NEW YORK — Getting fired wasn't the first time Don Imus had hit rock bottom. Like his stumble into addiction in the 1980s, Imus fell into a personal purgatory after calling the Rutgers University women's basketball team "nappy-headed hos."
"I analogize it to being an alcoholic and a drug addict, which I also am," the talk-show host said during an apologetic return to the airwaves Monday. "If you get into recovery, as I am for 20-some years now, you have the opportunity to be a better person, to have a better life than you ordinarily would have had. And that's true in this situation."
His debut on WABC _ along with a new cast featuring two black comedians _ completed a comeback that seemed improbable at the height of the uproar last spring. CBS Radio fired him on April 12, pulling the plug on his "Imus In the Morning" program, which had aired on more than 70 stations and the MSNBC cable network.
Speaking to a boisterous live audience that had paid $100 a ticket and wearing his trademark cowboy hat, Imus said his road to recovery began in an emotional, four-hour meeting with the Rutgers team on the day he was fired. One woman was so offended that she got in his face and screamed; "you could just feel the heartbreak," Imus said.
"I don't know if it's melodramatic to describe it as a life-changing experience, but it was pretty close. I was there to try to save my life."
He pledged to "never say anything in my lifetime that will make any of these young women at Rutgers regret or feel foolish that they accepted my apology and forgave me."
Still, "the program is not going to change," Imus added to applause from the live audience.
Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer said Monday she heard Imus gave "a very appropriate apology."
"Hooray for him, and let us do our thing," Stringer said.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, one of the strongest voices calling for his firing, said Imus had a right to make a living. "Imus was fired. The move to hold people accountable was won," Sharpton said. "Whether he can, in the course of time, redeem himself, time will tell."
Kathy Times, vice president of broadcast for the National Association of Black Journalists, asked, "Will he emerge as someone who has learned his lesson, or choose to continue the actions of his past? I certainly hope it's the former, and the airwaves will be a respectful representation of the owners _ the American public."
Shortly after the program began, Imus introduced his new cast, including black comedians Karith Foster and Tony Powell, as well as Bernard McGuirk, the producer who instigated the Rutgers comment and was fired as well.
Known for his high-profile guests, Imus returned on a similar level, with a lineup that included noted presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and presidential hopefuls Chris Dodd and John McCain.
McCain thanked Imus for having him on. "Welcome back, old friend," the Republican said.
While Imus pledged to use his new show to talk about race relations, he added: "Other than that, not much has changed. Dick Cheney is still a war criminal, Hillary Clinton is still Satan and I'm back on the radio."
One radio watcher predicted that the new Imus will play it safe, and that including two black cast members was a wise move.
"At this point, the issue about Imus vs. the elements of the black community that were offended by him will become old news, because I don't think that he's going to go out of his way to do anything foolish that would be offensive to them," said Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers magazine, an industry trade journal. "But I think he'll continue to be the equal opportunity offender, which people know he is."
Foster said she would play a crucial role in giving the show the proper perspective. "I can speak from the viewpoint of an African-American, and especially one who can see and understand both sides ... which I think makes for a great mediator."
Imus' resurrection is just the latest in his four-decade career. The veteran shock jock has emerged intact in the past after assorted firings and bad publicity.
Just before his dismissal, Imus signed a five-year, $40 million contract with CBS. He threatened a $120 million lawsuit after he was fired but settled in August for an undisclosed amount.
In addition to being aired on the Citadel Broadcasting-owned station, WABC, the new program will air on four other Citadel stations and 17 other stations owned by other companies, said Phil Boyce, program director of WABC. Other stations are expected to sign up to carry Imus in the coming weeks, Boyce said. Terms of his contract have not been disclosed.
The show also will be simulcast on cable's RFD-TV, owned by the Rural Media Group Inc. RFD reaches nearly 30 million homes, but with Imus on board the 24-hour cable network hopes to boost that number to 50 million over the next two years.
WABC is already home to several syndicated hosts, including Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Mark Levin. But Imus is now the station's biggest star _ as evidenced by the crowd that turned out for his return.
David Walter, a fan from Kansas City, thought the reaction to Imus' remarks was "overblown" and a "double standard."
"It was a comedy context, a comedy show," Walter said. "He said something that was supposed to be funny and everybody beat him over the head with it."
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