Imus to Return to Airwaves on Monday
Will Don Imus be defiant or contrite? Will he mock his skeptics while making his triumphant return to radio Monday.
Or will he muzzle his mouth?
"That question is part of the drama of his reemergence," said Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers magazine, an industry trade journal. "Imus faces some choices."
Imus isn't talking, yet, but it's safe to say radio's best-known curmudgeon will have lots to say when his show kicks off at 6 a.m. EST Monday on WABC-AM and other Citadel Broadcastingstations around the country, ending his nearly eight-month banishment from the air.
The morning show will be simulcast on cable's RFD-TV, owned by the Rural Media Group, and rebroadcast on radio in the evenings.
Monday's four-hour premiere will be broadcast from Town Hall in Times Square, where $100 tickets were sold to benefit the Imus Ranch for Kids With Cancer. After its debut, the Imus spectacle will be on 6-9 a.m. weekdays, from a studio across the street from Madison Square Garden.
Not much is known about the show's format, other than at least one black person will participate regularly, along with longtime newsreader Charles McCord. Imus, through a spokesman, declined to comment.
Whether this will temper his staunchest critics, like as Rev. Al Sharpton, is unclear. Sharpton's spokeswoman said the civil rights leader wasn't commenting. In Boston on Friday, a group of black community leaders protested a local station's plan to air the Imus program.
MSNBC and then CBS Radio jettisoned Imus in April after he called the Rutgers University women's basketball players "nappy-headed hos."
Imus' nemesis, Howard Stern, told The Associated Press in a recent interview that his acerbic competitor's career had peaked.
"At this point, I don't think he's very relevant," Stern said. "People will tune out within a week. I defy you to listen. It's like a rodeo -- you know, see how long you can ride a bull? See how long you can keep listening to Imus."
The people who helped orchestrate the Imus comeback believe he'll succeed and say he's learned his lesson since the Rutgers debacle.
"I don't have any doubt on his future," said Phil Boyce, WABC-AM program director. "He'll obviously be wiser, smarter and a bit more careful. He's learned from this. I'm not concerned that he'll have a repeat."
"Obviously we are doing this because we think we can make more money," Boyce said. "There's an opportunity to charge more for our advertising rates. I am not ashamed of saying it is about the money. We are running a business."
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.
Rural Media Group, which caters to a rural audience, hopes to crack urban markets with the mass appeal of Imus. Love him or hate him, people will tune into Imus, said Patrick Gottsch, founder and president.
"There is a real void in the morning with Don Imus not on the air," Gottsch said. "He's apologized heavily for the comments. He knew he made a mistake. You learn, you move on and I think most folks already have forgiven him."
Neither Boyce nor Gottsch would reveal how much money Imus is getting.
"It's the biggest deal by far we've ever done," Gottsch said. Imus signed a five-year agreement with RFD.
Boyce said he's paying to get the real Imus, and expects that to be the personality that emerges Monday.
"I'm not too worried that we're not gonna get the real deal," Boyce said.
But listeners might experience a different Imus, the same one who has morphed over the years, according to Harrison.
"Imus is just an interesting character," Harrison said. "I don't think that he is premeditated. I think he is a creature of the moment. He's a spontaneous human being. This is what he is. He has evolved over the years. Imus has been never stagnant. The tenets of his performances changed over there years by reinventing himself as the times demanded."
"If they're expecting him to stumble, they're going to have to wait for a long time," Harrison said.