A year ago, those who protested longtime shock jock Don Imus as the face of thoughtless racism in media seemed to have achieved the impossible.
Excoriated for calling the women of Rutgers University's near-championship basketball team "nappy-headed hos" during his morning program on April 4, 2007, Imus saw his multimillion-dollar radio gig, cable TV simulcast and public pride stripped away as the world weighed in on the meaning of his words.
By the time the 67-year-old provocateur had apologized to the athletes and left the air, pundits and activists had moved on to rap music, race and sexism — convinced the scalping proved the country was ready for some tough conversations.
But 12 months later, as a new crop of hopefuls arrive in Tampa to compete for the NCAA women's basketball crown, two surprising conclusions emerge:
First, society seems no better equipped to talk about race, class and gender than before Imus was given his walking papers.
Second, Imus may wind up more successful than ever.
"The failure out of Imus is that the parties who were speaking out did not effectively use the moment to take us to a different level when it comes to discourse about race and gender," said Roland Martin, an author, radio host and syndicated columnist who serves as a contributor to CNN.
"Why can't we use this as an opportunity to challenge ourselves — to think about images and why they matter?"
One reason: Imus has prospered by taking his lumps and moving on.
Fired in April 2007 by CBS Radio and MSNBC, Imus negotiated a multimillion-dollar settlement and landed at conservative talk powerhouse WABC, where his acerbic commentary earned ratings in February that are more than double his past listenership in New York.
Small wonder his ratings are better; WABC offers a 24/7 news talk format buoyed by personalities such as Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh. Since returning to radio Dec. 3, Imus has spread his show to 37 stations through the ABC Radio Network — more than halfway back to the 61 stations that aired his program for CBS Radio.
Returning with two new African-American cast members, more apologies and a promise to ease up on race-based humor, Imus' show seems energized to some — transformed from a fading program with an aging host into a pop culture buzzword capable of drawing renewed listener and advertiser interest.
"Absolutely he came out ahead . . . not that he or anyone would want to go through what he went through," said Phil Boyce, Imus' new boss as vice president of news and talk for ABC Radio owners Citadel Broadcasting.
He said Imus in February on WABC attracted 5.6 percent of listeners ages 12 and above, compared with 2.5 percent in the three-month period before his firing. (Official ratings for the first three months of 2008 won't be available until later in April.)
"I think the show's better, he fits the station better (and) he's a bit more relevant," Boyce added. "He did everything he promised he would do (when) he said, 'I never want to do anything to make those basketball players feel bad about giving me a second chance.' "
At WTAN-AM 1350 in Clearwater, co-owner Doug Wagenvoord is discovering the bonanza bad publicity can bring.
As the Tampa Bay Imus affiliate, WTAN is now airing a show enjoying the high profile generated from months of news coverage — reports that helped morph Imus' image from a racist bully to a victim sacrificed on the altar of political correctness.
"We always had a feeling the show was slowly sinking, and that's stopped," said Wagenvoord, who noticed a surge in e-mails and fan phone calls, along with a willingness by advertisers to associate with a show that still draws wealthy listeners (average salary: $75,000 to $100,000) ages 45 to 60.
"Before, we had what I call the Howard Stern problem . . .
Advertisers had heard of the show, but they often didn't want their brand associated with it," Wagenvoord said. "It's different. He's mellower."
Of course, not everyone agrees. Philip Nobile, a media critic who detailed Imus' long history of racist humor in outlets such as the Columbia Journalism Review, now accuses the shock jock of a cardinal sin in radio: being boring.
"I used to listen to Imus for the same reason I listened to Nixon press conferences . . . to see how bad it would get," said Nobile, who complained for years about the way A-list authors and political figures would visit his show and ignore the crude stereotypes Imus deployed once they left his studio.
"Imus is trying to worm his way into the mainstream, so he's obviously less offensive," Nobile said. "Ironically, it also makes him less interesting."
Michael Harrison, publisher of the talk radio trade magazine Talkers, said radio personalities nationwide are feeling the pinch from Imus' example, pushed by their bosses to earn audiences with edgy fare, even as they fear touching off a controversy that could end their jobs.
"You've got these companies in the business of talk radio that don't have the courage to stand up to pressure groups," Harrison said. "There's uncertainty and double standards about who can say what."
Still, Harrison's magazine inadvertently highlights another problem. Packed with ads and stories on issues affecting talk radio, the pages are filled with the middle-age white males who fill many talk radio shows and program most talk radio stations, with just five pictures in its March issue featuring non-white people.
Fox News Channel host Bill O'Reilly recently said on his radio show that he didn't want to "go on a lynching party" against Michelle Obama. Limbaugh has offered a parody song called Barack the Magic Negro and talk radio star Michael Savage has called civil rights activism a "con" to steal "white males' birthright."
So why aren't these personalities punished the way Imus was?
"Radio is still a white, male medium . . . (and) there doesn't seem to be any concern over turning an entire medium over to (them)," said Carol Jenkins, president of the Women's Media Center. "I think most people have written it off."
Barbara Ciara, president of the National Association of Black Journalists, which enlisted Al Sharpton to bring national attention to Imus' remarks last year, noted two additional results from the scandal.
Ciara fears radio hosts have actually increased race-based rhetoric, spurred by resentment over Imus' firing and the issues raised by biracial presidential candidate Barack Obama.
But their bosses have been more willing to talk with groups concerned about language that spreads stereotypes, eager to resolve problems without making them into the kind of front-page headlines that scare advertisers.
Unfortunately, resolving conflicts in the boardroom also means the larger society doesn't get to have that wide-ranging conversation on race the Imus incident once promised.
Instead, modern media's sound-bite culture has reduced much of the conversation to a search for gaffes and victims, with one side feeling unfairly insulted while another side feels unfairly constrained.
"Black and white people just don't see things through the same filter," Ciara said. "And until we black people get to the point where the majority sees us the same way they see everyone else, we're going to react to the way we're being portrayed."
Eric Deggans can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8521. See his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/media. He serves as chairman of the National Association of Black Journalists' Media Monitoring committee, helping to watch for controversial media depictions of people of color.