Imus Audience Slips in New York. But He Still Packs a Punch

David Kiley

On April 8, former General Electric chairman Jack Welch and his wife, Suzy, sat for a 15-minute interview with morning talk-radio host Don Imus about the couple’s new book, “Winning.” For weeks before, Imus and his cast frequently teased Welch and the former Suzy Wetlaufer, spinning ribald innuendo about the day the two met at Manhattan’s 21 Club, a lunch date that sparked a romance that led to Welch’s divorce. Bawdy characterizations of Suzy Welch continued even that day, just before the interview and after. “Suzy has been around more times than a fan-belt,” Imus repeatedly joked. Asked why they did the interview anyway, Welch told me simply, “We have a book to sell and Imus is great for selling books.”

It’s more than books Jack. Welch, CBS’s Bob Schieffer, Senators John McCain, Chris Dodd, Richard Santorum, and so on, seem remarkably, at times, willing to be part of the Imus gang on every morning from 6AM to 10AM on radio in 50 major markets, plus the MSNBC simulcast. The recent Arbitron ratings, if you find them reliable (and many don’t) show Imus listeners were down 25% in the first quarter. But up in others.

Book sellers, Senators, Congressmen, media personalities and even clergy are always after the same audience as Imus’s advertisers: affluent, educated and influential men, many of whom not only buy books, but count as swing voters. Imus’s show, while politically charged, skews neither right nor left, which makes it a refreshing switch from the wing-nut harangue of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity or the Air America Crew. “I don’t know anyone in Washington who doesn’t listen to Imus or watch him on TV,” says CBS News and Face The Nation anchor Bob Schieffer, a frequent guest, who politely admitted to me the show has become a more valued outlet for many DC elite than either of his programs. “I get more feedback off my spots on Imus than from my own shows,” laughs Schieffer.

Imus has been at war with The Wall Street Journal for several weeks since a page-one story ran spotlighting an inquiry into his ranch for afflicted children by New York State Attorney General Elliott Spitzer. The inquiry was dropped the day the WSJ was closing its story. And Imus feels the paper owes him an apology for making him look like a crook, suggesting he and his wife use the ranch for personal business without proper reimbursement to the charity. He’s hired attorney to the rich and powerful David Boies to negotiate with the paper. Boies told me he doesn’t expect a retraction, but he is looking for more of a public concession than the paper’s next-day small item reporting that Spitzer dropped the probe.

Imus’s influence is transcending the size of his audience. Imus In The Morning, reaches about 3.25 million radio listeners a week, according to industry trade journal Talkers Magazine (plus another 335,000 an hour on TV). His radio audience is about a quarter of Limbaugh's weekly following and less than half of Stern's. But blue-chip and family-oriented advertisers like Chrysler, Bigelow Tea and The New York Stock Exchange are prepared to pay top dollar to flog their brands on Imus; his show commands advertising rates of $1,333-$1,500 per thousand listeners versus about $1,000 for Limbaugh and Stern, according to industry sources.

Imus and crew get away with truly ribald characterizations of public people. Besides Suzy Welch’s rough treatment, Senator Barbara Boxer is a “skank,” Ouch. Hillary Clinton, decribed as “Satan” on the show, gets better treatment from Hannity than Imus. At least Hannity keeps it cleaner. And poor Anderson Cooper of CNN has been getting it at both ends from the Imus crew. Somehow the presence of solid, serious citizens like NBC’s Tim Russert and David Gregory, not to mention McCain, Rabbi Mark Gellman and Catholic priest Father Tom Hartman (the God Squad) cleanses the show of political incorrectness. Still, even Republican strategist Mary Matalin says the characterizations of women on the show can be “icky.” But says he gets away with it. “Because while he can say horrific things about women, he’s sappily devoted to his wife,” she says.

And how does Imus himself explain his brand, and outsized appeal among serious people despite his drift to adolescent name calling of his guests before and after they appear on his show. "I don't know,” he says. “It’s just a cheap, uninspired, cheap way to be funny.” And, it seems, bullet-proof.

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