Imus is Back. Pols and Brands Followed.

http://www.karith.comThe return of Don Imus to the radio and cable-TV airwaves was more a resumption than an event.

Part of the suspense, if you could call it that, was whether the prominent politicians, media figures and advertisers who filled his daily show before he lost his job last April. The politicians showed up: John McCain and Chris Dodd. Political power couple James Carville and Mary Matalin showed up as well. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin also appeared on his first day back. Republican candidate Mike Huckabee and Bill Richardson appear Dec. 4, along with The New York Times’ Tom Friedman. And Rudy Giuliani is expected to be on the show in the near future.

For those who don’t remember, or who were on Mars last Spring, morning radio personality Don Imus was banished from MSNBC and CBS Radio last April after making a racist derogatory remark about the Rutgers University Women’s Basketball players. Advertisers abandoned him. NBC and CBS employees called or his ouster. And many of the politicians and media personalities who had become part of Imus’s “salon” second guessed whether they should have been regulars on his show when, in fact, racist material was spewed out on a semi-regular basis for years.

Imus was expectedly remorseful today. And it seems clear by the return of politicians and media types that his penance was enough for them, and for several advertisers. Advertising on the WABC-AM New York included Anderson Windows, Tri-State Subaru dealers, Net Jet, Sirius Satellite Radio, Bigelow Tea and Philips Norelco. Ad rates vary. Bigelow, a long-time Imus advertiser, was among those that pulled their support last Spring. Hackensack Medical Center, a New Jersey hospital for which Imus has raised millions of dollars, also advertised and made a statement that it is proud to be an Imus sponsor.

Before Imus went off the air, he was commanding far more money than show hosts with bigger audience ratings like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. That’s because Imus’s audience is higher income and more educated than the Republican wing-nuts.

Now, for the show. The cast is mostly the same. Long-time sidekick Charles McCord was at Imus’s side. Lou Ruffino was the engineer. Bernard McGuirk was producing, though, notably silent while I was listening. It was McGuirk who often instigated sketches and bits that were seen rightly or wrongly as racist. Rob Bartlett parodied Bill Clinton. Legendary musician Levon Helm performed. Imus’s wife Deidre was on hand to promote her “greening”agenda to make hospitals, schools and the like free of cleaning toxins. In many ways, it is the same formula he left last April.

The two notable casting changes are the addition of African-American Tony Powell who does Sports and acts as the counter-punch previously performed by McGuirk, and African-American “comedienne” Karith Foster. Considering it was the first day, the show was smooth. But Ms. Foster’s horrendous stand-up bits, I hope, evolve into a smarter, wittier, less forced contribution to the show. She was less funny than long-time Imus hanger-on Beau Dietl, a former New York City detective who owns his own security firm. Dietl’s apperances have long been tortured and insufferably un-funny, and he picked up right where he left off last Spring. Imus is fiercely loyal to his friends, especially those who stuck by him. Powell’s performance was a little un-even, but viewers and listeners could see how he will grow into the role, perhaps more easily than Ms. Foster.

Imus hasn’t lost his touch for the tough interview, which is what endeared him for so many years to a higher-educated, higher-income audience than the Limbaughs and Hannitys of the world. While interviewing Senator McCain, who annoyingly used the phrase “my friend” about 27 times in a 20 minute interview, Imus queried him about the military’s Don’t ask. Don’t tell” policy for homosexuals. McCain blathered on as most candidates do trying to cover both sides of an issue. Imus, despite his stated support for McCain, said, “Fine, but you aren’t answering my question.” In talking to Mary Matalin, who is supporting GOP candidate Fred Thompson, Imus didn’t hold back his assessment that Thompson “isn’t going to be president.”

In Imus’s absence, MSNBC has been running a credible replacement show, Morning Joe, with former Congressman Joe Scarborough as host. But the ratings have been below those that Imus was pulling. Ratings, as well as ad revenue, for CBS Radio’s replacements in key markets like New York, Washington DC and Boston, have also been well below those Imus was pulling.

The TV simulcast of Imus’s show is on the cable network RFD-TV, a station dedicated to horse shows, tractor pulls and farm reports. Urban and suburban viewers catching Imus on DirectTV, DISH or the few cable systems that carry RFD, may, as I was, find themselves reaching for a gun to administer a self-inflicted wound, or at least switching the volume off, during what seemed like half-hour long commercial breaks. The station is understandably promoting its other programming, as well as running ads for trailer hitches and ethanol. But it’s more tedious and repetitive than most commercial breaks when Imus isn’t on screen.

Imus is back. And just in time for the political silly season. And by week’s end, it looks like Imus will have his radio legs back, at least until he cuts them out from under himself again.

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