How about a little context, please, for my old friend, Don Imus. Yes, that scraggly-haired ho-monger is in trouble again, and this time the trouble seems deeper than the doo-doo that he creates as he idles through life: No wonder the cowboy outfit — those filigreed boots come in handy as you saunter between reality and fantasy.
This time, many people argue, Imus “crossed the line” when he took that cheap shot at the Rutgers women’s basketball team. And by crossing that line, radio’s original shock jock deserved to be fired.
I don’t argue with those who demanded his firing. The first amendment notwithstanding, a media company has the right to fire any employee at will. But the notion that Imus suddenly “crossed the line” deserves some context. Let me prolong this Imus stuff just long enough to provide some.
The year is 1975 and Don Imus has been the king of morning radio in New York City for four years — God’s chosen disc jockey, he calls himself on his 6 to 10 a.m. slot on WNBC. But his fans in Cleveland, where he rose to stardom in 1969 after brief careers as a railroad brakeman, a country & western singer, and a small-town DJ, were still intrigued by the I-man.
It was in Cleveland where Imus perfected — long before the 1977 movie “Network” — his “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” persona, along with several other memorable characters: Brother Soul, Judge Hangin’, and the Right Rev. Dr. Billy Sol Hargis. You might remember Dr. Hargis, pastor of the First Church of the Gooey Death, the Discount House of Worship; the man whose radio sermons were preceded by the soulful lyrics: “I don’t care if it rains or freezes, as long as I got my plastic Jesus, up there with my pair of fuzzy dice; I can go a hundred miles an hour, as long as I got that almighty power . . .”
Imus, Imus the DJ, and Imus’s many characters all crossed the line so much that you needed a scorecard to keep track, which I was assigned to do back in 1975, when Cleveland magazine asked me to profile Imus’s new life in the Big Apple.
In New York, as he had been in Cleveland, Imus was the voice of the little guy, who otherwise never had a chance to be heard. In Cleveland, where the Man was a black man, Mayor Carl Stokes, Imus had some fun by calling the mayor’s office on air, posing as a Cadillac dealer from Youngstown, and demanding to know where the money was for the Mayor’s new Eldorado. The mayor’s secretary insisted that the mayor didn’t even own an Eldorado. He had a Lincoln. “I know all about the Lincoln, lady,” Imus retorted. “I want to know what happened to the money for the hog.”
In New York a year or so later, the race line was crossed all the time. He cracked a joke at a concert about baboons escaping in Penn Station. The commuters didn’t even notice, thinking there were just “domestics from the South Bronx” going to work in the suburbs. But blacks didn’t complain much about Imus back in the 1970s, perhaps because he had a black engineer, a guy named Flash on the air, who shared in a lot of the racial humor — “Flash came over to my house the other day; he cleaned it” — and also perhaps, because Imus was not the Man; he was taking on the Man.
When I was following Imus in the summer of 1975, he was suspended by WNBC for some punctuality issues, compounded by some disrespectful remarks toward management. “I feel like a nigger who missed the team bus,” he told me over breakfast one morning outside the WNBC studios at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. And a generation of black athletes who were reduced to one-dimensional roles by their white coaches might have said “right on” in response.
Back in his 1970s heyday Imus got away with crossing lots of lines because he made himself the object of some of his most vicious humor. Fundamental Christians might have gasped at Imus’s portrayal of the born-again pastor/con artist, but Don himself was attending prayer groups in Cleveland and later in New York. “I’m certainly not a good Christian,” he told me, concerning his inquiries into matters of faith. “But you’ve got to hang it all on something, so I do.”
In recent years I occasionally saw bits of the the televised simulcast of Imus’s show. Howard Stern had replaced Imus as radio’s reigning bad boy. For God’s chosen disc jockey, theatrical parodies had given way to political rants and interviews of big league politicians, who made Don the Man.
Black women kept cropping up in Don’s gag bag. Imus saw some irony in the New York Times assigning Gwen Ifill, now a PBS television anchor, to cover the White House. “Isn’t the Times wonderful? It lets the cleaning lady cover the White House.”
Crossing the line? Imus’s defenders cite the lyrics of black rap artists and argue that Don is practically a feminist compared to them.
They have a point. One of the talk shows invited Whoopi Goldberg on to discuss the Imus matter. The best she could offer was that she was “pissed off” by the whole affair. That’s a phrase now used at will on television and radio. Thirty years ago it would have gotten you banned from the airwaves.
I would argue there is no line to cross. Talk radio and television has fallen to the loudest common denominator. An opinion, no matter how shallow, wins out over any moment of reflection. I can’t guess the motivations of the media executives who fired Imus — canceled advertising contracts had to be high on the list. But maybe they realized it was time to re-draw the line: rants with a little reasoning; comedy with some context. Next time, Don, how about a little context?