Video killed the radio star -- or at least his cable TV show.
NBC’s decision Wednesday to cancel its simulcast of Don Imus’ morning radio show is the latest development in an escalating furor that might have burned out by now, if not for the television and Internet clips that blasted Imus’ comments about the Rutgers University women’s basketball team well beyond the hot-air belt of talk radio.
The network’s decision to drop Imus from its MSNBC cable network ratchets up pressure on CBS Radio, which late Wednesday evening would only state publicly that it was still weighing its future with Imus, who is heard on about 70 stations around with the country with an estimated audience of 3 million. Monday, the company announced it was suspending its longtime money-making shock jock for two weeks for referring to the basketball players as “nappy-headed hos.”
But racist, sexist and even homophobic comments packaged for laughs are nothing new on talk radio. After all, Imus once crudely denigrated gay tennis star Amelie Mauresmo. He slapped Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz with an unabashedly anti-Semitic nickname. And those remarks were relatively tame compared with those of other nationally known shock jocks such as Howard Stern and “Opie and Anthony.”
The difference this time is that, as with the Rodney King beating and, more recently, ex-"Seinfeld” star Michael Richards’ racial tirade captured on a cellphone camera, the epithets came with video that turned them into incontrovertible and immortal monuments to the misdeed.
Similarly, the Imus media nugget exploded onto the Internet, feeding the 24/7 news cycle and quickly galvanizing an unlikely coalition of name-brand analysts -- including NBC weatherman Al Roker, feminist Eleanor Smeal and Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama -- all calling for his ouster from the airwaves.
“Twenty years ago, you said something stupid on the radio and it disappeared,” said John Kobylt, half of L.A.'s “John & Ken Show” on talk-radio station KFI-AM 640. “Now, it’s replayed endlessly, and 99% of the people who are reacting to it haven’t seen the show and/or know its context.”
By Wednesday, a host of advertisers didn’t need any more context for Imus’ week-old remark than the protests it has sparked. General Motors Corp., GlaxoSmithKline, Procter & Gamble Co., American Express Co., Sprint Nextel Corp., Bigelow Tea and Staples Inc. all yanked their commercial support. But NBC officials denied that loss of advertising dollars for Imus’ show -- neck-and-neck with CNN in the morning ratings -- figured in his cancellation.
Instead, NBC executives said they were pushed to impose a harsher penalty on Imus -- after saying Monday that he would be suspended for two weeks -- because scores of network employees throughout the company communicated their anger to NBC Universal Chief Executive Jeff Zucker and NBC News President Steve Capus.
“We’ve had any number of employee conversations, discussions, e-mails, phone calls,” Capus said on MSNBC’s “Hardball” Wednesday evening. “And when you listen to the passion and the people who come to the conclusion that there should not be any room for this sort of conversation and dialogue on our air, it was the only decision we could reach.”
Pressure continued to build from the outside too, as a coalition of national women’s organizations joined the cry for Imus’ dismissal and the story took a new twist. Early Wednesday, a Pennsylvania radio station fired disc jockey Gary Smith after he urged listeners to parrot Imus’ disparaging remarks.
It’s more than the incessant attention and constant playbacks that have Imus’ career on the ropes, experts said. It was also the threefold combination of his target, the quality of his apology and the racially loaded words he used to describe the Cinderella basketball team.
First, he picked not on some political or entertainment big shot but on young, powerless people who did nothing to invite criticism -- indeed, they were enjoying the summit of personal accomplishment, having reached the finals of the NCAA women’s basketball championship.
“In the past, the people who have been at the brunt of these jokes have been ‘those people’ or folks in the public eye,” said Karen Hunter, a former New York-based talk show host who is now a professor of film and media at Hunter College in New York. “But these are teens who were not celebrities, that are in college trying to improve their lives, some of them who lived in harsh areas. It just struck a chord in which people said, ‘Enough.’ ”
Second, Imus is a white man who used racial and sexual language that, for many people, crossed a line. And -- as was also the case with Richards’ N-word-laced tirade at a Hollywood comedy club -- the remarks were preserved on video for endless television and Internet reruns.
“One of the things that has protected Imus in the past is that his comments are for the ears, and not the eyes,” said John Leo, an Imus critic and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank. “Before, there wasn’t a transcript -- you didn’t have the context.”
But in the Rutgers instance, Leo said, people could not only see what Imus said, but also view how it was said. “They had a recording, and there is no context in which [the slur] makes sense.”
Imus’ case wasn’t helped by an unconvincing apology -- at least to many African Americans -- that was issued on his own show, then on the Rev. Al Sharpton’s radio program and on NBC’s “Today” show. The mea culpas came with a swipe at black culture -- the hip-hop community, to be specific -- which Imus blamed for perpetuating derogatory female terms.
“If he had just said, ‘I’m sorry,’ this might have died down,” said Todd Boyd, a professor of critical studies at the USC School of Cinematic Arts who has written extensively about race in America. “But the more he talked, the deeper the hole became. Short of burning crosses, people don’t think they’re racist. That’s because they don’t understand racism. There’s this underlying confusion about what racism is. It’s never addressed except when there’s a controversy that explodes, like the Michael Richards situation.”
Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, said the backlash against Imus springs in part from anger at the medium in which he works.
“I really think people have had it with talk radio,” Smeal said in a telephone interview as she was leaving a Rutgers rally in support of the players Wednesday. “We are always the brunt of these jokes -- and it’s all white guys who maintain the frat-boy, locker-room demeanor.”
KFI’s Bill Handel, a top-rated morning host in Southern California for years, understands the flames over Imus’ remarks, but like many in the radio industry is unable to explain why this particular line sparked a cultural blaze.
“You never know what takes off in the world of talk radio; it is so arbitrary and so capricious,” said Handel, whose regional audience is around 1 million. “There are times when I have left the studio thinking I’m going to be in a world of hurt for something I said on the show. Nothing happens. Then later some small innocuous line du jour and ka-boom!”
“Imus has said things that are far more offensive than this,” added Handel, who concludes each show with a pre-emptive apology to a dozen or more groups and individuals for his comments that day. “I’ve said things that are far more offensive than this. It’s lightning in a bottle.”
Handel has had his close calls. Once, he joked about hiring a traffic reporter for the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia after 345 people were trampled to death. After protests from Arab American groups, he apologized.
Imus is in part the victim of the different standards between radio and television, Handel said. Radio, particularly talk radio, has always been more freewheeling than television.
“Talk radio is used to controversy; talk radio is controversy,” Handel said. “Television is not.”
For now, MSNBC plans to run news coverage in the three-hour morning slot that Imus occupied. Network sources said they expected the financial losses from the cancellation to be minimal.
NBC’s move puts CBS -- which owns the New York radio station that produces “Imus in the Morning” -- in an awkward position. The number of Imus’ listeners far outstrips his viewers, making him a more valuable commodity for CBS Radio.
On Wednesday, the Associated Press reported that Bruce Gordon, a former president of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People who now sits on the CBS board of directors, called on CBS to “make the smart decision” and fire Imus.
Zucker informed CBS Corp. President Leslie Moonves of NBC’s decision in a phone call late Wednesday afternoon. Moonves met Wednesday with leaders from the National Assn. of Black Journalists and plans to meet with other African American leaders in coming days, sources said.
For the most part, radio advertisers have not yet jumped Imus’ ship -- a fact that led radio industry observers to speculate that Imus may eventually hang on to his job behind the mike.
“If you look at the advertisers who jumped, it’s mostly for his television show,” said Tom Taylor, editor of the trade publication Inside Radio. “I think his radio support is more solid, though the best thing that could happen to Imus right now is for something else to come up in the news cycle.”
Times staff writers Greg Braxton and Meg James contributed to this report.