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After Imus

Infamy is a great way to become part of mass media and a deadly way to stay there.

Paris Hilton romped nude on the Internet and became a TV star. Hugh Grant got a blowjob on Hollywood boulevard and leveraged it into record high ratings for Jay Leno. Anna Nicole was a stripper and a prescription drug addict whose medicine cabinet-assisted life was exactly what made her E! TV show so insatiably watchable.

But even if these folks achieved fame in part thanks to their vices, those vices weren’t committed in front of a free TV or radio audience. Vice can make you a star and broadcasting can milk that stardom for everything it’s worth.

But never sin on the air.

What Don Imus said was stupid and racist and sexist and insensitive and certainly not funny. There’s no doubt about that. But if he had done it in the pages of the Washington Post instead of on his radio show, he’d still have his radio show. And that’s the difference. When you stack three stupid words up against thirty years of broadcasting, should the words outweigh the years?

The answer doesn’t matter. Because they always will.

As Americans we hold our publicly owned airwaves to a higher standard. The fact that Imus has been doing what he’s doing on and off for years without notice (until now) is not a statement on a newly politically correct society. It’s a statement on a newly wired, ever-vigilant society that can police its airwaves more effectively than ever before – even if the folks doing the policing don’t necessarily represent the tastes of the folks doing the listening to shows like Imus’s.

Howard Stern said it best the other day: “Did I leave terrestrial radio at the right time, or what?”

You sure did, Howard.

Allow me to speak the unspoken: The public airwaves are designed as and destined to be a safe harbor for all where “all” is code for “children.” Whether most listeners want that or not – and I strongly suspect they do.

There’s no theater with an R rating on the radio. There’s no pay-per-view tier in the terrestrial radio world. Radio is one big Disneyland, and your morning show is Mickey and Minnie. Not the lowest common denominator, necessarily, but definitely the safest.

That’s what happens when the public owns the air.

Ironically, when SNL ran a particularly provocative music video featuring Justin Timberlake offering his “D**k in a Box” the censored version ran late at night on NBC where children are least likely to be watching and the uncensored version ran on YouTube where children are most likely to be watching. But YouTube is not the “public airwaves” and so follows the beat of a different drum, all other logic aside.

Without doubt, the chilling consequences of Imus’ firing will affect the decisions of everyone on the air for years to come. In the long run, the audience will get the kind of radio its watchdogs demand: Patently inoffensive, free of risk, vanilla to its core.

And when radio’s critics complain that there’s nothing very interesting or entertaining happening on the radio, that all the stuff that cuts the edge is on satellite radio or on HBO or in the Wild West of the Internet, we in broadcasting can always say “you’re welcome.”

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