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A relic of racism betrays radio

Indefensible. Reprehensible. Loathsome. And ridiculously over-repeated.

No argument. What Don Imus said that got him bounced from two -- count 'em -- media in one week was all of those things.

But it was also one more thing, too: Fascinating. Break it down into its constituent semantic parts.

As everyone in America knows, "Those are some nappy-headed hos" was the exact phrase that brought an end to the shock jock's career on standard radio and cable's MSNBC.

"Hos" is a deeply unfortunate and dubious hip-hop word first used about the Rutgers women's basketball team on his show by Imus' younger white producer. Imus then picked it up.

The idea of white people using black street vocabulary -- copying black style in general -- is as old as minstrelsy in American culture. If you look at it in another place entirely, the intersection of African-American and European music is, in fact, one of the eternal cultural glories of America, and always will be. On the other hand, whites filching mere "style" from ghetto streets -- vocabulary, clothes etc. -- has been a matter of African-American annoyance and disgust (and no small sneering amusement) for a long time.

So there's Imus, the supposedly "hip" radio mouth, picking up his producer's attempted street-cred word to describe young female basketball players. Except that Imus surreally added "nappy-headed" to it, a weird and uncommon verbal relic from '20s or '30s racism. (Even in the '50s, it would have sounded antique.)

And that, I submit, was the fatal semantic cocktail that poisoned his professional life. Subsequently picking the Rev. Al Sharpton's radio show as his designated career sanitizer didn't help -- not after Katie Couric's report at the top of CBS Nightly News -- but what was so conspicuously ugly and nettlesome about what he said was that it combined a hip-hop word that was ugly enough with a racist compound adjective from a long-gone era. He branded himself as ludicrously old.

It was Imus' attempt to deal with a very current subject -- the continuing heartening rise of female sports -- with the worst possible vocabularies of two eras.

It was also nakedly revelatory of mainstream radio's shameless pandering to its Angry White Male Demographic -- especially those over 40.

The fact is that, until Imus took the heat for a whole errant medium, so much of mainstream radio's shameless demographic targeting has meant that you can verbally abuse just about any minority with relative impunity -- intellectuals, Jews, blacks, whatever tickles your deeper hostilities. And you can call it "satire" too, even though it isn't.

When I was on vacation recently, I was in my car as I tried to listen to Mayor Byron Brown's news conference announcing his son's confession to driving the family SUV on WBEN, which calls itself "News Radio." What I found, to my shock, is that while it was going on, Tom Bauerle was continually mocking Brown's answers to questions in a voiceover while the news conference was in what media folks laughingly call "real time."

Sorry. You can't do that on "News Radio." You can say whatever you jolly well please before and after, but while a news conference is going on, you can't make faces behind someone's back. Someone at WBEN should have stopped Bauerle the minute his first lobbed voiceover grenade went in the mayor's direction.

But covering a news event is not really the business they're in. Pleasing a "demographic" is.

Is it "playing the race card" to ask whether Bauerle would have felt as free to do that if the news conference had been with a white mayor -- Jimmy Griffin, say? I tend to doubt it. (One never knows, though. Consider the anti-tax radio beating administered to Joel Giambra, angry white males have a lot to be angry about.)

Except for the statements of the vilely vilified Rutgers team, what has characterized the whole Imus affair is bullying -- a "shock jock's" super-annuated verbal bullying of women who deserved none of it, and the subsequent mass media bullying of a big mouth who accidentally parted the curtain on the way radio operates and brought that curtain down on himself.

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com

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