Radio “shock jock” Don Imus has been hit with a shock of his own.
The popular personality, known as “I-Man,” will be suspended for two weeks, beginning Monday, for his on-air racial slurs about the Rutgers University women’s basketball team, CBS and NBC officials confirmed late Monday.
The syndicated “Imus in the Morning” is broadcast from CBS-owned WFAN in New York from 6 to 9 a.m. EDT weekdays, and is carried on more than 90 radio stations nationwide, according to the show’s Web site. MSNBC, owned by NBC, simulcasts the show.
In a strongly worded statement, NBC labeled Imus’ comments “racist” and “abhorrent,” and said he was dedicating himself to changing “the discourse of the program.”
The network said its future relationship with the cranky 66-year-old host, who has a face like a weather-beaten saddle and has never met an insult he didn’t like, “is contingent on his ability to live up to his word.”
Imus will stay in business this week due to WFAN’s previously scheduled on-air charity fund-raiser Thursday and Friday, CBS said. (The network, which pays Imus’ salary, would not comment on whether the suspensions would be paid or unpaid.)
Many feel the networks didn’t go far enough. The Rev. Al Sharpton, on whose syndicated radio show Imus appeared Monday, continues to call for his dismissal, as do others.
Marc Berman, analyst for mediaweek.com, says Imus “won’t be fired because of who he is, but he should be. He’s a big name and produces a big profit margin. If he didn’t, he’d be gone already.”
Imus averaged 358,000 total viewers on MSNBC in the first quarter - up 39 percent over the same period in 2006 and within 14,000 viewers of CNN’s No. 2 “American Morning,” according to Nielsen Media Research.
On Sharpton’s show, Imus again apologized for having referred to members of the team as “nappy-headed hos” on his April 4 broadcast. The show is based at New York’s WFAN, owned by CBS.
He made the remark while riffing with his producer, Bernard McGuirk, about Rutgers’ loss to Tennessee in the NCAA women’s championship game the previous night.
They went on to refer to players as “jigaboos and wannabes.” Eight players on the Rutgers team are African American, as is head coach C. Vivian Stringer.
A chastened Imus conceded to Sharpton that his remarks had gone “way too far. ... I really do understand the horrible damage I’ve done to these young women,” who heard themselves being ridiculed by “some old cracker.”
PBS’ Gwen Ifill, an African American to whom Imus once referred as “a cleaning lady,” says she’s “infuriated by the inadequacy” of Imus’ apology.
“These girls have achieved an amazing thing. They’re working hard. They’re a real `Cinderella’ story,” says Ifill, senior correspondent on Jim Lehrer’s “NewsHour” and moderator of “Washington Week in Review.”
“The only thing he can say is some crass sexual, racial comment and pretend it’s funny. Somewhere, a line has been crossed. It’s not acceptable. How it plays out is not for me to decide.”
National Public Radio host Michel Martin, a good friend of Ifill’s, has refused several invitations to Imus’ show because of the Ifill remark, which was made in 1993.
“He does this about every two years,” says Martin, formerly a correspondent on ABC’s “Nightline.” “He’s either a racist who is channeling his id, or he’s exploiting a false racism to boost ratings.”
What roils Martin most is that her colleagues continue to appear on Imus’ show, whether to improve their book sales or to boost their visibility.
By doing so, they are validating his views, she says. “If a black radio host called a colleague `a Jew boy,’ I wouldn’t go on his damn show, either,” says Martin, who is African American. “These are somebody’s children here.”
Imus’ on-air shame didn’t score points with Sharpton, either. He labeled the host’s earlier remarks as “abominable” and “inexcusable.”
Imus said he had no excuse for what he said. He said he’s trying to arrange a meeting with the team and coach Stringer “so I can ask them to forgive me.”
Will Imus’ sponsors forgive him?
“My gut is that there could be some sensitivity,” says Shari Anne Brill, vice president and director of programming for CARAT USA, a media-buying agency.
“What Imus did was reprehensible. He can’t take back those words,” Brill said. “The bigger issue is that he’s on the public airways. This isn’t like Michael Richards saying something disgusting at a comedy club and shot on a cell phone.”
Some complaints have been filed with the Federal Communications Commission, including one by Sharpton, FCC spokesman David Fiske acknowledged Monday. They will be reviewed, he said.
Other shock jocks, such as Howard Stern, have been fined repeatedly by the FCC for indecency and obscenity. It is unclear whether Imus’ comments will face similar fines.
A network “always takes a risk when it puts an incendiary person on the air,” says Advertising Age’s Abbey Klaassen. “It’s the same risk CBS took for so many years with Howard Stern.
“We see a lot of brand marketers just avoid these types of programs altogether because they understand the risk and they don’t want to go near them.”
Adam Rothberg, a spokesman for Simon & Schuster (a division of CBS Inc.), said it had advertised individual books on Imus’ show, but said it was not what he would call a sponsor, which implies a larger continuing role.
Each book is marketed individually, he said, and the company will “make decisions on a case-by-case basis” whether to advertise them on Imus.