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THE OFF-COLOR GUARD FOR THE LATEST IMUS

Before the job offer came from the man who had become the face of racism on radio, and before she considered a gig that might turn black folks against her for the rest of her career, Karith Foster had a thought.

She wished she had been sitting next to shock jock Don Imus as he said the words that would forever alter his 30-plus-year career on radio. And hers.

"Back in April, I distinctly remember telling my brother I wish I could have been there ... to put him in check, or to get a clarification, or to say, 'Hey that's not cool ... is that what you really mean?'" says Foster, 33, who now gets that chance every weekday morning as one of two black comics who joined Imus' new radio show on Dec. 3.

"I know when people say things off the cuff when they're trying to be entertaining or funny and sometimes it doesn't (work)," she added. "I don't know one comic or person who hasn't said something he didn't mean onstage."

Foster knows how this sounds. Imus earned an avalanche of criticism back in April after he called members of the Rutgers University women's basketball team "nappy-headed ho's," including Al Sharpton, the National Association of Black Journalists, the National Organization for Women and, oddly, Foster herself.

For them, the Rutgers crack was just the tip of an awful iceberg, as journalists unearthed a long history of insulting racial and ethnic jokes that had aired on the show.

It cost Imus his jobs broadcasting for CBS Radio and the MSNBC cable channel, though his fall was likely cushioned by a fat settlement reportedly worth $40-million. And now that he has a new show on the ABC Radio Networks, simulcast on the much lower-profile RFD-TV cable channel, even Foster's mother - a member of the National Association of Black Journalists who agreed with the group's opposition to the 67-year-old iconoclast - has turned to Foster with a tough question.

Are you selling out to get ahead?

"You wonder, is this something that going to help my career, or ... is my community going to turn against me?" said Foster. "But what out-ruled the fear of rejection and anger or wrath was the chance to be the strong woman who is also entertaining and funny. Life is too short, and this is my chance to really do something."

Today marks the two-month anniversary for Foster and comic Tony Powell's debut as on-air foils for Imus. Ironically, it's also the first Sunday of Black History Month.

And as the pair continue getting used to rising at 3 a.m. and finishing a day's work before noon, a question arises: Now that he's landed on his feet, did the whole Imus conflict redefine how we talk about race at all?

In Powell's case, the answer was a swift no. In fact, what surprised him most was the racism of some Imus critics.

"One guy actually, you know, wished evil on my 8-year-old son and my family members ... (but) he addressed the letter to me as 'Dear House Niger,'" said Powell, 45, a Brooklyn-born comic who was teaching in Coney Island schools when Imus regular Rob Bartlett recommended him for the show. "One of the first essays I did on the show was correcting him to explain that the word has two g's."

With credits ranging from the Chris Rock Show to Showtime at the Apollo - whom the New York Times once described as "a midcareer comedian in the touchy process of resigning himself to not making the comedy A-list" - Powell insisted he's not a "Kool-Aid drinker" or "Don Imus' lawn jockey." And like Foster, he knew Imus was looking for black comics to join his reconstituted show; he could guess what people might say about those who decided to fill that role.

So, like Foster, Powell insisted on a personal meeting with Imus before he took the gig, to discern whether the acerbic star deserved the racial cover he was about to provide. And he decided Imus has been mostly misunderstood.

"I think intention is key," said Powell, who is now entrusted to deliver the sports reports, which so often brought trouble for Imus when delivered by white contributors who couldn't resist comparing black athletes to animals.

Both Foster and Powell also blame media coverage for distorting Imus' words and intent.

"Don doesn't talk to the press, so all you get is what he says himself on the radio and what you hear second- and third-hand," Powell said. "The advantage I've had is I've been able to sit with him on a day-to-day basis and talk about all kinds of issues. ... My racism antenna is finely tuned, it's sharp, and he's not a racist."

But critics note you don't have to be a racist to say racially insensitive things. And the list of Imus' on-air transgressions is long - from featuring someone (Imus says it was a character, critics say it was him) calling black journalist Gwen Ifill a cleaning lady to labeling Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz a "beanie-wearing, hook-nosed Jewboy."

Foster is confident she can help keep the shock jock from making such mistakes. "I think part of this process is the fact that even being in the presence of someone else - a woman or someone with an ethnic background - can make them think about crossing the line. Just by being there, you can be a deterrent."

Since their December debut, both comics have offered humor tinged in race and gender commentary. Foster presents regular "Oprah News" tidbits - likely a first for the crusty, decidedly male-oriented Imus. Powell, who ostensibly presents sports reports, noted about multiethnic golfer Tiger Woods, "The question is not whether Tiger is black enough, but instead whether he's Asian enough. How good is he at math?" He also noted black presidential candidate Barack Obama would have to soon choose between "playing the race-neutral game or hiring Isaac Hayes to write him a theme song."

And Powell's take on why he doesn't like hockey? After watching a black friend play goalie, "I never saw so much enthusiasm for shots on goal in my life," he said, to gales of laughter from Imus and the rest of the cast.

In the end, Powell noted that Imus will make his own decisions about whether to employ race-based humor, whether or not there are black people on his morning crew.

"I think having the time off has given him a chance to do what we all do when we do something we regret: assess and evaluate," he said. "I don't think he needs me to be a chaperone. And if he wants to say something, he can shut my mic off - I can't shut his off, you know?"

Eric Deggans can be reached at deggans@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8521. See his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/media.

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