Who could have censored the comment that got Don Imus fired?

Answers to your questions about the news.
May 4 2007 6:52 PM

Who Censors Don Imus?

The dump-button guy, of course!

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Don Imus. Click image to expand.
Don Imus

Disgraced shock jock Don Imus will sue his former employer, CBS Radio, for $40 million, his lawyer announced Thursday. Imus' contract explicitly allowed him to be "irreverent" and "controversial," the lawyer said, and the radio stations could have censored anything they deemed inappropriate: "Both CBS and MSNBC had a delay button and neither of them used them in this case." Who decides when it's time to bleep out a racist remark?

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

The dump-button guy. Radio stations typically broadcast their talk shows with a substantial delay, which enables a staffer to monitor the content before it hits the airwaves. This employee sits in a room and listens to a live feed of the show. If he hears something that could be construed as obscene or offensive, he can hit the "delay dump button" to toss out a few seconds of stored audio. A widely syndicated show like Imus in the Morning might have multiple levels of screeners: First, there would be the dump-button guy at his home station—WFAN in New York; each of the affiliate stations that broadcast the show might also have dump-button guys.

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The in-house censors must learn which words or phrases might get the station in trouble. That means keeping up to date with the changing FCC decency standards, as well as the attitudes of a parent company like CBS. They also have to make split-second decisions. NPR was so worried about the speed of its censors that it tested their response time with mock callers before Vladimir Putin went on the air for a live call-in show in 2001.

Dump-button guys keep careful notes on what was said each time they bleep something out; after the show, they review these notes with the host and explain their reasoning. In some cases, station lawyers are called in to determine whether a given button press was justified or overcautious. It's de rigueur for a radio host to berate the dump-button guy for overstepping his bounds. In February, Loveline alum Adam Carolla gave "dump guy Lance" the business on the air; Lance seems to have walked off the job a couple of days later.

It wasn't always like this. In his early days, Howard Stern manned his own dump button, bleeping out swear words himself. Once the government fines started to come in, Stern's producers moved the delay dump button to another room, and the station's general manager manned the post. (After the Janet Jackson boob slip, Stern's delay was bumped from 24 seconds to 102 seconds.) Eventually, another radio personality—Dead Air Dave—was hired to press the button, in exchange for the promise of weekly on-air gigs. (Disclosure: Dead Air Dave is an acquaintance.) Most dump-button guys don't get nearly as sweet a deal.

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Explainer thanks radio personality Dead Air Dave.

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