Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Can black cast members help Imus' image?

NEW YORK - Don Imus' critics assailed him for a racially charged on-air remark that got him fired. On his return to the airwaves, he brought with him some young black cast membersIt remained to be seen whether his newly diversified lineup and his pledge to foster a dialogue on race relations would quiet his critics and soften any future blows dealt in a show that Imus himself said is built in part on making fun of others.

"I can only wait and see if his deeds will follow up his words," said the Rev. Al Sharpton, one of the strongest voices calling for Imus' firing after the shock jock called the Rutgers University women's basketball team "nappy-headed hos."

"The fact that he now has a black sidekick and that he's on delay clearly may speak of some of the measures that his new employers have put in to make sure that there's not a repeat offense," Sharpton said.

Phil Boyce, WABC program director and a Citadel Broadcasting Corp. vice president, said he could not say whether race played a role in hiring black comedians Karith Foster and Tony Powell because Imus himself chose the new additions. Citadel owns WABC and four of the 21 other stations broadcasting the show, which premiered Monday, eight months after Imus, 67, was fired from CBS Radio and the MSNBC cable network.

Also returning was Bernard McGuirk, the producer who instigated the Rutgers comment and was fired as well.

Calling herself Imus' "new sidekick," Foster said after the broadcast that she hoped those who were most angered by his comments could feel represented by her on the air.

"They want change, and what better way to incite change than from the inside?" she said.

Foster said her work on the show would be influenced by her experiences growing up in Plano, Texas, which she describes on her Web site as an "affluent suburb north of Dallas with the ethnic diversity of a Klan rally."

"I think I can speak from the viewpoint of an African-American, and especially one who can see and understand both sides," she said. "I grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood but obviously my family is black. I have black friends, and I live in Harlem. I see and can understand where everybody's coming from, which I think makes for a great mediator."

Powell, whose stand-up credits include "Showtime at the Apollo," said his hiring was not a token gesture.

Imus "actually wanted to improve the quality of his show, and so he went out and he got talented individuals to help him improve the quality of the show," Powell said. "The proof is in the pudding and the proof is in the product."

But Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women, remained skeptical.

"Why comedians?" she asked of the new hires. "That's the only thing women and blacks can do is be funny? I don't find that encouraging."

But, she added, "We have to wait and see what their contributions in fact are."

Boyce countered that Foster was more than a stand-up comic. Before appearing on NBC's "Last Comic Standing" and other shows, she was a production team member on ABC's "The View," he noted.

Besides, he said: "We're doing a radio show. Our job here is to be interesting and entertaining."

Michael Harrison, publisher of industry trade journal Talkers magazine, said the presence of a black man and a woman on the show could help soften the impact of any future comments Imus makes. For example, he said, sidekick Robin Quivers had helped shock jock Howard Stern with perceptions among women.

Foster, who said she was appalled by Imus' Rutgers comment, said she wouldn't give the host any undeserved soft landings.

"I'm not going to be a sycophant," she said. "If and when I need to, I will speak up. That's who I am. That's how I was raised."

In an apologetic 15-minute monologue before a live audience, Imus promised to use his second chance to discuss race relations. People paid $100 a ticket to see Monday's show, with the proceeds going to Imus' charity.

"I will never say anything in my lifetime that will make any of these young women at Rutgers regret or feel foolish that they accepted my apology and forgave me," he said.

Even after all the uproar, it appeared Imus could still draw high-profile guests. Monday's lineup included noted presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and presidential hopefuls Chris Dodd and John McCain.

In the end, Harrison predicted, the spotlight on Imus will simply fade away, while the host continues "to be the equal opportunity offender which people know he is."


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