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Don Imus gets his mojo back

April 12, 2010

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Chastened shock jock sees ratings leap on his WABC morning show
Imus is a “must” interview for authors and politicians.

Don Imus may not be the outrageous loudmouth he once was, but the host of
Imus in the Morning can still make jaws drop. Last month, when Gov. David
Paterson was talking on the show about those Yankees World Series tickets
that got him into so much trouble, the I-man asked what many listeners were
probably wondering.

“You're blind, right? Why would you want to go to the baseball game in the
first place?”

Even the governor thought it was funny.

Three years after his career imploded over racially charged comments he made
about the Rutgers women's basketball team, and more than two years after his
return to radio on WABC-AM, Mr. Imus is finally getting some traction.

In February, his share of his target audience (men 25 to 54 years old) rose
to 3.4%—a 161% spike over a year ago, according to Arbitron. Imus now ranks
11th in a tightly packed crowd of shows targeting men, up from 24th in
February 2009, and exactly where the show was when it was booted off
WFAN-AM.

An advertising campaign for the program, and publicity around its simulcast
on the Fox Business Network, may have contributed to the ratings growth. In
addition, a busy news cycle has attracted more listeners to news talk radio
in general. WABC was ranked sixth in February overall, while WFAN was 18th.

Mr. Imus credits his improved standing to a tighter production and the fact
that he's taking care of himself.

“I feel better physically, even though I'm battling prostate cancer,” says
the 69-year-old host, who is addressing the disease holistically with a
“hideously boring, rigid diet.”

SMALLER SCALE
But if the old guy has a spring in his step again, his success is still on a
smaller scale than it used to be.

Three years ago, he had 346,000 total viewers on the MSNBC simulcast of his
WFAN show; on Fox Business Network, where he started in October, he averaged
108,000 viewers from January through March 14, according to Nielsen
Marketbreaks. FBN is not yet a fully distributed cable network.

Mr. Imus may also be making less. In 2007, he signed a five-year contract
with WABC parent Citadel Broadcasting worth a reported $5 million to $8
million a year. CBS Radio, which owns WFAN, was reportedly paying him $10
million. Terms of the Fox deal have not been disclosed.

And when it comes to making news, the one-time king of shock jocks has been
overtaken by a noisier crew of politically driven talkers. Even his critics
say that he has been drowned out.

“He's sort of disappeared,” says Richard Prince, a columnist and member of
the National Association of Black Journalists, who has complained that Mr.
Imus was given too easy a ride to redemption. “People are concerned now
about Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh.”

Other observers note that Mr. Imus has evolved from the days in the 1990s
and early 2000s when he was ranked fifth among his target audience. They say
he's interested in credibility, not in being outrageous.

“He's not out to build an empire,” says Robert Unmacht, a radio consultant
with iN3 Partners. “Glenn Beck is like Imus in the late '80s in terms of the
empire he wants to build.”

Mr. Beck is a fan. “Who in radio has had a career like his?” he asks, adding
that Mr. Imus is still a cantankerous host. “When I'm on, he always goes for
the jugular—and he likes me.”

Though Mr. Imus no longer creates much controversy, he continues to attract
more serious, high-profile guests, from both the left and the right, than
any other radio host.

In addition to Gov. Paterson, recent guests have included Mitt Romney, Sen.
Chris Dodd, and New Yorker Editor David Remnick, who was there to talk about
his new book on President Barack Obama, The Bridge. Imus remains among the
best shows in any medium for helping authors hawk books.

The show is also a draw for advertisers. WABC General Manager Steve Borneman
says that ad revenue for Imus was up slightly in 2009 over the prior year,
despite the overall New York radio market's being down nearly 20%.

NEW ADVERTISERS

New advertisers on the show include Lionel Trains, health club chain Planet
Fitness and Barnes & Noble. Media buyers say that the improved ratings mean
that WABC will cash in even more once the ad marketplace improves.

Citadel has syndicated Imus on 75 stations; CBS Radio had him on around 60
during his days with WFAN.

Mr. Imus sees himself as a different kind of host than the radio talkers who
have taken center stage in recent years.

“I've never seen the show as an opinion show,” he says, and he repeats a
favorite description: “Our job is to monitor the freak parade. Whether it's
Glenn Beck this week, or whoever, we watch them go by and we talk about
them.”

TUNING IN
Share of listeners for Imus in the Morning

Adults 25 to 54 years old
Feb. 2009 1.3
Feb. 2010 2.5
Percentage change +92%

Men 25 to 54 years old
Feb. 2009 1.3
Feb. 2010 3.4
Percentage change +161%

Source: Arbitron=

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