Columns appear in print in the U Entertainment Section of the Pasadena Star-News, San Gabriel Valley Tribune, Whittier Daily News

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Imus Fired

April 15, 2007

By Sandy Wells

Imus: Video Killed the Radio Star (Again)

(photo: Don Imus in his heyday)

The Imus in the Morning Show finally hit a big enough pothole to reveal the ever thinning tread he was riding on. His crude, racist remark about the Rutgers’ women’s basketball team after their loss to Tennessee caused his program to veer off the road, crash and burn last week.

Imus was especially vulnerable because his program was simulcast on the MSNBC cable TV network. This is the same news network that fired Michael Savage for lashing out against gay men. Without cable TV exposure, Imus’ remarks would probably have dodged the political and cultural firestorm. Mainstream TV has far less tolerance for speaking the politically unspeakable phrase than radio. Today, impolitic remarks captured on video can be mercilessly replayed again and again on TV and circulated on web browsers.

Savage kept his radio show, however. On another occasion, Rush Limbaugh was fired from his job as color commentator for ABC’s Monday Night Football for suggesting that quarterback Donovan McNabb got special treatment because he was black. Limbaugh’s radio show survived, too. Why didn’t Imus’?

I suspect our country may be suffering from a subconscious paroxysm of guilt and confusion over the war in Iraq and its racist overtones. Firing Imus is a sacrifice to that God of political correctness, that American need to believe that we are ever overcoming our prejudiced past and can therefore maintain our moral standards.

Imus made his mark in radio the early 70s New York radio as America was mired in another war with racist undertones: Vietnam. Back then, his downbeat, irreverent, white trash persona was a hit on the East Coast. Life magazine did a story touting him as possible successor to Johnny Carson as host of the Tonight Show. Imus’ bits were brazen for their time; making fun of preachers through his alter-ego Reverend Billy Sol Hargis, pretending to be a general calling up Burger King and ordering 2,500 hamburgers to go for his troops, driving the hapless fast food worker to distraction with special orders, spoofing the fast food chain’s claim as the burger place where you could always “have it your way.” Imus put the edge back in AM radio as progressive rock and disco erased AM top 40s radio’ relevance.

Is Imus a racist? Possibly, despite the fact that he once aspired to be an R&B singer, he is. But then, most of us carry some racial issues under the surface. Racist notions can reveal when an individual or society feels fear or stress, as in the case of comedian Michael Richards, or be exposed by careless, off the cuff attempts to be funny, as in the case of Imus.

Back in the 70s, humor became the coin of the realm for the disappointed idealists of the 60s. Dark humor, sarcastic quips, cruel, ridiculing sketches, all helped a nation work through the traumas of the 60s’ assassinations, wars, failed protests and frightening riots.

Decades later, new attitudes are displacing most of the cultural and political attitudes of that time. Humor has ceased to be accepted as it once was, as a release valve for the pent up aggressions of disappointed idealists and reformers of the 60s.

In the late 80s, Imus successfully segued from morning shock jock on top 40 WNBC to the jocular patter on WFAN. While doing a general talk show on the otherwise sports talk station, he started to build a following among the Washingtonian elite; mostly white middle-aged men who as guests of the I-man felt at ease with his goofy asides and a cozy, almost insular, locker room sensibility. They appreciated him all the more as his show became syndicated across the country on more than 60 stations. WFAN was ultimately a guy talk station after all and the white male managerial class loved him.

But younger people don’t get Imus. This is an earnest time, with fierce competition everywhere and a war on terror. Many young people are quietly walking away from the cynicism of the Vietnam generation.

As Talkers magazine editor Michael Harrison told KNX reporter Dick Skelton last week, Imus was just an older guy attempting to sound hip by using African-American slang.

As for CBS Radio, the executives who decided to fire Imus are now faced with replacing a great talent in a business that is having a very hard time imagining its future.

Locally, Imus was carried on KLAC-AM 570 until a few years ago. As of this writing, KCAA-AM 1050 in San Bernardino was planning on replaying “Best of Imus” shows until further notice, according to General Manager, Daren Lane.

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