He's Back, Hat in Hand
Chastened by Reaction To His Rutgers Women's Basketball Team Comments, an 'Older And Wiser' Don Imus Returns to TV on the Fox Business Network
Monday, October 5, 2009
After holding forth for hours behind the mike on everything from Roman Polanski to Afghanistan, Don Imus walks from his gleaming new studio to a stretch limo, slumps in the seat, removes his cowboy hat and runs a hand through his mop of brownish-gray hair.
"I can't breathe," he says, his trademark growl reduced to a low rasp. He has run out of inhaler for his emphysema, exacerbated by a lung injury when he was once thrown from a horse.
Whatever his physical difficulties, the 69-year-old curmudgeon hopes to be rejuvenated when his radio program makes its debut Monday on Fox Business Network. He is eager to join the company that employs Glenn Beck, Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity, a personal friend.
"It's pretty hard to define where I am politically," says Imus, who supported John McCain and John Kerry in the last two elections. "People think I'm more liberal than I am conservative, which I probably am."
Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes is adept at picking off personalities from other networks, as he did with Beck, and turning them into bigger stars. But Imus is too much the iconoclast to view himself as a team player at Fox.
"The perception is that even their news is skewed toward opinion -- not when I watch it. It's a fair news organization. It's not my job to defend them. But I'm more likely to believe Shep Smith than Katie Couric or Brian Williams. Their news is advertiser-driven."
And Fox's isn't? "We're better people and have a much closer relationship with our Lord," Imus deadpans.
The limo has deposited him at a stately building on Central Park West. Inside, Imus is sitting on a brown leather chair in his office, his latest property in the building where he has owned a duplex for nearly two decades. The motif is decidedly more Southwestern than Upper West Side -- earth tones, kachina dolls, miniature totem poles, horse photos conjure up his New Mexico ranch. He touches a wall button and the room fills with the sound of a Nashville country band.
After two years, Fox's challenge to CNBC's dominant business coverage remains low in the ratings -- drawing an average of just 21,000 viewers -- but reaches nearly 50 million homes. It is a far more prominent brand than Imus's previous television home, RFD (Rural Free Delivery), founded by Imus pal Patrick Gottsch and carried mainly on satellite. There, Imus says, he shared the dial with cattle auctions and the "Big Joe Polka Show." "It's the difference between being on television and being on an Etch A Sketch," he grumbles.
MSNBC simulcast his radio show for 11 years until the spring of 2007, when the channel, and CBS Radio, fired Imus over racially insulting remarks about the Rutgers women's basketball team. CBS owed Imus almost $40 million at the time on the nearly four years remaining on his contract, and paid him at least $10 million to settle a subsequent lawsuit. Imus is now on more radio stations (65) than he was before signing with Citadel Broadcasting and its flagship station here, WABC.
There was a time when Imus was his own constellation in the New York-Washington mediasphere, with his political and journalistic guests often making news, or being prodded into newsworthy gaffes. He was, as Newsweek put it in a 1999 cover story, a "savvy ringmaster . . . the perfect voice for an age that prizes irony over solemnity."