Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Imus Ratings to Jump

I don’t think it was calculated. I don’t think he intended anything other than to poke fun…insensitive as it was…as part of what he does to everyone. But the resultant firestorm of the recent remarks by self-styled radio cowboy Don Imus, wind-whipped by the Reverends Sharpton and Jackson, will only serve to send more listeners to find the Imus show. If that’s not what they wanted, it’s too late now, because they have already provided the grist for the publicity mill. Do they really think that their protests will get Imus fired? After all this free advertising, MSNBC and CBS radio would be irresponsible business-people to do that.

The Reverends would have accomplished more to bring about racial harmony if they had issued a press release saying they were disgusted by the remarks. In it, they also could have provided background information about the young women Imus belittled so that everyone would know that these were real people with real feelings. But, of course, they had to stage marches and protests, and jump on every media outlet to declare outrage, making matters worse. There's a difference between being offended, and using every opportunity to advertise that you are the leader of an oppressed people. As long as your message contains the implication that you lead a somehow lesser people, many will believe it. Does that do anything for civil rights and harmony among the races? As long as everyone is forced by others to be uncomfortable in their own skin, how will anyone be comfortable with the color of someone else's? But, back to Imus.

Several years ago while working at the former WIBV, I was the morning news anchor when the station carried the syndicated Imus show. I got an up-close and personal dose of the show every day. For those who aren’t regular listeners, this show is predicated on poking fun at just about everybody. Presidents and politicians, star athletes and movie stars, recording artists and international figures, you name it…Imus skewers them all. It’s a show that’s based in comedy, satire, and irreverence (much like our own Frank O. Pinion show locally). Everybody is slammed with equal vigor while Imus keeps his tongue firmly planted in his cheek. Sometimes he sounds venomous…but usually he retreats from being truly hateful. Taking that into account, I buy Imus's explanation that his racially insensitive comment was part of the overall comedy of that day. Even he says that it went too far, though.

Sure, Imus likes to think his is a destination show for big-wigs, entertainers, and political movers-and-shakers to be interviewed. But, in the context of that show, almost anything that anyone says is taken with a grain of salt. Most of his “name” guests are on to show that they like a good joke as much as the next person. They come on because they know that Imus won’t go after them with really tough questions and they’ll be allowed to exit with their dignity intact. That, plus they know that they’ll be heard by millions of listeners coast-to-coast to get their own message out. Bottom line...it's a comedy show...not a "we're trying to change the world" show.

I’m sure that Imus knew as soon as he uttered the phrase “nappy-headed ho’s” that he had crossed the line. There are certain boundaries in broadcasting that can’t be crossed, and he knew he had just had an “uh-oh” moment. Anyone who has done a radio talk show has a strong feeling for where the boundary is. Imus’s job, like many of the so-called “shock jock” variety, has been to dance right up to the boundary without crossing it. When they do…they had better be willing to pay the price. Frequently, they are. Perhaps he was prepared in this case.

Usually these guys are more than willing to serve a suspension…also known as time off from the job…without a second thought. What happens during the suspension? Usually more publicity is given to why the host isn’t there. Regular listeners get all wound up about the host’s return to the air. The rest of the media covers it like a blanket. And, ultimately, the host is better off in the ratings game for going away for awhile. How’s that for a promotion?

I’m not saying that Imus intended to get himself into this mess. That would be hard to prove without somebody ratting on the boss. But I do think he cares little about the consequences of his words. Why should he? He’s got all the money anyone could ever spend. He’s probably at the age where he’s thinking about retiring anyway. The only thing holding him back these days is how much he wants to hold on to some measure of dignity. In that light, he says that he hopes to serve his suspension with dignity.

The guy certainly will have the bright lights shining on him during his suspension so we’ll be able to see what he means by that. And he will certainly have a larger audience when he returns to the air in two weeks than what he had before the incident. Imus can thank the publicity machine that cranks up every time someone in the public eye, or on the public airwaves, even slightly crosses the line. I’m sure the ad salespeople that work for his station and networks are thanking their lucky stars these days…no matter what color they are, or what the texture of their hair.

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