NEW YORK (AP) _ Don Imus makes no excuses for his offensive remarks about the Rutgers women's basketball team, but says: "I deserved a second chance."
He's 14 months into that second chance, trying to make the most of it. The new "Imus in the Morning" has key differences from the old one in tone and is certainly different visually, with the addition of two comedians who are Black, Karith Foster and Tony Powell.
"What happened is what should have happened," Imus said in an interview. "So much good has come out of what happened. I really do think it's like an alcoholic, which I am, and a drug addict, which I am. You're presented with the unique opportunity to be a better person than you had been. I consider this situation to be analogous to that, almost identical to that."
Imus, 68, works now for the ABC Radio Networks and rural RFD-TV after being fired by CBS Radio and MSNBC in spring 2007 for referring to the Rutgers women as "nappy-headed hos."
His show has the same mixture of interviews and cantankerous commentary on what he calls the "freak show," the world of politics and media. Imus will still call someone an idiot -- some guests consider it a rite of passage -- and he and his cast ride each other mercilessly.
Although NBC News cut him loose, both top NBC anchor Brian Williams and chief White House correspondent Chuck Todd appeared on Imus' show during the past two weeks. The hard-edged, ethnically based humor is largely gone; Imus said he had felt pressure from his old bosses to be more shocking, like Howard Stern or Opie & Anthony. The innocents, like women basketball players who didn't ask or deserve to be part of his world, are now off-limits.
One of his bosses, RFD chief executive Patrick Gottsch, described the changes simply: "He's not making stupid remarks anymore."
RFD is a step down for Imus. The young network is in less than half the homes as MSNBC and isn't on big-city cable systems in the Northeast, and Imus' primary appeal is in the Northeast corridor.
But he's not doing a TV show, just simulcasting a radio show. After early indications that the enforced layoff cost him listeners, Imus is approaching the average of 2.25 million people who tune it at least once a week, about what it was before, said Michael Harrison, publisher of the trade journal Talkers magazine.
Harrison estimates that Imus is on about the same or even more radio stations than he was before. While Harrison said his influence has dwindled -- "you don't hear about him as much as you did" -- last fall's Imus-curated CD benefiting his ranch for young cancer patients was a surprise best-seller.
Dennis Baxter, who runs KCAA radio in San Bernardino, Calif., brought back Imus' show last year, but only after talking with members of the local Black community about how it might be received. He finds the show much the same, but said Imus is "a little bit toned down" and "a little more respectful of people."
"He's not going over the edge maybe as much," Baxter said.
Imus, who talked one day recently in a Manhattan office, resists the idea that he has less of an edge.
"In some cases we do stuff that's more edgy," he said. "There are things that are said on the program that would not be said if we didn't have two African-Americans there. As far as the cruder material, that is the stuff we have eliminated totally."
He said his biggest concern coming back was how people would treat Foster and Powell.
"I was afraid that some people would think that they were there to serve as some kind of racial cover for me, which was not the case," he said. "They were there because they should have been there before."
Foster, who saw the job as a good opportunity and believed Imus was genuinely contrite, said she had the same concern about how she'd be seen. She even worried about whether she'd have to hire security.
"I can represent myself," she said. "I know I'm not anybody's token."
She said Imus has kept his word on talking about race; the Obama candidacy has led to several discussions about whether it truly meant equality was at hand. Then there are the less high-brow topics, like the abuse she took Friday about her Chihuahua.
A week ago Debra J. Dickerson, author of "The End of Blackness," was on the show to talk about a collection of essays from Black authors. She'll be on again soon to discuss Black history month. It's pretty safe to assume neither appearance would have been booked three years ago.
Dickerson, who wrote an anti-Imus essay for Time magazine after the Rutgers comments, was angry to get a call from an Imus producer asking her to be a guest for Black history month a year ago. But urged by the students she was teaching in a college journalism class, she decided to accept the gig.
She bet her students a box of doughnuts that Rutgers wouldn't come up. She lost. Imus wanted to talk about it.
"There are very few people in public life who have taken responsibility the way Imus has," Dickerson said.
Still, she said she gets very little feedback from friends who are Black when she's on the show. To her, it indicates many have written Imus off, if they cared about him to begin with.
Al Sharpton, one of Imus' most visible critics during the Rutgers controversy, didn't respond to requests to talk about him.
Since his return, Imus said he's had no one he asked to come on the show turn him down _ although he didn't ask people he knew wouldn't do it.
Despite owning up to his mistake, he called the media reaction to it absurd. About his critics: "I didn't expect to see any profiles in courage from any of these people and I didn't.'
"Are there some people who, if I was given an opportunity to get even with them, would I?" he said. "Of course. But I'm not going out of my way."