airing the show next month. The show is also carried on RFD-TV, a cable and satellite channel.

There were no protesters outside Imus's temporary broadcast home, the Town Hall theater just off Times Square, during Monday's broadcast. The lone visible dissenter was writer Philip Nobile, a self-described "freelance moralist," who handed out leaflets in the building's foyer. Nobile urged Imus to take a pledge renouncing his "lucrative bigotry" and called on Imus to book critics on his show to "counter the constant fawning of my regular political and media courtiers."

"I want Imus to apologize for a professional lifetime of bigotry," said Nobile, who years ago wrote a similar pledge -- and which Imus recited on the air in 2000 -- that said the host should avoid demeaning references to gays and people belonging to various ethnic groups. Referencing Imus's alleged settlement of his old contract with CBS Radio, Nobile added: "A $20 million buyout and a nine-month vacation doesn't fit the crime."

But other critics were more muted. "Don Imus has an opportunity to show the American people that he has learned from his experience -- that the bigoted insults he once leveled on a regular basis have no place on the public's airwaves," said Karl Frisch, a spokesman for Media Matters for America, in a statement Monday. Media Matters is the liberal Washington group that touched off a media storm by highlighting Imus's Rutgers comment on its Web site.

The National Association of Black Journalists, which in April spread the criticism of Imus, issued a statement Monday that said in part: "We knew that it would be only a matter of time before Imus would return to the airwaves. We hope he will choose a more positive tone for his work." The organization, based at the University of Maryland, declined to comment further.

In interviews on Monday's show, several Imus fans said that Imus's Rutgers comment was inappropriate but that it was time to move on. "It's time to heal and forget," said Mauro Troetti, a postmaster from Bethel, Conn.

"I'm thrilled he's back," said Mary Pelletier, 80, who traveled from Royal Palm Beach, Fla., to attend the show. "We all need to wake up to the fact that there is an awful lot of racism in this country. [But] I believe he's learned a valuable lesson."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company