If you follow radio, you will know that Don Imus was fired last year for his hip hop-inspired “nappy-headed hos” comment. For this quip, he was cast outside the gate where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
But Imus is a celebrity, and a radio host with a certain amount of talent, so, after a few months of lonely sojourn, his punishment was deemed fulfilled, and he was resurrected at WABC radio here in New York City. His new show, like his old one, was quickly syndicated, and word is that the program, while not a stellar ratings success, is making money.
Before Imus, I was a regular listener of WABC’s Curtis & Kuby program, a very popular show in the same time slot. Curtis Sliwa is founder of the Guardian Angels and a conservative, while Ron Kuby is a self-proclaimed radical lawyer and a leftist. The interplay between the hosts, whose knowledge of New York politics is encyclopedic, was always lively. Kuby was a mob lawyer and Sliwa was beaten and shot by the mob. Their organized crime segments frequently inspired gentlemen with thick accents to call the show and tell it like it is. C & K also talked of local politicians and national, of baseball (both were Yankees fans), and of whatever else was making news.
I could go on and on, but the gist is that the suits at WABC heard of Imus’s availability and so they fired Curtis & Kuby to make room for him. Since Imus took their time slot, it is only natural to compare his new show with the old one.
Imus has, at most times, a good radio voice, though he has a marked tendency towards mumbling. For off-hand comments, this technique sometimes works. It is not painful to listen to him.
He and his co-hosts spend an inordinate amount of time talking about themselves. “Tell us what you were doing last night I-man.” “I tried to set up a treadmill in my apartment.” Yes, hours and hours of this kind of self-indulgent, boring chatter. For example, over the period of about a month, he regaled listeners with how certain road signs leading to Albuquerque were off by about a mile and a half. For one week, it was daily fare. He even interviewed the governor of New Mexico about it.
Imus talks often of his home life and his adventures with various merchants, with his sycophantic co-hosts giggling, cajoling, or cooing on cue. It is duller than the dullest water cooler blather. This talk is meant to be, and is heard to be, filler, noise to take up time until better material arrives. Like commercials, which are packed in fast and furious.
Now, since Imus was fired for “racial insensitivity”, a crime, unfortunately, far greater than most others, his new show, to highlight his magnificent tolerance, features two co-hosts who are black: Tony Powell and Kerith Foster. Both are billed as comedians.
Powell’s main job, it seems, is to impersonate the legendary Paul Harvey. His invariable routine is to have his Harvey make sex-desire noises. See, it’s funny because Mr Harvey is an old man, and a gentlemen. Therefore, to hear Mr Harvey make sex noises is funny. Ha.
Foster is not a dreadfully embarrassing as Powell, but she is not funny either. She reads prepared pieces in her best NPR monotone. Cues to the audience that it’s time to get up and grab another cup of coffee. Foster does have a good, little girl voice that, when she is not reading her book reports, is pleasurable to listen to.
The new Imus show kept the great Warner Wolf to do sports. But it is palpably obvious that Imus cannot stand the time that must be devoted to sports and he takes his displeasure out on Wolf. You can hear he almost immediately regrets his put downs—he does respect Wolf—and he tries to make up for his snide remarks, but it never removes the bad taste left in your ear. Because of this, if you want to hear recaps of sports, you have to tune to another channel.
For the last month, Imus has been touting, endlessly, his “Ranch Record”, a CD whose proceeds will benefit his “Imus Ranch for Kids with Cancer.” The CD is good, the music excellent, and cause worthy. But when Imus grabs a bone he worries it to death.
Still, he does play country music, maybe one full song an hour, and his program is the only one in the city that does so. The music he picks is usually great, too. It was one of the only places to hear “She Left Me For Jesus.”
Where Imus shines—about once an hour for five or so minutes—is in his interviews. The subtle grilling given to guests is almost worth the price of listening to the rest of the hour. In one interview with Paul Begala, the well known Democrat-party apparatchik, Imus continuously pointed out to Begala that he was lying—itself a remarkable event as others in the media are deeply frightened of the L-word—and he did it beautifully, in a soft voice, “Paul, your children are listening…”
Imus regularly picks on his guests, calling them weasels, jerks, or worse. Yet still the guests come, and they are ever mewling and respectful to the “I-man.” The only explanation I can think of is that the politicians he has on hate being called names, and so seek to stay on Imus’s good side by agreeing to appear. If they did not appear, Imus calls them worse names. No other host, in TV or radio, is a brutal or realistic, as Imus is. For example, he calls Obama “A fake and a phony, an empty suit.” He says “I love McCain, but he has lost his mind.” And so on.
There is no local news on the new Imus show, except for occasional interruptions for traffic and weather. This is a major defect for a morning program. He also does not take callers, bucking that growing trend.
So. To listen or not? If you are a devoted radio person, and you live in New York City, your choices are limited. On FM, there is a host of cookie-cutter “morning zoo” shows—programs featuring a lot of forced laughter, mindless blather, and bad music. There is NPR, but these folks cannot seem to remember that people want to wake up in the morning and not be put back to sleep.
On AM, there are the obligatory all-sports channels, several “all news” stations which broadcast ten- to twenty-second stories and which loop every twenty minutes, some Korean, Mandarin, Spanish music and talk shows, and only a couple of mixed news and talk stations. The closest competitor to Imus is the John Gambling show on WOR. But Mr Gambling has a voice that wears on the ear after a time; his show could use a good co-host to act as a foil and brighten it up.
Thus, the best I can say is that I really miss Curtis & Kuby.