NEW YORK – Don Imus returned to the airwaves Monday eight months after he was fired for a racially charged remark about the Rutgers women's basketball team, and introduced a new cast that included two black comedians.
Imus' lineup of guests featured two presidential hopefuls, Democrat Chris Dodd and Republican John McCain. As he did several times in the days after the episode, Imus condemned his controversial remark last spring and said he had learned his lesson.
"I didn't see any point in going on some sort of `Larry King' tour to offer a bunch of lame excuses for making an essentially reprehensible remark about innocent people who did not deserve to be made fun of," he said Monday during his debut on WABC-AM.
Again, Imus apologized to the basketball players and called the ensuing furor a "life-changing experience."
"I will never say anything in my lifetime that will make any of these young women at Rutgers regret or feel foolish that they accepted my apology and forgave me," he said. "And no one else will say anything else on my program that will make anyone think that I didn't deserve a second chance."
His debut Monday completed a comeback that seemed improbable at the height of the uproar last spring over his calling the players "nappy-headed hos." CBS Radio fired him on April 12, pulling the plug on his "Imus In the Morning" program that had aired on more than 70 stations and the MSNBC cable network.
McCain, who called into the show, answered questions about gays in the military (he said he would continue the "don't ask, don't tell" policy unless military leaders said it wasn't working), the recent surge in Iraq (he said it was doing the job), and the 2008 presidential election.
"Thanks for having me on," McCain said upon signing off. "Welcome back, old friend."
An hour before the 6 a.m. show began, more than a dozen fans — all of them white — waited outside the Town Hall theater for the sold-out show. The $100 tickets benefited the Imus Ranch for Kids With Cancer.
Shortly after the program began, Imus introduced his new cast, including two black comedians, Karith Foster and Tony Powell. Returning was Bernard McGuirk, the producer who instigated the Rutgers comment and was fired as well.
On the air, Imus said that every time he would get upset about getting fired, "I would remind myself that if I hadn't said what I said, then we wouldn't be having this discussion."
He talked about when he and his wife, Deirdre, met with the team, their coach and some of the players' parents and grandparents, for four hours the night he was fired from CBS Radio. The team members accepted Imus' apology that evening.
"I was there to save my life. I had already lost my job," he said. "They said they would never forget and I said I would never forget."
He talked about his experience over the past 20 years as a recovering alcoholic and drug addict and said that participating in recovery programs had given him the opportunity to be "a better person ... to have a better life."
While saying he had learned his lesson, he added — to applause from the live audience — "The program is not going to change."
His guests also included historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and political analysts James Carville and Mary Matalin.
While Imus pledged to use his new show to talk about race relations, he added: Other than that, not much has changed. Dick Cheney is still a war criminal, Hillary Clinton is still Satan and I'm back on the radio."
Imus' resurrection is just the latest in his four-decade career. The veteran shock jock has emerged intact in the past after assorted firings, bad publicity and a disastrous appearance at a Washington dinner before President Clinton.
Just three months after he was fired, the Rev. Al Sharpton, one of the strongest voices calling for his firing, said Imus had a right to make a living and could return to radio. He reiterated that view in a news conference Monday.
"Imus was fired. The move to hold people accountable was won," Sharpton said. "Whether he can, in the course of time, redeem himself, time will tell."
The prospect of Imus' return had outraged critics including the National Association of Black Journalists and the National Organization for Women.
Just before his dismissal, Imus signed a five-year, $40 million contract with CBS. He threatened a $120 million lawsuit after he was fired, but he settled in August for an undisclosed amount of money.
In addition to being aired on the Citadel Broadcasting-owned station, WABC, the new program will air on four other Citadel stations and 17 other stations owned by other companies, said Phil Boyce, program director of WABC. Other stations are expected to sign up to carry Imus in the coming weeks, Boyce said.
The show also will be simulcast on cable's RFD-TV, owned by the Rural Media Group Inc. RFD reaches nearly 30 million homes, but with Imus on board, the 24-hour cable network hopes to boost that number to 50 million over the next two years.