Saturday, April 14, 2007

The Bigger Question: Who Was Imus Talking To?

by Rich Miles

I first heard of Don Imus back in 1971. At the time, I was a drama student, but I'd always had an interest in radio as a possible career for me as well. I read an article in a national magazine describing what he did on the air, and it sounded like a lot of fun, playing records and making jokes about things. At the end of my first term in college, I went on a trip to New York City, and I actually got to hear him on the air, I think on WNBC-AM at the time, and what he was doing did indeed sound like fun. I don't remember him being insulting to people, though he may have been. I remember him being snarky (we didn't have that word back then, but that's what it was), and quick-minded, and silly, and I remember thinking that if I ever did get into radio, I'd like to do stuff like he did.

Years passed, and I'd occasionally hear more about him - his drug problems, his getting fired from this station or that, his morphing from a cool "downtown" NYC sophisticate into some sort of weird cowboy thing - though as I later learned, he was always a cowboy, he just hid it for a long time, until that point in history when even the stockbrokers in NY, men who had never been closer to a cow than a steak sandwich, started wearing cowboy garb. It was about the time that John Travolta's "Urban Cowboy" came out. That's when he came out too.

But before all that, some time after I moved to NYC myself in 1980, someone at NBC read some writing on some wall somewhere, and decided to convert the 65-year-old flagship station WNBC-AM into the country's first major-market sports radio station, WFAN. It was a hit, and despite the multilayered syndication and radio-to-TV deals that fell on it, Imus continued, all the way to the end of his career (just last week) to work for WFAN-AM, Sports Radio 66.

All the above is ancient history now. Don Imus has left the public airwaves for the time being, for being just a bit toooo much of a cowboy, and for grossly insulting a girls' college basketball team and most of the rest of decent humanity. Don't count him out, though - as ol' Don certainly knows, these things blow over eventually, and he may be back on the air in the not-too-distant future. Or failing that, there's always satellite radio. Hell, those people will take almost anyone - witness Howard Stern (the DJ, not the lawyer who apparently did Anna Nicole about the same time as 9 or 10 other guys.)

So anyway, in my typical bury-the-lede style, here's the point of all this: Don Imus was popular for years. He had a potential daily audience of tens of millions. Listeners liked him enough for him to move from NYC radio (AM radio at that) to national cable television. It seems unmistakable that he was producing an air product that people - some people, a LOT of people - liked. The "nappy-headed ho's" remark was not the first time he'd been racially and sexually insulting on the air - this was his shtick, it was to all appearances
what he did every day, and it was only this one time he got caught to a level and a degree that caused all this ruckus and got him fired.

So what made Imus, and his producers and his station owners and advertisers and listeners and co-hosts, believe that he could say something like that and get away with it? For clearly he DID think he could get away with it, or he wouldn't have said it.

The answer is obvious: he said what he said because he thought his listeners would agree with him, or at least not DISagree with him very much. He was talking to people who, he believed, thought like him, who were just as bigoted and sexist and mean-spirited as he is. After all, he'd been talking to those same people for years, so why would this time be any different?

And from a certain perspective, probably HIS perspective, this time it
wasn't any different - if you look around on the Web and in print, there are lots of folks saying that this was an overreaction, he was kidding, lighten up, get a life, let the guy have his job back. At the risk of engaging in the same kind of dismissive sophistry for which I frequently castigate others, those who say such things simply don't get it.

What was different this time, among many other things, was that he attacked people who shouldn't expect to be attacked, a bunch of college kids who had, additionally, just lost their "big game", and who had never set themselves up to receive this kind of attention, much less this kind of nastiness.

But still, from Imus's point of view, this was just like all the other times: my audience, he presumably said to himself, are just as big a bunch of assholes as I am, so I can say anything I want and no one will call me on it.

And if there's a question that needs to be asked in all this that hasn't yet been answered, it's this: what is it in the makeup of people who listen to a guy like Don Imus that would lead him to believe he could say what he said and get away with it?

And why did it take so long to catch him at it?


Yellow Dog said...

Imus didn't get fired because what he said offended his bosses or his audience or decent people everywhere.

Imus got fired because people who were offended - people who may have never heard one minute of his show until excerpts showed up on the news - called and emailed his show's advertisers and threatened to not buy their products.

The advertisers withdrew their ads, the show faced losing millions, and the networks dropped a failed product.

American capitalism at its finest.

Live by the profit motive, die by the profit motive.

Rob Anderson said...

I'm sorry, but when someone chooses to join an NCAA team, in a sport as popular as basketball, with all the attendant media attention, they are by definition a public figure. And public figures can be ridiculed, though in this case the racism was too repugnant to be ignored.

Rich Miles said...

Rob: Gotta disagree with you. Those kids from Rutgers didn't open themselves up to that kind of opprobrium just by playing basketball for their university.

Seriously, the time I intend to spend thinking about Imus was almost all used up in writing the post you replied to. But I stand by my original premise, which was that he said what he said, both in the Rutgers instance and for more than 35 years, because he assumed that there are people in the world who are so stunted in their ability to empathize with the rest of humanity that they like belittling others in any way they can.

Nuff said. In fact, way too MUCH said about this disgusting waste of protoplasm. I almost felt sorry for him, while not condoning his actions or words, till I found out how rich he is. He'll be fine.

But he'll still be an asshole.