The Nation

NBC cancels its Imus simulcast as outrage builds

The shock jock's slur reverberates on video. CBS feels the pressure, says it's weighing the future of his radio show.

April 12, 2007|Martin Miller, John Horn and Matea Gold | Times Staff Writers

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.

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