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Obituary

Don Imus, pioneering talk-radio host and shock jock, dies at 79

Radio personality Don Imus speaks at the 2010 AFTRA AMEE Awards at The Grand Ballroom at The Plaza Hotel on February 22, 2010, in New York City.

LARRY BUSACCA/AFTRA/GETTY IMAGES/TNS

By GREG BRAXTON | Los Angeles Times | Published: December 28, 2019

(Tribune News Service) — Don Imus, one of radio's most popular and polarizing figures, who sparked a national firestorm with a racially charged joke about the Rutgers University's women's basketball team, has died. He was 79.

The pioneering shock jock, whose career spanned nearly 50 years, was hospitalized on Christmas Eve and died Friday morning at Baylor Scott and White Medical Center in College Station, Texas, according to a statement from his family. No cause of death was given.

Imus, or "the I-Man" as many of his friends and guests tagged him, reshaped radio with his crass but often insightful observations about current events and helped open the floodgates for the coarsened chatter that animates talk radio today. He retired from his show "Imus in the Morning" in March 2018.

Despite the base nature of his programs, the ex-Marine was still able to attract a lengthy and enviable guest list of prominent journalists, historians and politicians that included governors, U.S. senators and presidential candidates. At the height of his popularity, Imus reportedly earned about $10 million a year, and split his time between a Central Park West penthouse, a ranch in New Mexico and an estate on Long Island Sound.

"He's one of the first who stretched the envelope on what could be said," said Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers, a radio industry trade magazine. "He was dangerous in terms of language, an early pioneer in making the culture of radio reflect the mood of the street. He had moved beyond shock jock and influenced a lot of younger talent."

Born in Riverside on July 23, 1940, John Donald Imus Jr. became one of the medium's first so-called "shock jocks." A hint of his wild and pranksterish behavior came early in his radio career in the late 1960s when he was at KXOA in Sacramento, Calif. He telephoned a local McDonald's on-air and ordered 1,200 hamburgers — with and without various condiments.

The stunt earned him scores of listeners and eventually led to a Federal Communications Commission rule requiring disc jockeys to identify themselves when telephoning listeners.

Soon he moved to New York, and by the early 1970s was a top broadcaster for WNBC, where his biting humor earned him stellar ratings. But in what would be one of many personal setbacks suffered in his career, Imus was fired from the station for drug and alcohol abuse in 1977. After a stint in rehab, he came back after a couple years stronger than ever on another station.

From that point, he was more candid about his shortcomings, frequently speaking about his struggles with addiction and crediting recovery programs with making him a better person.

"Don Imus didn't just go through the barriers of radio, he crashed through them," said Tom Taylor, a journalist who has long covered the radio industry. "His irascibility and his determination to play the game by his own rules made him the opposite of all disc jockeys before him."

As his show matured, Imus began infusing it with politics, a tack that began attracting politicians who were eager to court his millions of daily listeners. During the 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton appeared on the show to helped revive his then-battered campaign, which had just suffered a sound defeat in Connecticut by former California Gov. Jerry Brown. Clinton and Imus clicked.

The future U.S. president went into "his good ol' boy routine," recalled Newsweek's Howard Fineman, and "talked about the fact that he drove a pickup when he was a kid with Astro Turf in the back. … and this fit squarely with the Imus constituency — with country music and pickup trucks and politics."

In many ways, Imus was his own mixed message — a cranky, crude comedian one minute, a well-read authority on history and politics the next. And even though he treated some of his political guests harshly, the show soon became a regular pit stop for pundits and members of the Washington/New York politico-media elite.

Among Imus' many guests were NBC newsman Tim Russert, newspaper columnist Maureen Dowd, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, Connecticut Sen. Christopher Dodd, NBA star Charles Barkley, Arizona Sen. John McCain, Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf.

Frank Rich, the New York Times columnist, appeared several times on the show and said: "Imus was never an ideologue. At his best, despite the various meltdowns and controversies and egregious embarrassments, his show was a real meeting ground for an oddball collection of people, politicians from both parties and all over, and journalists both well known and obscure."

Rich added that one of Imus' defining traits was that he was "incredibly candid. He didn't require you to speak in sound bites, and he was not afraid to ask the rude question, the question that would not be asked on the Sunday morning shows or NPR."

Imus also had a charitable side. He and his wife ran the Imus Ranch, a cattle ranch near Ribera, N.M., where children with cancer or serious blood disorders, and those who had lost siblings to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), could work as cowhands and experience a cowboy lifestyle.

To many radio fans, Imus will be remembered for his ongoing, bitter yet colorful feud with shock-jock rival Howard Stern. Both men worked at WNBC during the early 1980s, and their brief overlap fueled decades of name-calling and excoriating comments.

Imus' uncensored style landed him in trouble on more than a few occasions as he routinely made offensive remarks on his program about gays, Jews, blacks and women. But nothing he said compared to the tempest prompted by his remarks on April 4, 2007, when he referred to the Rutgers University women's basketball team as "nappy-headed hos."

The comment might have passed without notice were his show solely on radio. But at the time his show was also simulcast on cable TV channel MSNBC, and the video snippet soon took on a life of its own across the internet. The reaction was swift and angry, with personalities ranging from NBC weatherman Al Roker to then-presidential candidate Barack Obama calling for Imus to be fired.

Imus apologized, first on his show and then in an appearance on the Rev. Al Sharpton's radio show, but the furor still escalated. MSNBC and CBS, which owned the station broadcasting his radio show, then tried to quell the storm by suspending Imus for two weeks, but protests continued and sponsors were still withdrawing their support.

Next, the Rutgers team held a nationally televised news conference to condemn Imus, and a few days later MSNBC yanked the simulcast off the air. Finally, on April 12, Imus was fired, ending his syndicated program that had aired on 70 stations.

He largely disappeared from public life for about eight months. But on Dec. 4, 2007, Imus returned to the airwaves on WABC-AM (with a simulcast on Fox Business Network added in the fall of 2009).

He introduced a new cast of characters, including two black comedians, and told listeners he had learned his lesson: "I didn't see any point in going on some sort of Larry King tour to offer a bunch of lame excuses for making an essentially reprehensible remark about innocent people who did not deserve to be made fun of."

Despite the uproar, Imus' career will not be overshadowed by the Rutgers remark, Taylor said.

"He really didn't want to go out that way," he said. "He wanted to redeem himself in the eyes of those people. When he said he was sorry, he was really speaking from the heart."

Imus is survived by his wife of 25 years, Deirdre; daughters Nadine, Ashley, Elizabeth and Toni; and sons Wyatt and Zachary.

The family will hold a small private service in the coming days and requests that any donations be made to the Imus Ranch Foundation.

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Los Angeles Times staff writer Christie D'Zurilla contributed to this report.

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