After Imus’ Firing: Instilling A Culture Of Respect

Maybe the most disheartening thing about the comments that led to Don Imus’ firing yesterday is that for most people who spend any time with Talk radio or edgy high-profile morning shows, those comments weren’t the worst thing they’d ever heard on the radio.
Imus’ comments were inexcusable, but they weren’t unusual. In fact, in the years since the corporate lawyers clamped down on any borderline indecency, race baiting (and gay-baiting) had emerged as the arena where aggressive talent could push the boundaries. Sometimes the comments were overt, but as elsewhere in today’s society, there was more subtle racism, often spoken in code or manifested in a host’s choice of topics (e.g., let’s bemoan corrupt politicians–but mostly the African-American ones).
Only on rare occasions would such content sufficiently provoke somebody outside its intended audience. When actual controversy emerged, owners and General Managers would triage it roughly the way they had any controversy–racially charged or otherwise–since the Greaseman’s Martin Luther King-day remarks in 1986, by responding less to the content of the remarks than to the severity of the backlash. Apology would only give way to a suspension after a few days if the controversy failed to blow over; a firing would only follow if it somehow became clear that a highly-rated or sponsor-friendly personality would no longer be highly-rated or sponsor-friendly.
In the years between the Greaseman’s first offense and his second, an actual firing rarely ever followed. Only in this decade as air personalities ratcheted up the outrage did it become clear that there was indeed such a thing as bad publicity, or that an offending personality might not cross the street immediately to another even better job. And when that happened, some types of manufactured controversy stopped being manufactured. Nobody has butchered a hog in the parking lot since Bubba the Love Sponge. Nobody has sent listeners to have sex in church since Opie & Anthony. And nobody has threatened a rival’s child since Star & Buc Wild. In a different era, other personalities would have rushed to re-create those incidents, or top them.
But even a handful of heavily publicized firings failed to have much effect on racially charged material. Perhaps the corporate lawyers didn’t hand down the same “zero tolerance” guidelines because racially offensive content didn’t have the same ability to jeopardize a license. Clearly, program directors failed to make clear to their talent that race baiting would be dealt with severely at 10:01 a.m., and that it would be an issue not because somebody complained but because it violated a station’s format. And as the Imus incident shows, many of those personalities most likely to cross the line were beyond the purview of a program director anyway.
If anything positive is to come from the Imus controversy in the long run, it is that PDs, GMs, and owners must instill and reinforce a policy of “first do no harm to the audience” and make very clear that they mean to the whole audience, not just those in the target demo. Air talent will always make mistakes, but an ongoing series of deliberate provocations is different from an unfortunate stray remark. And so much recent content has been more insidious because it so often reflects not even a personality’s true beliefs, but a calculated desire for publicity and an inability to get it without choosing to hurt others. If all of that were gone, we would all have a better chance of moving forward together.
My colleague Tom Webster has an additional take on this story here.

18 replies
  1. Bob Christy
    Bob Christy says:

    Look at Media Matters website and read the documentation of the race baiting going on in our business. (Imus was proabably the least offensive.) Savage, Rush, Beck, Boortz are all over the top.
    I think the day when “talent” can take the easy, lazy way out by taking cheap shots or dropping sleazy one liners is over. Is there anything funny about what Imus said about the Rutgers team? No. Was it funny when he called Gwen Ifills a “cleaning lady” or when he referred to Howard Kurtz as a “banana nosed beanie wearer”?
    The I-Man got what he deserved and let’s hope that the rest of of these jack asses get the message.
    Bob Christy
    General Manager
    Amaturo group of LA

  2. Andre Washington
    Andre Washington says:

    Imus only said what has always been in his Heart/Soul. The remark was not a written piece, but came from the Imus psyche. It was degrading, hurtful and IGNORANT. While his remarks were right up there in being All-Time Bad, it simply reflects the state of the broadcast industry. The show is most of the time funny, quick and counter to the prevailing conventional wisdom of the broadcast industry. For instance Imus was willing to take on the hypocrisy of the political establishment on either side, this is what attracted me to this show. The larger issues are not being addressed. Here are a few.
    The Imus shows on MSNBC & WFAN are lily white. Imus lives in a big white bubble. 99% of his music guests are white (Speaks Volumes). Would he have made these remarks if he had any interaction with African-Americans on regular basis? Maybe so, but if he had any front of mind awareness of the feelings of others who are not white & male, I doubt he would have.
    Imus was cancelled by CBS and MSNBC because his advertisers bolted, not because Dan Abrams was offended by his statements. I have listened for 3-days to White male guests of the Imus show rationalize his statements. They all say Imus is a good guy who does lots of good things on a charitable basis; they all say he never displays racist behavior with them. Of-course-not. Generally you can’t offend a white middle-age male by telling “Nappy-Head Hoe” jokes.
    Hip-Hop The Deflection
    While I’m no fan of Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton, they have been in the forefront along with the late C. Delores Tucker in pressuring the white males who run and profit from the record labels who put out hip-hop to clean up their act. After countless meetings and protests for at least 10-years, there has been no response or change. RIAA stats say up to 85% of Hip-Hop is purchased by White Anglo teens. So who is supporting and profiting from the degrading music this industry distributes. There would be no Snoop-Dogg if the white label owners did not condone his content.
    The industry will apologize, rationalize and justify Imus for two-weeks, then its “Business As Usual”. Imus will return to his 20th floor luxury trailer park in the sky and go to XM or Sirius

  3. Cary Pall
    Cary Pall says:

    Bob Christy: Oversensitivity and the “feminization” of America will bring this country down. It has already made us ineffective in the fight against those in the Middle East who want us dead. America needs to grow up. Remember the childhood admonition: “Sticks and stones can break my bones but names can never hurt me”?
    If Imus had been Jon Stewart doing the same line with his cute little smirk to the camera afterward, no one would care. Do you really think this is the worst thing Imus ever said? And what about the blatant double standard? Are you telling me that the egregious lyrics of Snoop Dogg, Timbaland et al are acceptable behavior and Imus is not? Whether urban radio bleeps the offensive words or not, this garbage has perverted an entire generation of young people who might otherwise be productive members of society. I doubt Imus has done anything much more than encourage someone to say an unfunny ethnic joke or, worse still, mumble behind a microphone. I’m no big fan of Imus, but I am a fan of the rights given to us by the US Constitution. That’s why, despite the fact that the hip-hop nation is deplorable, excessive and, dare I say, ruled by evil people, I do not work to see them censored.
    What happens when it comes your turn to give up your right to free speech, Mr. Christy? If you don’t like Rush, Boortz, Hannity, Savage et al, you have every right to SHUT THEM OFF. The market will ultimately decide.
    Down with Stalinists and down with those who would be cowed by them.

  4. Bill Cloutier
    Bill Cloutier says:

    What Imus said was inexcusable; even he admitted that, which is a stretch for someone as irascible and recalcitrant as Imus. Then he very sincerely apologized. Nonetheless, to many — and not just white people — he provided entertainment on the radio. Yes, many found his humor offensive. So…they didn’t listen. Thankfully, we have myriad choices on radio here in the land of the free. I personally find most hip hop lyrics offensive (Frankly, my objection to the lyrics is more about the violence than the sexism and racism.) so I don’t listen to hip hop stations. Pretty simple, huh? Every time “the suits” allow a slip (read: clearly not premeditated) in a live performance to become the reason for the talent losing his or her job, they are further censoring what talent remains and the result is more boring radio. Yes, Imus was way over the line but Jesse Jackson didn’t lose his job when he insulted Jewish people in a similar fashion and Imus shouldn’t have lost his job for his stupid utterance either.

  5. Brian Chin
    Brian Chin says:
    Here’s the link, and the featured story is a horrific compendium of the hatred that’s been the stock in trade of talk.
    If the media industry wants to know why broadcast radio and TV and newspapers are losing eyes and ears, it’s right here.
    Most of us are tired of being name-called, and of all the wedge issues and news manipulation that divides the country, gets us into wars, and gives corporations every lever of power.
    The only place I can get some kind of perspective that’s not an insider’s Beltway/government spin is in aggregator/research/blog sites like Media Matters, dailyKos and Talking Points Memo, which broke the US Attorneys story.
    If it weren’t for those sites, which don’t have the money to hire journalists but live up much more to the investigative standard than the corporate media ever will again, we’d never know what the government was doing in secrecy.
    Because many of the right wing have been fed their talking points for the last 10 to 20 years in an orchestrated way that’s just become clear from the exposure of the K Street Project, the corruption of the Congress and Bush administration and the conflation of partisan right-wing attacks with “news.”

  6. Tim Byrd "The Byrdman"
    Tim Byrd "The Byrdman" says:

    I worked with Imus in NYC @WNBC. It was a boneheaded remark, but not worthy of all the hooey that has ensued.He has always been a good hearted guy, just rough around the edges, and for years that edge was encouraged. The troubling part of all this is the hipocritical double standard that exists.” Political Correctness” is evil. Respect combined with grace and empathy with a sense of humor is The American way. Being hurtful on purpose with intent to do damage is certainly worthy of severe consequences, but his show has always been an equal opportunity offender. It was always about his view or his sensibility. I am not saying that it was right or that i even agree with it, but he enjoyed huge success for years doing that very thing.
    Sure, it is a different world now, but let me add…a lot of folks need to as Elvis sang “Clean up your own backyard”. In order to keep calm among the ranks, fairness needs to be the key of ALL diologue. If you want to bring up Racism…remember that IS NOT A ONE WAY street. It exists from black to white and white to black and every other color imaginable, to every other color imaginable.
    We should not let the RACE PIMPS on any side of the issue set the tone. That will only cause a race war, and those types will be happy, because they will be lining their pockets with the cash of their respective races or groups, or organizations. Ultimately, the hard honest and introspective look that people need to conduct probably will not take place until and unless it is encouraged at a local level on a massive scale. I pray and encourage all to do that. I also want to remind everyone that it starts with you…how you are, how you interact with, how you treat, how you do business with others of all races. Key words that seem to have been forgotten in this country are RESPECT, COURTESY, EMPATHY, SYMPATHY, LOVE, KINDNESS, CONSIDERATION, CIVILITY.
    I have found for the most part that when you apply THE GOLDEN RULE, it comes back to you. As for the ones who choose not to respond in kind to that rule, just ignore them and move on.
    Not money, nor Congress nor laws nor regulations, nor forcing anyone with pc police nor verbal censorship will bring the attitude change necessary. There has to be genuine desire by intelligent people for this to ever come about.
    Tim Byrd
    “The Byrdman”

  7. Lynn V. Salton
    Lynn V. Salton says:

    Mr. Pall’s posting intrigued me. I always find it amusing in these instances when someone dusts of the US Constitution and starts talking about “rights” and “the freedom of speech”.
    A 66 year-old man spouting racist and sexist nonsense from two generations ago in a radio/TV broadcast IS NOT a first amendment issue. It’s capitalism. It’s the free market… supply and demand.
    Broadcasters are “paid” for their “speech” and if their employers feel that the “demand” for the speech the broadcaster is “supplying” is no longer profitable… well, that the free enterprise system at work.
    Don Imus can continue to relive the 50s and share his antiquated comments from a soap box and excercise his First Amendment rights anytime he wants. If he has a difficult time earning a living from his orations then that’s a Capitalism issue not a constitutional one.

  8. KJ
    KJ says:

    What Imus said was clearly offensive and when the money goes…so does the problem.
    Mike Greenberg of ESPN radio pointed out something very key in regards to Rap lyrics in this debate:
    When you hear the songs on the radio, they’re edited.
    So, to me, its like watching the Sopranos on A&E versus watching it on HBO. You have to PAY for the premium channel to see the unedited version. WFAN-AM is not a subscriber only channel.
    So when you hear these rap songs in their unedited form, you would have to purchase them.
    Play the unedited versions on the radio…and see what happens!
    I dont agree with some of the things said in the songs, but to be honest, I dont know the exact words used..because I havent purchased the unedited version (Which by the way still contain Warning Stickers), and only hear the radio edits.
    J-Lo’s “I’m Real” comes to mind of a song that had a questionable lyric, pulled from radio, then sent back with a corrected edit.
    So at what point does this (really) become a debate about free speech and the first ammendment.
    Maybe the public needs to be educated on offensive versus indecency. The airwaves are owned by the public trust, but how much do they know about what they own. If you owned a car and didnt know how to drive it, someone would have to educate you.
    Thats not the broadcaster’s job.
    I understand the true emotions involved in the Imus matter, but facts are facts. Don Imus was offensive to the highest level. Indecent? I am sure there are a few lawyers who would defend that case in a heartbeat.
    I think we will see music videos scrutinized a little more, but again, the public is given the edited lyrics…The individual has to purchase the explicit…

  9. Jeff Scheckner
    Jeff Scheckner says:

    Over the last week there has been much discussion on how the black community reacts to racial slurs, how the Jewish community responds to anti-Semitism, how the gay community responds to homophobia and how all other racial, ethnic and other groups respond to hate speech and action.
    The big difference in the Imus incident was the presence of Al Sharpton. Like him or not, Mr. Sharpton managed to garner major media coverage for his part in this episode and thus became the kingmaker, actually the king dethroner. Despite his controversial nature, Al Sharpton has aobviously become the voice to the media for concerns relating to anti-black racism. My sense is if Imus made an anti-Semetic remark, or made fun of Arabs or gays, there would not have been much negative reaction simply because there is no obvious leader in any of those communities who could catapult such an incident to the headlines in the way the Sharpton did.

  10. Bill O'Brien
    Bill O'Brien says:

    OK, so it was oversensitivity, feminization & our reaction to Don Imus that has us stuck in an unjustified civil war. Quick! tell the Prez!
    Let’s put an end to ALL hate speech (yes, from right wing talkers too!)

  11. Sherwood Ross
    Sherwood Ross says:

    Overlooked perhaps in the Imus controversy is that his audience may be in deep trouble. If his listeners get an electric charge out of hearing the sort of remarks Imus made about the Rutgers basketball team, they have a deep-rooted inferiority complex. This may also be true, and I have no statistics just a hunch, of listeners who tune in Rush Limbaugh and the other hatespielers. Imus and Limbaugh listeners are far from being society’s “winners.” Their phone calls are a litany of how others have betrayed them. They blame government, Jews, liberals, corrupt politicians, African-Americans, immigrants — everybody and anybody but themselves — for their status. This crumbling underclass is a group in urgent need of this country’s attention.

  12. Mike McVay
    Mike McVay says:

    Sean Ross is right-on. I’m a father of daughters. I found what Imus said to be immediately offensive. Were it my children that he was disparaging, I would have considered the justice of the Old Testament. It shouldn’t have taken three days to make a decision about Imus’ comment. It shouldn’t have required the Rev. Al Sharpton’s pressure for him to be terminated. Regardless of race, religion, gender, sexual or political preference … be conscious of others rights. We need to be responsible people. When you wouldn’t say something this offensive in a crowd of people, why would you say it on the air? We need to be self-policing. We need to return to being decent people. This decency should be everywhere. Song lyrics that use the “N word” are wrong. The F-bomb is not a commonly accepted word to be rhymed with in music. Unless we respect the youth of today, we will see even less respect in the free world tomorrow.

  13. Harvey Mednick
    Harvey Mednick says:

    I also noticed, and hopefully you did as well, that all of the reporting neglected to point out that this took place on a regulated medium, radio, and that the airwaves (supposedly) are still owned by the public and operated as a “public trust.”
    Also, a great part of the rational, as explained by MSNBC, was that they “don’t make all that much money off of carrying Imus anyway” — yet another shameful example of the paradigm shift in our industry away from serving the listener to serving the shareholder!
    I hope that Mel K takes the high road and does not succumb to publicity by hiring Imus. I further hope that if he does, the prospective merger is denied. Enjoy your stuff, keep it coming.
    P.S. Where was the FCC through all this?

  14. Greg Gillispie
    Greg Gillispie says:

    As radio runs in fear of losing advertising and investors it uses content as the reason.
    Without creating any sense of limits until something like Imus’ comment comes along there is no visual fence not to climb.
    What, are we all supposed to sit in the sandbox in the middle of the playground?
    To expedite the closing of the playground, regardless of format, air talent should be restricted to saying, “That was, comin’ up, around the corner, right after this, next, this is.” No music – imagine the possible lyrics. Only this content…and commercials, if they can be sold.

  15. Joel Raab
    Joel Raab says:

    If there was some positive in the Imus firing it was that radio as an industry captivated the headlines for nearly a week becoming front and center in the national conversation and reinforcing our relevance.

  16. Brian Wright-McLeod
    Brian Wright-McLeod says:

    From what I understand, Imus was a bully who had it coming. I have no intention of confusing his up-and-comings with a fight over the First Ammendment or anything else where free speech and thought is used properly and effectively. In the matter of mike training, more newscasters should use the English language and the medium more effectively and intelligently rather than just parroting the White House or corporate advertisers (concern yourself with that). Let’s hear the truth!

  17. Chuck Geiger
    Chuck Geiger says:

    Let’s face it, we have all made comments on the air that we knew were wrong or not politically correct. Time have changed the and the consumer is less plugged in to what is said on the radio. Either it will stop or it will get worse as talent try to get noticed. In country radio, The Imus situation reminds me much like the “Natalie Maines” line. It wasn’t listeners that complained, it was fueld by the electronic media, blogs and phone calls from action groups.


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