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10.07.09

Don Imus' Second Act

With a strong debut on Fox Business Network, Don Imus is back in ring and talking about race again—and Al Sharpton’s "monitoring" the situation. But one top media buyer is balking: "I don't get the concept of radio on TV."

Thirty-eight minutes into his Monday morning debut on the Fox Business Network—a much-heralded return to brand-name cable after 2 ½ years in exile—Don Imus couldn’t help but start musing about “The Incident,” the blunder that nearly killed his career and has shaped his image ever since.

“My reaction to The Incident was purely personal,” Imus said, before slipping into a self-conscious meditation on race and Barack Obama. The Incident, of course, was his catastrophic quip on April 4, 2007 about the Rutgers University women’s basketball team (“nappy-headed hos,” in case anyone has forgotten) and his subsequent punishment and humiliation—going on the Rev. Al Sharpton’s radio show to grovel and apologize, only to be coldly rebuffed; getting fired from his syndicated radio show, which he’d been doing day in and day out for four decades, and being removed from MSNBC, where the cable simulcast of his radio program had filled the 6-to-9 a.m. time slot for the previous 11 years.

The question remains: Will Imus’ older-skewing audience stick around for the business news when they could be watching CNBC?

Now the 69-year-old Imus, battling prostate cancer and looking waxy and thin—“like an anorexic fly-rod with a cowboy hat,” in the words of his longtime sidekick, news reader Charles McCord—is finally back in the saddle. But two days in, it’s unclear where his horse is headed, exactly.

“I thought it wasn’t a horrible idea to put a black face in the White House,” Imus ventured to his very first guest, journalist Debra Dickerson, who—coincidentally or not—happens to be African American. “It doesn’t seem like it has done all that much for race relations—or has it?”

Dickerson—on the phone from Albany—argued that “a large segment of the white population cannot bear” the thought of a black president, hence the frequent insinuations of foreign birth, fascism, socialism, and all-around otherness. “‘I want my country back’—that’s about more than just power,” Dickerson said as Imus, on his best behavior, listened respectfully. “Talking about the Nazis? What is that about?... It’s heartbreaking to me… It’s just a very ugly time in America.”

The I-Man’s next guest: Glenn Beck—the reckless purveyor of everything Dickerson was complaining about. The Fox News star made fun of Dickerson and then compared notes with Imus on their mutual bouts with alcoholism (Beck’s poison: Jack Daniel’s; Imus’: Stolichnaya).

“Really? Glenn Beck was next? Now I kind of feel icky. I feel a little dirty,” Dickerson sighed when I caught up with her a few hours later. “Ha ha,” she added dryly, when I told her that Imus, in a discussion with another first-day guest, Sen. John McCain, repeated a “joke” that after 9/11 “President Obama was the second attack on America.” (McCain, on the phone, laughed more heartily.) Dickerson said Imus, whom she has gotten to know since she began appearing on his radio show a couple of years ago, was very keen on booking her for his FBN debut. “He kept asking and asking,” she said.

Was she was being used as a racial fig leaf?

“Call me naïve, but I think he just likes me,” Dickerson said, noting that she was initially reluctant to go on two years ago, but her journalism students at the State University of New York insisted she had to. “I think he was so brutalized by what he did and by what he has suffered, maybe he likes me because I have embraced him and defended him, and I think he likes and respects my work,” she said. “Maybe having me as a guest is another way to say to black women, ‘I’m really sorry for what I did.’” FBN representatives declined to make either Imus or network executives available for comment.

Fox News czar Roger Ailes has been wooing the radio jock for the past two years, and finally pried him loose from a reported $25 million contract with the rural-oriented RFD-TV network, flashing presumably bigger bucks to simulcast Imus’ Citadel-produced radio show and lift Fox Business Network out of the ratings basement. On that score alone, his initial outing has been a triumph: Imus’ debut reportedly racked up nearly 10 times the viewership that the two-year-old FBN typically attracts and even beat rival CNBC in total viewers. The performance was all the more impressive because FBN’s cable distribution—much of it on outlying digital channels—reaches barely half the nation’s 103 million homes.

But the question remains: Will Imus’ older-skewing audience stick around for the business news when they could be watching CNBC? There is certainly a loyal following for his patented shtick—trading politically incorrect barbs with a longtime crew of mostly aging white guys, with the more recent addition of black comic Tony Powell and the frequent appearances of Imus’ much younger wife, Deirdre, a former actress, and their loquacious 11-year-old son Wyatt (who showed up on Tuesday with the family pooch, Virgil, for an endless dog-training segment that seemed to belong on a fifth hour of the Today show).

But it has nothing to do with the financial fare that is CNBC’s meat and potatoes, never mind FBN’s regular cut-ins of “Fox Business Minutes.” And viewers aside, will advertisers get with the program and start investing a significant slice of their half billion in cable news advertising dollars?

Maybe not.

“I don’t get the concept of radio on TV,” said ad buyer Chris Geraci, managing director of national broadcasting for the New York-based media company OMD. “I also think Imus seems to be a disconnect from the business channel. I think to have done this, at a time period when their main competitor is actually reporting business news, seems a bit odd.”

The real answer, as with the stock market, is nobody knows, though some observers are bullish on Imus—analyst Brad Adgate of Horizon Media, for one.

“I would say he drives in viewers that advertisers might like, and helps FBN attract an audience, and also serves as a platform for the Fox networks to promote its other shows and other Fox personalities. In that sense, Imus helps elevate the profile of both FBN and Fox News.”

As for Imus’ almost career-ending lapse, “I think he has rehabilitated himself somewhat from his comments,” Adgate said. “But I think maybe in the back of people’s minds is that at some point he might do this again.”

In the meantime, Imus remains on racial probation.

“We never said he couldn’t work again,” Sharpton told me. “I think he paid a price. We’re monitoring him… In many ways, he invalidated his defenders when he said he was wrong and that there was no excuse for what he did. People have the right to express their views, but we’re dealing with language. So we’ll be watching.”

Lloyd Grove is Editor at Large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.