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With Imus gone, who gets his time slot?

By Frazier Moore

Associated Press

NEW YORK — The fall of Don Imus has triggered loads of high-minded talk, and no more so than from the media outlets that until last week happily employed him.

CBS boss Leslie Moonves, who fired Imus from his radio show, spoke of striking a blow against the culture Imus flourished in, "a culture that permits a certain level of objectionable expression that hurts and demeans a wide range of people."

And NBC News President Steve Capus, who a day earlier had announced MSNBC would no longer simulcast "Imus in the Morning," stressed the importance of protecting NBC News’ reputation while restoring confidence among the ranks of NBC Universal "in the values we have set for this company."

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Mighty righteous!

But will Imusgate really lead to greater diversity and heightened sensitivity on the airwaves? Will it, as some propose, be a catalyst for change?

Only two changes are guaranteed. CBS must find someone to fill Imus’ morning slot for the 61 stations that, until last Thursday, were airing him.

And MSNBC has a similarly daunting task: to replace its Imus simulcast (which aired weekdays from 6 to 9 a.m. EDT) with something new that can compete in the morning-TV battle. But this problem, however unsought and unwanted, is also a great opportunity.

Is it too much to hope that MSNBC’s new morning broadcast will draw on some of the painful lessons from the Imus debacle?

Is it too much to hope that, at a minimum, MSNBC might try something bold and different from the all-too-similar morning-news pack?

MSNBC’s "Imus in the Morning" simulcast was certainly different.

Imus welcomed eggheads and politicos and media bigs as guests, who, in his company, let down their guard. A solid interviewer, Imus was informed enough to ask good questions, interested enough to shut up for the answers. His show was one of the few places on TV where open-ended conversation could be heard.

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The show was newsy enough, with all the requisite headlines. Its pace was leisurely. And since this, after all, was televised radio, its look was refreshingly bare-bones. (Who the heck needs razzle-dazzle in the morning?)

As for the coarse humor and vulgar wisecracks: Maybe some satisfied viewers put up with the show’s raw moments as the price of enjoying its more substantial elements.

In any case, the telecast obviously had its appeal, attracting an estimated 361,000 viewers the first three months of this year, up by one-third from 2006 and closing in on CNN.

Granted, "Imus in the Morning" had no business being on MSNBC. It never belonged there.

MSNBC piggybacked onto Imus’ hit radio show shortly after the network launched in 1996. Cameras were strung from the ceiling of Imus’ radio studio over in Queens, two rivers away from MSNBC headquarters in Secaucus, N.J., and — presto! — MSNBC had scored itself a morning show.

But what was this strange interloper — an interview-and-humor anti-TV program hosted by a cantankerous shock jock — doing on MSNBC? Wasn’t MSNBC a cable news channel trying to establish itself as a credible alternative to CNN? Didn’t it have the vast resources of NBC News at its disposal?

More than a decade later, isn’t a morning program long overdue that’s better suited to MSNBC’s presumed mission?

You bet. And it’s needed, too.

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With Imus gone, MSNBC has the chance to create a network-defining new program. To find itself, at last. And give viewers something to watch in the morning they can’t get anywhere else.

That would be a worthy successor to Imus.

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