Imus Returns. Will Advertisers?

Don Imus has never been known for his subtlety. He returned to radio this week, ostentatiously overcompensating for his "nappy-headed ho" comment by adding an African-American woman, Karith Foster, as his new sidekick. There were familiar elements too, including guest politicians. Lagging presidential aspirants John McCain and Chris Dodd joined him at his new radio base, WABC in New York, in person or via satellite. Conspicuously absent, however were the A-list of national advertisers that used to fill the air between Imus's rants, raves and musings.

While Subaru was on board, the 12 other advertisers included Dial-A-Mattress and regional players like Tri-State Oil and the Mohegan Sun Casino. That's a far cry from American Express, General Motors, Pepsi and Proctor & Gamble—all of which bought airtime before Imus's incendiary remarks. The estimated total ad-, syndication- and television-related revenue generated by his old talk show was as much as $50 million per year.

His new bosses at Citadel Broadcasting will find things leaner. "It's a PR nightmare to think about linking up with Imus at this stage," says Peter Gardiner, chief media officer at ad agency Deutsch Inc. How long the big players will avoid Imus isn't clear. But some industry insiders are optimistic about the shock jock's future. "If I'm a betting man, advertisers are going to come back," says Robert Birge, a top officer and chief marketer for IMG Worldwide, the sports, entertainment and media giant.

Of course, Imus will have to reestablish his audience first. In his heyday his listeners had an average income of $250,000 and were leaders in business, media and politics. It is because of that elite demographic that "everyone is already salivating at his return," WABC sales associate Bob Gell tells NEWSWEEK. "His redeeming value is that he has such an exclusive and such a high-quality, upscale audience," says Natalie Swed Stone, director of national advertising for OMD, a media buying arm of the Omnicom ad giant.

But can a kinder, gentler and more politically correct Imus still be Imus? Can he be as edgy as I-Man loyalists expect him to be without inviting another uproar? "He could still be too hot," says Jason Maltby, president and co-executive director of national broadcast for MindShare, the large media buying arm of ad giant WPP Group. "But if he comes back and has to tone down his shtick too much, what does that do to the loyal fans who have come to expect an unconventional approach."

Before he can sharpen his edge, however, Imus needs to made amends. He did that in his debut by repeatedly apologizing to the Rutgers women, the object of his racially and sexually insulting remarks eight months ago. "He stood up and took his punishment," says IMG's Birge, who speculates that Imus will follow the trajectory of Martha Stewart. The domesticity doyenne, who served a prison sentence after conviction on charges growing out of a securities case, "took her lumps," Birge says, "and you kind of never hear about it now."

Stone of OMD is even more bullish on Imus's return to the top. She says he may even be seen as a sympathetic figure who committed a mistake, but apologized and was punished too severely—"a victim of politics and corporate decisions," she says. Office Depot, Travelocity and other Stone clients weren't on the debut show, but she says some on her roster will likely return. But even those open to the prospect, she adds, will take into account such variables as the price of ad time and the number of stations that eventually pick up his new show. Imus needs to get his listeners back—in order to lure his most important audience, advertisers.