Imus Returns, But New Show May Be Tough Sell

NEW YORK Last April, CBS Radio fired morning drive-time talk show host Don Imus for making racially and sexually offensive comments about the Rutgers University women’s basketball team on the air. Basically, he called them whores. Now Imus must sell himself—to an audience, stations and sponsors.

And some local and national advertisers who pulled their ads in the wake of his outrageous remarks are keeping an open mind about sponsoring his new show on Citadel Broadcasting’s radio outlet WABC New York. The new show debuts Dec. 3.

According to ad agency executives, there will likely be a roser of Imus advertisers if, as expected, his previous audience tunes in to his new program. But some buyers also say WABC won’t be able to command prices anywhere near as high as CBS outlet WFAN did before the host was fired. “That’s the fallout in all this,” said Dennis McGuire, vp, regional spot director for Aegis Group’s Carat. “He’s being given another chance, but he’s not going to command the [price] premiums he once did.”

McGuire said that WFAN formerly commanded about $4,000 per rating point, or three or four times the going rate for adults 25-54 in the New York market. “If it’s priced right, we would recommend it, but why would you pay a premium for it, especially right now?” he said.

According to Nielsen Monitor-Plus, the Imus show on WFAN logged about $11.3 million in ads in 2006. If the premium pricing disappears, as Carat’s McGuire suggests it will, that would imply a significantly lower annual revenue take for WABC’s Imus show, one probably closer to $3 million or $4 million. That does not include revenue that Citadel might generate by syndicating the program to other stations and possibly to cable as well. So far, Citadel has only confirmed plans to air the show on WABC, and buyers say the program will need to build a track record there before going national. WABC and Citadel executives did not return calls, and Imus could not be reached for comment.

Only one of a half-dozen sponsors contacted, longtime supporter Hackensack University Medical Center, confirmed that it definitely intends to advertise as soon as Imus begins his new program on Dec. 3. “We’ll be there from day one,” said John Ferguson, president of the medical center. “I thought the controversy was blown way of out of proportion, but it happened and now it’s over.”

Jerry Della Femina, CEO of the agency that represents the medical center, said he would urge other clients to support the show as well. “It’s not even a question of ratings, it’s the quality of the audience he reaches—upscale men and women with a lot of disposable income,” he said. Della Femina also predicted the former Imus audience will quickly flock to the new show: “In New York, there is no replacement for the kind of intelligent talk about politics that he provided,”

Other advertisers and agencies agreed that decisions about whether to advertise on Imus would be based largely on the audience he attracts and the price of the spots. He’s mostly been forgiven by marketers for calling the Rutgers team a group of “nappy-headed hos.”

Still, Imus will be scrutinized closely, and any controversy that erupts like the one in April could kill his radio career altogether, buyers said. “A little controversy is good, but not over the line,” said Robert Sabbagh, a New York-based Honda dealer and president of the New York/Long Island Honda Dealers Association. Sabbagh said the group is considering advertising on the new Imus show. “As far as what happened [last spring], he paid a penalty and you move on,” he said.

Most but not all of the marketers contacted for this story expressed similar feelings. Sprint had been a sponsor of the old program but pulled out after the Rutgers incident, citing the offensiveness of the comments at the time. Last week a rep said Sprint would not support the new Imus show, but declined to comment further.

General Motors, by contrast, will evaluate the new program, “just like we would evaluate any other media purchases,” a company rep said. The carmaker, which also suspended advertising on the old show last spring, will look at factors such as reach and audience composition, as well as content and format, and then make a decision “based on our current business needs,” the rep said.

Nutrition company Chef’s Diet also pulled out last spring to protest the host’s comments, but is currently considering sponsoring the new program, said Daniel Taugher, the company’s assistant advertising and marketing director. “We believe he has redeemed himself through his apologies,” said Taugher, and the final decision won’t be based on “any personal reservations we have with Mr. Imus.”

Sue Johenning, evp, director of local broadcast at Interpublic’s Initiative, said her shop would evaluate the program on a client-by-client basis. A key question, she said, is “will there be any retribution against advertisers that support him?”

That remains to be seen. The Reverend Al Sharpton, who pushed for Imus’ firing last spring, and his National Action Network have suggested they may urge advertisers to boycott the program if Citadel executives do not demonstrate, in the words of a statement the group issued last week, “how they intend to safeguard against Mr. Imus returning to his former vile and biased behavior.” A rep for the organization said Citadel had agreed to meet with Sharpton “within a few days” to discuss the situation.

Another group, the National Association of Black Journalists, has strongly protested Imus’ return to the air. The group is also pressing for a meeting with Citadel, but it could not be determined at press time if Citadel had agreed to meet or made commitments to it to avoid another racial controversy.