The Dilettante

Imus in the Twilight

How the DJ found his niche—and lost it.

Editor’s note: This piece originally published Thursday afternoon, April 12, just before CBS announced it was canceling Imus’ show. It was subsequently updated to reflect the news.

Don Imus talks with the Rev. Al Sharpton  on Sharpton’s radio show

How iced-out in the bedroom and thumbed-under at work are America’s commuters that they find drive-time radio funny? In 2001, a DJ had a pig castrated and slaughtered on-air. In 2002, under the supervision of the duo Opie and Anthony, a couple had sex in the vestibule of St. Patrick’s cathedral. In 2004, two Portland, Ore., hosts broadcast the audio from the murder of Nick Berg, to the accompaniment of music and laughter. Connect the data points, they head in only one direction: This past January, a 28-year-old woman, egged on by shock jocks, drank a large amount of water while holding her urine, only to later collapse and die from water intoxication. The reaction by the “suits” and the liberal snobs to these hijinks is in no way anterior to them; it’s part of the act. What is Lady Chatterley without Mrs. Grundy? Howard Stern without Pig Vomit? Rush Limbaugh without … well, decent, thoughtful human beings? And what was Don Imus without Al Sharpton?

Ah, there’s the rub. The aftermath of Imus’ racist gaffe—he disparaged the Rutgers women’s basketball team as “nappy-headed hos”— had a depressing man-your-battle-stations feel to it. Thanks to Imus’ stupidity, we were forced to pretend once again that Al Sharpton possesses moral capital. We were forced to listen to the (white, rich) journalists who go on Imus to plug their books describe their decision to continue appearing on the program as, not only not hypocrisy, but hypocrisy’s opposite, a kind of loyalty and courage. And finally, of course, we were asked to believe, on the strength of his own testimony but almost nothing else, that Imus “is a good person.” (The Dilettante has long considered the sentence “I am a good person” to be a Godelian koan, like “This sentence is false.” It automatically cancels itself out.) Members of the Rutgers team rightly dismissed Imus’ pleading out of hand, but as we load the man into the tumbrel—and send him off to an even bigger gig on satellite—it’s worth considering from what contrary impulses his comment originated.

The Dilettante doesn’t commute, but he does live in Brooklyn, and once or twice a week, thanks to an edict known as “alternate side of the street parking,” he has to move his car; and then, thanks to the cunning of municipal government, the Dilettante has to sit in it. This is my drive time, and during it, I listened to Imus. I usually caught him at about 7:40, for the 20 minutes when he had a Beltway muckety on to flog a book, or just as often, to flog his own muckety self. Here was Imus In The Morning’s central, identifying incongruity: a relatively frank discussion of current events with a serious author juxtaposed with the show’s every other idiotic tendency. The program was staffed by a claque of sniggering ninnies and headed up by Imus himself, the dean of gutter radio; and as God is my witness, it was never even remotely funny. Imus himself is unlikable; under the guise of “telling it like it is,” he’s mastered the two basic toddler traits, imperiousness and caprice.

So, why did I listen to the man week after week? A little history is in order. Imus and Howard Stern emerged as formidable media brands in 1982, when they together became featured hosts on WNBC in New York. This was the turning point for talk. WNBC had been a rock ’n’ roll station, and both Stern and Imus had been rock ’n’ roll DJs whose respective shticks were reserved for the gaps between songs. At the new WNBC, Stern and Imus were not expected to spin records; they were expected to talk. Stern had always been Imus’ country cousin, toiling in smaller markets, but in New York, he out-low-roaded Imus; and when he was kicked off of WNBC (for his Dial-a-Bestiality call-in show) and moved to K-Rock, he crushed Imus in the ratings, as he has ever since. Over time, Imus craftily repositioned himself as the high road—or at least not-so-low road—shock jock. His listeners may be fewer, but they are far more affluent. Classic narrowcasting: smaller pond, more gilded lilies, within which I-man has set himself up as a little kingmaker by taking under his protective good graces an even smaller pond, the American book publishing industry.

The pretense of spontaneity brought on by having sportscasters like Sid Rosenberg (kicked off the show for saying of Kylie Minogue’s cancer diagnosis, “Ain’t going to be so beautiful when the bitch got a bald head and one titty”) or executive producer Bernard McGuirk (hired by Imus to do “nigger” jokes) banter in the background was just that, a pretense. When Imus went upscale, he knew he himself could no longer be the principal vehicle for his old brand of taboo-breaking humor, much of it centered on sexism and racism and homophobia, and still court the center-left audience attracted to a 10-minute gabfest with Doris Kearns Goodwin. Imus was the classic ‘80s brand, shrewdly repositioned for the more genteel ‘90s. He triangulated. He brought on juvenile white males to say things he could then pretend to deplore. Win-win.

As a classic Pinot-swilling liberal snob, the Dilettante didn’t find Imus funny but had always been comforted by the thought that, as he listened, the ether was making him a strange bedfellow with people who do. And that conversely, someone who found fart-knocker jokes hilarious was being forced to listen to Doris Kearns Goodwin talk about Lincoln. My affection for the man went deeper. The very same year that WNBC introduced Imus and Stern with a media blitz, Gannett introduced USA Today, a national daily intended as a colorful alternative to the old dullard standbys, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal—if by “colorful” you meant “insipid” or “timid” or “pandering.” (“This is the only paper in the country,” said Homer Simpson, immortally, “that is not afraid to tell the truth: that everything is just fine.”) It’s no accident that these two phenomena—talk radio and the lifestyling of the news—are coeval. The mediasphere sells you a maddeningly sanitized product with one hand then allows you harmless release with sophomoric japery with the other. It was Imus who, instead of offering a purely puerile alternative to the developing language of pseudo-speak pioneered by USA Today and now favored by politicians, celebrities, and upper-echelon Washington journalists, decided to take on pseudo-speak itself.

As an enemy of pseudo-speaking, of the scripted and the canned, Imus made his career, among other things, by being a racially ambiguous figure. From his speech patterns, which borrow liberally from the great American religion whose deacons include Billy Sunday and Wolfman Jack and Howlin’ Wolf, to his love of white blues, he played the cracker who has more in common with the Negro across the tracks than with the Man. As the media critic Susan Douglas has put it in a particularly astute essay on talk radio, “For many of his listeners, Imus turns the tables on money, power, and entitlement”; his show is a place “where polite people in prestigious and influential jobs have to ‘suck up’ as Imus puts it, to a man who breaks all the rules of bourgeois, upper-middle-class decorum.” Here, of course, is how he slipped into troubled waters. To understand his comment, that the Rutgers women’s basketball team were “nappy-headed hos,” you have to see it in its many dimensions. The comment was witless and dehumanizing, an insult not only to these players but to African-Americans, women, women athletes, and any permutation of the above. But it was not said principally to that effect. It was said on the (false) premise that being “politically correct” is still a cornerstone of “bourgeois, upper-middle-class decorum,” and is still a dominant mind-set in the culture at large. Imus was exploiting a cynical confusion, a common one on the AM dial. In talk radio, the P.C. bogey is kept on life support, the better to allow the heaping of abuse on the marginal and disenfranchised to pass itself off as speaking truth to power.

How has this confusion been allowed to perpetuate itself so successfully? Absent a Dear Leader to organize our daily reality, most of us operate within the soft authoritarian embrace of a mostly free society. If we’re lucky, we live in homes that are largely under our own dominion. To pay for them, we go to work in places governed by other people’s rules. In between is “drive time.” Drive time is what the media industry calls the morning commute, during which millions of Americans are captive to their car radios for entertainment. It acts as a kind of aural way station between your living room and the Man. You get the news and scores, mixed in with lowbrow knavery. Drive time is a textbook example of what the anthropologist Victor Turner called the “liminoid”—a crossroads where identity is shifting, and normal rules don’t apply. You’re in your car, an extension of your home that thrusts you into the public space; you’re listening to AM radio, once a dominant medium, now, in the age of FM, podcast, and satellite, a kind of wilderness; and you’re tuned to the I-man. Who is this guy? Is he Davey or Goliath? Is he bully or outcast? Is he on the inside, or the outside? Against these ambiguities, drive time has become dark, as its marginal players, its Opies and Anthonys, struggle to establish ever more anti-social bona fides.

His head now on the platter, let’s do the I-man some justice. He was both a racial demagogue and white Negro in the age of soft authoritarianism. He ought to have been shit-canned. And he will be missed.