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Earl Ofari Hutchinson Headshot

Why I Was Right When I Said Imus Wouldn't Go

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When the furor over shock jock Don Imus rose to crescendo noise, and the calls for Imus's scalp pouring in, and sponsors and CBS poised to jump the Imus ship, I predicted that Imus would not go. The prediction seemed wrong-headed and foolhardy, since within days afterwards Imus was indeed canned. I did not back away from my prediction. I knew that his presumed dismissal was little more than a cover-your-butt salve (by CBS executives), a cooling off period (for the sponsors), and a rest full hiatus for Imus. The moment the noise died down, so would the issue of Imus. I gave two reasons why, and those reasons are just as valid, maybe even more so with his return to the airwaves December 3, now, than at the time of his vacation. I'll also add one more to the list.

The reasons tell much about why the Imus' of radio land can prattle off foul remarks about gays, blacks, Latinos Asians, Muslims, and women and skip away with a caressing hand slap. The first reason is that these guys ramp up ratings and that makes the station's cash registers jingle. Imus's MSNBC show drew an average of more than 350,000 viewers. Nielson Media Research noted that it was a leap of nearly 40 percent over the same period in 2006. Citadel Broadcasting which will bring Imus back hungrily anticipates that Imus will do the same for it. Top execs at WABC, Citadel's flagship New York radio station where Imus will resurface, were in delirium at getting Imus back in front of a mic.

Said WABC President and General Manager Steve Borneman, "We are ecstatic to bring Don Imus back to morning radio...Don's unique brand of humor, knowledge of the issues and ability to attract big-name guests is unparalleled. The operative word is "attract." That translates to this broadcast industry cash happy formula: Big names = more listeners = higher ratings = bigger sponsor fees = soaring profits.

The other reason why it's virtually impossible to permanently muzzle Imus and others that talk race trash is the sphinx like silence of top politicians, broadcast industry leaders, and corporate sponsors. GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney and former Democratic presidential contender John Kerry bantered with Imus on his show. Romney never uttered a word condemning Imus. Kerry issued a tepid statement through a spokeswoman in which he merely branded it "a stupid comment" and praised him for owning up to it.

While Kerry and Romney were two of the better known politicians to cackle with and at Imus' digs on the show, a steady parade of politicians and personalities trooped to Imus's microphones over the years. And not all of them, as Kerry showed, are hard-line GOP conservatives. Senators Joe Lieberman and John McCain leaped over each other to get a spot with Imus.

They'll do it again. In fact, several of the top presidential contenders have already said that they will appear on his show. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were the only ones that said no -- for now. But even that could change. After a few weeks on the air, the kinder gentler Imus that almost surely will emerge at least while the eyes and ears are on him may prove too irresistible for even them to resist gracing the studio with him. Both of them are locked in an intense dogfight for the Democratic presidential nomination, and the hunger for any media exposure is insatiable.

The other reason that Imus is back on the air is ironically due to the man that led the charge to get him off the air, the Reverend Al Sharpton. The prospect of an angry Sharpton descending on CBS corporate offices was too much. The reverend in effect energized and galvanized public opinion against Imus, terrified sponsors, and badly shook CBS executives. But during the cooling-off period, whenever Sharpton was asked about a possible Imus return, he sounded less convincing that he'd still go to the barricades to keep him off the air permanently. He never said that he didn't want him to make a living in broadcasting. That was taken as a tacit signal that it was OK for the broadcast moguls to deal with Imus again.

Now that Imus is back, here's another prediction. Imus cut the deal to appear on WABC. There was no mention that he would be spread out over the Citadel's broadcast map. But he will. It's only a matter of a very short time before Imus's show will be back in syndication on other stations, just like before.

I also said that it's probably not a bad thing that Imus is back from vacation. In a perverse way, Imus is a sort of the O.J. Simpson of the airwaves. He's a useful symbol of malfeasance in the industry and thus a constant reminder to others that if they cross the line of propriety they can be a target too. Welcome back, Don!

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is The Latino Challenge to Black America: Towards a Conversation between African-Americans and Hispanics (Middle Passage Press and Hispanic Economics New York).