Will an Imus Return Get Backers?

Jilted Jock Could Soon Be Back on Air -- but It's Not Certain He'll Find Sponsors

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Don Imus could be back on the airwaves by early next year, but his road to return could be treacherous.

According to published reports, Mr. Imus -- publicly fired by CBS in April following racist remarks about the Rutgers' women's basketball team -- is near a deal with Citadel Communications, which owns ABC Radio and WABC in New York, the station most likely to host his next show.
Don Imus
Don Imus Credit: AP

Should the deal go through, however, it's not clear whether advertisers would follow.

MSNBC, which aired a TV simulcast of his CBS show, "Imus in the Morning," was able to sell to big-ticket marketers such as Procter & Gamble, General Motors and American Express. After the initial Rutgers fracas, P&G was the first to bail on its spending, followed in quick succession by the bulk of Mr. Imus' top 10 ad spenders.

Spokespeople for WABC and Citadel did not return calls or e-mails for comment about the reports of the negotiations.

GM hesitant
Before Mr. Imus was fired by CBS Radio, GM issued a statement saying it would "suspend our advertising while we continue to monitor the situation. It should be noted that GM has been and will continue to be a strong supporter of Mr. Imus' extensive and on-going charitable efforts to assist children dealing with the challenges of cancer and autism." Yet when approached last week about its desire to support Mr. Imus' probable comeback, a GM spokeswoman said, "We won't know what his program would be about," and GM doesn't buy media until it knows that, she added.

Matthew Warnecke, VP-local and national radio for MediaCom, said he "wouldn't be surprised" if Mr. Imus were to return in some capacity, and noted that WABC is one of New York's big-ticket stations. Mr. Warnecke had clients who have bought Mr. Imus' shows in the past, but was still uncertain as to their eagerness to follow this time around. "It's up to the clients to decide what they think is right. We can guide them and will, but those who have been sensitive to an environment will continue to be sensitive."

Natalie Swed Stone, OMD's head of radio buying, was slightly more optimistic when she said she "couldn't see why" advertisers would not want to back Mr. Imus' next venture after initial rumors surfaced in August. Mr. Imus' public apology and eventual reconciliation with the Rutgers basketball team was a sign to advertisers that he had been punished enough, she said.

Should Mr. Imus sign with WABC, there's potential for him to go national again. Citadel owns ABC Radio, which syndicates shows with personalities such as Sean Hannity and Tom Joyner on a much broader basis. Mr. Hannity's show, for example, reaches 515 stations, while Mr. Imus' show was only syndicated to 61 stations through CBS Radio's partnership with Westwood One.

WABC and its affiliates would likely get a large, if somewhat older, audience with an Imus morning show. Of the 1.6 million people who tuned in to his "Imus in the Morning" radio show across its 61 affiliate stations, the average age often was over 50. His ratings rank in New York's morning-radio slot was 29, hardly making him a must-hear. Home station WFAN-AM added the sportscaster talk show "Boomer and Carton" in Mr. Imus' old morning daypart Sept. 5, but it's too soon for Arbitron to tell how the change has affected ratings.

Mr. Imus already scored $20 million from his settlement with CBS Radio after being forced to end his four-year contract early. Although he could take his money and run, it looks like at least one major New York station is willing to bank on his continued profitability.

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Contributing: Jean Halliday
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