Imus comeback: Too much, too soon?


NEW YORK -- A six-month vacation, a multimillion-dollar contract settlement and the prospect of a new, nationally syndicated gig. Does that qualify as penance for acid-tongued Don Imus, fired last spring amid a national furor sparked by his racist on-air remark?

Hardly, say some of his critics. The idea of the broadcasting icon returning to the airwaves just months after his public meltdown is nearly as insulting as his crude and misogynist comments about the Rutgers women’s basketball team, the anti-Imus contingent maintains.

“To put him back on the air now makes light of his serious and offensive racial remarks that are still ringing in the ears of people all over this country,” said Barbara Ciara, president of the National Association of Black Journalists.

But Imus’ return appears a fait accompli, barely an eye-blink after his four-decade career seemed ruined and his ouster was supposed to foster a national dialogue on offensive language.

Rumors about Imus’ return began over the summer, with recent reports suggesting he could resume broadcasting by December -- most likely on New York-based WABC-AM, owned by Citadel Broadcasting.

Imus, through attorney Martin Garbus, has declined to comment on his radio future, as did Citadel Broadcasting CEO Farid Suleman. But the Citadel executive recently defended the shock jock.

“He didn’t break the law,” Suleman told The New York Times last week. “He’s more than paid the price for what he did.”

Imus was fired in April after his infamous “nappy headed hos” comment. He had signed a $40 million, five-year deal with CBS Radio just before his dismissal, and collected a lucrative settlement after threatening a breach-of-contract lawsuit over his firing.

Imus then spent much of his time at the New Mexico ranch where he hosts dying children, one of his philanthropic interests.

Among the first to give Imus a “get on the air” pass was the Rev. Al Sharpton, who said in July that Imus had a right to make a living -- barely three months after his was the most strident voice against the Hall of Fame broadcaster.

Others are less forgiving. The NABJ, one of the first groups to call for Imus’ dismissal, was joined by the National Organization for Women in protesting the radio star’s return -- even before it’s official. The Rev. Herbert Daughtry, a veteran New York civil rights activist, echoes those organizations’ concerns.

“It seems he has benefited from his hiatus,” the Brooklyn preacher said. “I’m not really sure there is any real, real repentance, and therefore you kind of hold judgment until you see what happens.”

NOW President Kim Gandy said the specter of Imus coming back to the radio dial was like “a bad dream.”

“Didn’t they learn anything?” she asked about broadcasting executives.

Whatever they learned, they didn’t forget that Imus makes money. His core audience is older, affluent and likely to rejoin the I-man.

“Imus brings, potentially, large national advertisers,” said Tom Taylor of the industry Web site “And there’s also syndication, not only on radio but television.”

Suleman’s WABC-AM is already home to several syndicated hosts, including Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Mark Levin. And Imus’ national presence would trump the local Arbitron ratings, where his WFAN-AM show consistently drew fewer listeners than WABC’s current morning drive time team of Curtis Sliwa and Ron Kuby.

Taylor said he expected Suleman to stick with Imus unless the backlash becomes too intense.

“I think he understands Imus’ potential power,” Taylor said. “Farid is a fan, and he seems determined to do this -- absent thousands of angry people gathered outside his office.”