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MSNBC Turns to Don Imus for a Little Edge in Morning

Television: An executive with the new cable news network says presenting the radio shock-jock is putting 'the emphasis . . . on doing things a little bit differently.'

July 18, 1996|JUDITH MICHAELSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In making it official Wednesday--that talk radio shock-jock Don Imus will air live on the new 24-hour cable news channel MSNBC--a mostly mellow Imus upstaged, just a bit, the president of NBC News.

"We haven't set a day yet," Andrew Lack said at the start of a telephone news conference. He and Imus were in New York while most of the reporters were at the semi-annual meeting of the Television Critics Assn. in Pasadena. "What do you think, Imus?"

"I just booked Mike Wallace for Sept. 3, so . . . ."

So Sept. 3, the Tuesday after Labor Day, it will be.

MSNBC, a joint effort of Microsoft and NBC that debuted Monday, will broadcast three out of the four hours of "Imus in the Morning," the nationally syndicated radio program that originates at WFAN-AM in Queens and is heard on the East Coast 5-9 a.m.

Since the MSNBC telecast will be live, Southern Californians will see it from 3 to 6 a.m. Both Lack and MSNBC indicated there will be a feed for West Coast viewers in 1997. (Imus' radio show began airing locally July 1 on KLAC-AM [570], airing at 5 a.m. on tape delay.)

Imus gained national notoriety and some new stations after trashing President and Mrs. Clinton--joking about the president's alleged extramarital affairs and the first lady's financial dealings--and House Speaker Newt Gingrich's lesbian half-sister, senators, TV anchors and others during a speech to the Radio-Television Correspondents Assn. March 21.

Imus follows in the footsteps of his rival, Howard Stern, portions of whose syndicated radio show are aired daily on cable's E! Entertainment Television. At Wednesday's press conference, Lack was asked whether MSNBC is sending mixed signals about competing with CNN as a serious news service by programming a show with a decidedly irreverent tone that sometimes crosses the borders of taste.

"The emphasis is on being smart, on being intelligent, on doing things a little bit differently, on taking some risks that you don't see," Lack responded. "Most of my colleagues listen to 'Imus in the Morning' and we take our news pretty seriously."

Imus said his broadcast will not be influenced by the presence of TV cameras.

"I'm simply going to do my radio program. It's [MSNBC's] job [to] figure out some way to make it interesting, which I have all the confidence that they will do. . . . There is something compelling about watching a broadcast, and I think it almost reflects why people like to watch 'The Tonight Show.' . . . It is almost a voyeuristic sort of thing."

Would he change the program's tone? "Tone what down?" Imus snapped. "My program? . . . No."

*

Adding to the unusual pairing is the fact that Imus' radio show is distributed by Infinity Broadcasting, which was recently purchased by Westinghouse, the parent company of CBS--a major NBC rival.

Asked whether he chose Imus because of or in spite of the Washington dinner, Lack answered while Imus laughed in the background: "Definitely in spite of it. I was there. I was appalled. But it didn't stop me from wanting to work with him.

"In all seriousness," Lack added, "he's exactly what MSNBC needs in the morning. Smart and [with] his own take on things. And that's what this channel is all about. So I feel lucky to be hanging around him now."

Moments later, Lack backtracked, noting that he had been "a touch glib" about Imus. "I agreed with what Imus said subsequently, which is [that] if you knew him, there shouldn't have been much to be surprised about the speech." Lack said that using the word "appalled" "was meant half-jesting."

Imus said that after three or four months, both he and MSNBC, but primarily MSNBC, will have the opportunity to decide whether to continue their arrangement.

"We got married because we want to stay with each other for a long time," noted Lack, who said the deal was completed Tuesday. "If it doesn't work, we'll get a divorce. But that's not an issue for us. Imus is a very familiar figure. . . . It's not [like] we're rolling the dice here."

Asked whether Clinton might come on his show before the election, Imus, who in 1992 was credited with helping Clinton win the New York primary, said: "I talk to him occasionally. I don't know whether they all think that's a good idea, and whether he thinks it is. . . . He's not totally happy with me. But I do think it depends on how tight the race gets."

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