Don Imus returns Monday morning from Coventry, or wherever he's been since being banished from the air in April for saying something. Exiled more often in his long career than a Pakistani politician, the I-Man's show restarts on a new place on the AM dial, WABC/770 in New York, the flagship station of Citadel Broadcasting, based in Las Vegas. Citadel's syndication wing is gambling that the I-man will regain the audience he had before being given the sack for his "nappy" remarks. Time will tell how many of Citadel's 240 stations can stomach him and for how long.
Personally, I thought the punishment did not fit Imus' crime. More suitable would have been requiring Imus and the show to do straight reporting on every Rutgers Women's Varsity basketball game this season. Make it a regular feature on the 6 to 10 AM show, like the traffic and weather updates.
Still I'm glad to have him back. It will be nice to have someone out there on free radio who didn't fear calling Rush Limbaugh "a fat, pill-popping loser" and Leslie Stahl "a gutless lying weasel." Say what you want about him he was not afraid to say anything about the madmen in the administration.
What I 'm not happy about is that new 21-second delay in the live broadcast, one of the terms of his conditional release from exile.
The original seven-second delay in the show was bad enough. This is three times worse. Do you realize how long 21 seconds is in broadcasting terms? It's 48% longer than the average 15-second commercial on TV dealing with life or death issues like which lite beer tastes better? It's almost as long as the average 30- second news sound bite on the threat of nuclear proliferation.
The purpose of the delay is allowing WABC management, or Citadel suits sitting with the earphones in Las Vegas-- the capital of outrageous political commentary, media criticism, sketches spoofing whatever is still sacred in American society-- to hit the dead silence button should the I-man say something bad.
What is known as, to use the technical term, the saving-your-ass policy raises several questions. It creates a potential conscious, or even worse unconscious, damming of the censored person's stream of consciousness, which allows one to go from the vein of irony to the jugular vein of savage political commentary, as well as the questionable and bad taste, stupidity, self-indulgent in-jokes, and other freedoms which make up the Imus persona.
Furthermore, who in the radio control booth, either in New York or Las Vegas, will be telling us what we can or cannot hear?
What if Don and his crew of merry elves should be doing a Christmas sketch, which began with a Santa bellowing " Ho, ho, merry..." Would the show's censor cut out the "Ho, ho" on the grounds that it may offend members of the second oldest profession?
It's a judgment call. One censor might error on the side of caution, another throwing caution to the wind, saying "What the hell, it's only radio."
What are the Imus censor's qualifications? Religion, race or creed? Cultural level? Does he think "Are You As Smart as a Fifth Grader?" is over our heads. Is the judge humor--impaired?
And is it only one person who will be doing all the censoring? Can you imagine the strain on one individual sitting there from six to ten every morning with his hand over the panic button?
If it is a group, will they be voting, 2 to 1, this was in bad taste? Does a majority vote win or will it have to be unanimous?
When I reviewed a black sitcom, back in my days of as TV critic at Newsday, the paper would assemble a panel of nine persons of color to judge whether I had gone over the line by saying the show was awful. My lame excuse was that white sitcoms were just as bad. I was an equal opportunity offender. It didn't matter. I was still accused of being racist.
Would they rather I, as a journalist, lie and say it was okay? Wouldn't that be patronizing? I took the easy way out by just not reviewing black sitcoms.
Will WABC and Citadel have the same censor on duty every morning? Do they already have a book of rules on what Imus can't say even before he opens his big mouth? Will there be transparency? Have they already met with community moralists like Al Sharpton and hammered out standards on questionable taste? Or will the censor make judgments willy- nilly as the mood strikes. The line of good taste shifts, especially in the sands of a citadel of morality like Vegas.
All of this is complex. The other option is to have an official censor, a man we can all trust, a man with a proven sense of humor, who is in the mainstream, not in the lunatic fringe of America where they will laugh at anything
My nominee would be a man whose many Hollywood movies and Broadway plays have established him as America's funny man. I'm talking about Mel Brooks. With Mel at the button, I could wake up in the morning reasonably certain that Imus would get a fair shake.
What makes me so confident about Mel at the guillotine is having seen his 1971 film classic about racial tolerance and the making of the American West, Blazing Saddles. Judging by what happened to Imus in April, Blazing Saddles today would have started a race riot or pogrom. Nevertheless, the Republic did not fall.
An even larger question in my mind is why the establishment media takes people who complain about what they hear in a democracy so seriously. Madison and Jefferson and other founding freethinkers would be appalled that we couldn't listen to the I-man without freedom of abridgments. I realize it may be silly to raise such a question in this the second decade of the fascist state of planned tolerance we live in today, but I throw it on the table anyway.
There are those who say your exile was the best thing that could have happened to you, Don. Not only did you get a $20 million paid vacation from those sniveling cowards at CBS and MSNBC, but also you will be revitalized for your comeback on WABC. It remains to be seen or heard.
In the meanwhile, good luck and good morning. Long may you flap your gums.