Radio host Don Imus dies at 79

Disc jockey Don Imus, whose career was made and then undone by his acid tongue during a decades-long rise to radio stardom and an abrupt public plunge after a nationally broadcast racial slur, has died.

Posted: Dec 27, 2019 6:24 PM
Updated: Dec 28, 2019 3:57 PM

NEW YORK (AP) — Radio personality Don Imus, whose career was made and then undone by his acid tongue during a decades-long rise to stardom and an abrupt public plunge after a nationally broadcast racial slur, has died. He was 79.

Imus died Friday morning at Baylor Scott and White Medical Center in College Station, Texas, after being hospitalized since Christmas Eve, according to a statement issued by his family. Deirdre, his wife of 25 years, and his son Wyatt, 21, were at his side, with his son Zachary Don Cates returning from military service overseas.

He died of complications from lung disease.

Imus survived drug and alcohol woes, a raunchy appearance before President Clinton and several firings during his long career behind the microphone. But he was vilified and eventually fired after describing a women’s college basketball team as “nappy headed hos.”

His April 2007 racist and misogynist crack about the mostly black Rutgers squad, an oft-replayed 10-second snippet, crossed a line that Imus had long straddled as his irascible rants catapulted him to prominence. The remark was heard coast to coast on 60 radio stations and on a simulcast aired each morning on MSNBC.

At the time, his “Imus in the Morning” show was home to presidential hopefuls, political pundits and his favorite musicians, a must-listen in the media and political corridors of New York and Washington. Ten years earlier, Time magazine had named him one of the 25 most influential Americans. But the remark made him an immediate pariah and he was dropped by CBS Radio and MSNBC.

Imus apologized repeatedly, calling his remark “completely inappropriate ... thoughtless and stupid,” and met with the team to hear how his comment hurt them. Although he returned to radio, and the Fox Business Network simulcast his show for a number of years, he never approached the same influence before retiring in 2018.

The incident “did change my feelings about making fun of some people who didn’t deserve to be made fun of and didn’t have a mechanism to defend themselves,” Imus told CBS News upon his retirement.

Imus’ unsparing on-air persona was tempered by his off-air philanthropy, raising more than $40 million for groups including the CJ Foundation for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. He ran a New Mexico ranch for dying children, and often used his radio show to solicit guests for donations.

A pediatric medical center bearing Imus’ name was opened at the Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey.

Joe Scarborough, who replaced Imus in MSNBC’s morning lineup, tweeted that “Morning Joe” owed its format to Imus.

“No one else could have gotten away with that much talk on cable news,” Scarborough wrote. “Thanks for everything, Don, and Godspeed.”

Yet even in death, he was a polarizing figure. Several African Americans on Twitter were unforgiving, saying, in effect, “good riddance.” The Huffington Post headlined its obituary, “Don Imus, racist radio show host, dead at 79.”

Even though Imus was unsparing in mocking politicians of all stripes — he called former Vice President Dick Cheney a “war criminal” — he was praised on Twitter Friday by conservative media personalities Sean Hannity and Mark Levin. Fox News Channel’s Laura Ingraham said he was responsible for her radio career.

“Love him or hate him — & he gave his audience cause to do both — he was a giant in radio,” tweeted CBS’ Anthony Mason, who interviewed Imus at the time of his retirement.

Imus, born on a Riverside, California cattle ranch, was the oldest of two boys — his brother Fred later became an “Imus In the Morning” show regular. The family moved to Flagstaff, Arizona, where Imus joined the Marines before taking jobs as a freight train brakeman and uranium miner.

Only at age 28 did he appear on the airwaves. His caustic persona, though it would later serve him well, was initially a problem: Imus was canned by a small station in Stockton, California, for uttering the word “hell.”

The controversy only enhanced his career, a pattern that continued throughout the decades.

Imus, moving to larger California stations, earned Billboard’s “Disc Jockey of the Year” award for medium-sized markets after a stunt where he ordered 1,200 hamburgers to go from a local McDonald’s.

He moved to Cleveland and by 1971, was doing the morning drive-time show on WNBC-AM in New York, the nation’s largest and most competitive radio market. He brought along a destructive taste for vodka.

He was a “shock jock” before the term was coined, and listeners flocked to hear what outrageous things he’d say, like phoning people to wake them up and ask, “Are ya naked?” He played characters like the radio evangelist Rev. Billy Sol Hargis. His demons also made it an open question many mornings whether he’d show up for his 6 a.m. shift.

Imus was fired by WNBC but returned in triumph two years later adding a new vice: cocaine. While his career turned around, his first marriage, which produced daughters Nadine, Ashley, Elizabeth and Toni, fell apart.

Imus struggled with addiction until a 1987 stint at a Florida alcohol rehabilitation center, coming out just as WNBC became the fledgling all-sports station WFAN, which retained Imus’ non-sports show as its morning anchor.

His career again soared. He was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame and MSNBC signed up his simulcast when the network started in 1996. He mixed comedy with A-list guests like Senators John Kerry and John McCain. Media personalities like NBC’s Tim Russert and Frank Rich of The New York Times were regulars.

A book plug on Imus’ show guaranteed sales, and authors were soon queuing up for a slot on the show.

Imus rarely missed a chance to get in trouble, even in the good times. He engaged in a long-running feud with shock jock Howard Stern, who usurped Imus’ position as the No. 1 morning host in New York City.

But as he retired, Imus called Stern one of the top five radio personalities of all time. He gave himself the same rank, adding Arthur Godfrey, Wolfman Jack and Jack Benny.

“He had a big problem with me,” Imus said about Stern. “I didn’t with him.”

In 1996, Imus outraged guests at the annual Radio and Television Correspondents Association Dinner in 1996, cracking wise about President Clinton’s extramarital activities as the first lady sat stone-faced nearby. “We all know you’re a pot-smoking weasel,” Imus said at another point about Clinton.

A White House spokesman called Imus’ bit “fairly tasteless.”

One year later, he was sued by a Manhattan judge after ripping the jurist on air as a “creep” and “a senile old dirtbag.” Critics carped over the show’s content, with Imus deflecting most complaints by claiming he was an all-inclusive offender. However, one show regular was fired in 2005 after a particularly vile crack about cancer-stricken singer Kylie Minogue.

A February 2006 profile in Vanity Fair contained the quote that might best serve as Imus’ epitaph.

“I talk to millions of people every day,” he said while riding home in a limousine after one show. “I just like it when they can’t talk back.”

Imus remarried in December 1994, to the former Deirdre Coleman. They had one son, Wyatt, and adopted Zachary after he attended one of his camps for cancer-stricken children.

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