I wasn't introduced to Imus' show back in the 1970s. I don't listen to a lot of radio, don't listen to talk radio when I do listen to radio, and have never found any of the "shock jocks" to be particularly funny. But about five years ago, I spent a couple of years working at a place that had the MSNBC simulcast of his broadcast on the TVs in the break room every morning, and the very first thing I noticed every time I walked through the room while he was on was, "wow, this guy sucks at radio." Every classic sin of talking on the radio, he can be counted on to commit. The big one, the one that's continuous and true even when he's at his best, is that he mumbles something awful. It's practically a speech defect; because he doesn't open his mouth more than a tiny slice, and doesn't breathe well, everything he says comes out as this just audio blur of swallowed vowels and indistinguishable consonants; half the time, if I wasn't paying really really close attention, I couldn't even make out what he'd said. During live broadcasts, he talks in sentence fragments that are missing the actual verb half of the time, like some long time marijuana user who loses track of what he's already said compared to what he just thinks that he got said. And like the proverbial long-time stoner, his attention wanders off, all the time, leading to the two cardinal sins of talking on the radio: pointless digressions that go on until both you and he have lost the sense of what he was talking about, and worse, dead air while he himself fumbles to remember what he was talking about. If the guy were being judged on his ability to talk on the radio, which on the surface of it looks to be the main part of his job, he would never have made it onto any broadcast venue measured above the dozens of watts.
But that's not what his syndicate hired Don Imus to do. They hired him to be a "shock jock," so it's handy here to remember exactly what a "shock jock" is and how they came to be. The corporatization of radio syndicates didn't start with Clear Channel Communications. A handful of companies have been buying up as many stations per market as the law would allow going all the way back to the earliest days of radio, before television was more than a science fiction dream. But the standards for how much monopolization the FCC would tolerate kept getting more and more lax, and by the 1970s most markets were down to maybe one independent album-oriented rock station and one independent "college radio" station, at best. Of the dozens of stations in any town, all of the others were almost certainly owned by some out-of-town corporation that was determined to find the most economically efficient format for radio, and copy it, which lead to a crushing sameness, the same crushing sameness that stultifies radio to this day and that is doing far more than Internet piracy to kill off the music publishing industry. But one counter-trend appeared in the 1970s: in the wake of the national disasters that were Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter, Americans' instinctive centuries-old distrust of the federal government blossomed into all-out contempt. And a tiny handful of radio disc jockeys and interview journalists saw an opening there to break out of their local markets and into national syndication by being something that Americans were hungry for, right then: scofflaws.
The scofflaw is the enemy of civilization itself. It's a bad sign for a country when scofflaws are seen as heroes. An outlaw is one thing, but even the "romantic" outlaw doesn't attack the very idea of having laws that apply to everyone; the outlaw doesn't defend the sociopathic claim that because of his money or his "talent" the laws that apply to the rest of us shouldn't apply to him. But that's what the Howard Sterns and Don Imuses of the world did. It occurred to them that if they, in an already declining market for radio, could make enough money by appealing to enough radio listeners who were hungry for something they couldn't get from corporate radio stations that were phobic of gambling their FCC licenses, they could get rich enough to be above the law. They could get rich enough to pay off any FCC fine, and to hire lawyers and lobbyists to litigate any threatened radio license revocations, even while openly mocking the FCC and other regulators for their attempts to enforce any law. So each would-be "shock jock" sought out some market that the FCC would outlaw and/or that corporate radio big-wigs would be afraid to air. Howard Stern famously built his empire on dirty jokes and frat-boy sexuality. That niche already being taken, Don Imus found his niche in being the Archie Bunker of the airwaves, the last unapologetic bigot.
And it says something sad but important about America that he guessed right, that his gamble that there were so many people out there who want to hear anybody who is non-white and/or non-male that runs for public office or appears on television or is in any other way visible to a white male audience mocked for this, mocked for being non-white and/or non-male and still thinking they have a right to be seen or heard by Americans, that he can sell enough advertising time and book enough hungry politicians and hungry authors to be able to afford to litigate the occasional FCC sanction, pay off the occasional civil rights suit, and out last any threatened boycotts of his advertisers by demonstrating that there are more people in America hungry for bigoted humor than there are people who are offended enough by it to do anything -- and all the while to mock anybody who thinks to criticize him or his audience for bigotry. What's a two week suspension to a guy who makes what Imus makes? A vacation. Worse, it's a vacation that gives him time to do part of his job that he doesn't have as much time to do when he's actually working, which is to go out and promote his show everywhere he thinks he can find his target audience.
Note that Imus couldn't even get through his last-chance appearance on the Today Show without accusing everybody who's offended of being the bigots, not him. His defense of his own intentions boiled down to two claims: first of all, he can't possibly be a bigot, because his personal charity occasionally does something nice for a little black kid, and secondly, those who are criticizing him are the ones who are bigots, because they don't criticize black rappers for calling women "nappy headed ho's" but they do criticize any white guy who does. Both claims are naive and indefensible. Does Don Imus mock native Americans for being native Americans? Yes. Women for being women? Yes. Blacks for being black? Yes. Arabs for being Arab? Yes. Men for being men? Never once. White people for being white? Never once. Why not? Because being a white male isn't funny, that's normal. And thinking that it's abnormal enough to be inherently funny for a public figure to be anything other than a white male is bigotry. And his second claim is just as insultingly wrong, because first of all, even the most misogynistic of rappers wouldn't pick on women from one of the most elite colleges in America, and secondly, if he thinks that misogynistic rappers aren't criticized for the same behavior he is and by the same people, he's far too stupid to be talking on the radio. More likely it doesn't make any impression on him when black rappers get criticized for misogyny the way it impresses him when he gets criticized. Why is that? Because to Don Imus, criticizing black men is normal and something to be expected, but criticizing white men isn't. And thinking that way is bigotry.
And unfortunately, there's such a huge untapped market that's hungry for the kind of bigoted humor that everybody but Don Imus would be ashamed to use in public that there's big money to be made in selling things to them.