Don Imus was one of the great radio personalities ever.
This is important to remember because Imus’s death Friday morning, at the age of 79, will shake loose an avalanche of the words “shock jock,” a phrase Imus did play a major role in popularizing.
It’s an easy tag that misses the point.
Imus was irascible, annoying and mercurial. He got hired, fired, praised and condemned as routinely as most people brush their teeth. He could drive his friends as nuts as he drove his adversaries.
The mistake lies in concluding he must have been only the sum of those parts. The real sum of Imus, from KUTY in Palmdale, Calif., to WNBC, WFAN and WABC in New York, was that he understood radio completely and executed it brilliantly.
He knew pacing. He knew rhythm. On his good days, which were many, his morning radio show was a song.
On his best days, which were also many, it had fire. Imus on the radio acknowledged no middle ground. He liked you, he was all in. He didn’t like you, he was all out. If he wasn’t always a role model for human relationships, he was a gold standard for a talk radio host.
At what many consider his peak, from his launch on WFAN in 1988 through the next decade, his guest list routinely included U.S. senators like John McCain and John Kerry, historians like Michael Bechloss, Jon Meacham and Doris Kearns Goodwin, columnists like Frank Rich and Mike Lupica and TV personalities like Tom Brokaw and Cokie Roberts.
While these appearances provided valuable cross-promotion to the participants, they also reflected the fact that doing Imus was fun.
It should be added that part of the fun came from Imus wisely employing a newsman/sidekick, Charles McCord, who helped steer those conversations, and much else on the Imus in the Morning program, in interesting directions.
At the same time, it’s worth remembering that before writer Anna Quindlen would guest on the show, Imus had to agree he would refrain from his harder-edged material before and after her segment. The window of purity, it was called.
Imus was amenable. He readily admitted that inside the 55-year-old Imus there still lurked a 15-year-old juvenile delinquent.
That’s how he could conduct a serious interview about foreign policy on his morning show and a night later make an awkward wisecrack about President Bill Clinton’s love life at a Radio and Television Correspondents’ dinner.
Imus never seemed to repent for that one, or for similar cracks about other famous people. He pitched his tent in the “Forget ’em if they can’t take a joke” camp until April 2007, when he crossed the line from “Can you really say that on the radio?” to “Oh my God, you should not have said that on the radio.”
The flashpoint, well chronicled, came in a brief on-air exchange where the Imus team referred to Rutgers women basketball players as “nappy-headed ho’s.”
A swift backlash cost him a couple of jobs — WFAN on the radio, MSNBC on television — and more than a couple of friends and admirers. His guest list, among other things, was never the same.
Yet Imus survived. Even by the standards of a business where careers flow in and out with the tide, Imus lived a remarkable number of lives.
He grew up in Arizona with a wild streak, an alcoholic father and a brother, Fred, who would remain his closest friend until Fred died in 2011 — a blow from which Don never completely recovered.
Imus tended to deflect details of his childhood. His official biography describes part of it this way: “Despite the occasional rough patch, Imus did spend a full twelve years in public school and emerged with no formal education…a product of automatic social promotion not even casually tied to merit. He graduated with no honors and no skills, a rare stroke of luck because a broadcasting career required neither.”
The broadcasting career did not blossom immediately. First he did a tour in the Marines, worked in a uranium mine and spent time as a brakeman on the Southern Pacific.
Show biz-wise, he and Fred first aspired to become recording artists, cutting a series of records that sold nothing but have achieved cult fame in the 1950s rockabilly subgenre of hot rod music.
This pursuit lasted, Imus would later say, “until one day I went to the office of Dootone Records, where the Penguins had recorded [the huge hit] ‘Earth Angel.’ When we got there, I saw the Penguins getting off a bus. I said, ‘A hit like that and you’re riding the bus?’ Forget this.“
When he was hired at KUTY in 1968, he switched the focus of the morning show from news and music to comedy, creating bits like Billy Sol Hargis, the evangelist from The Gold Buckle of the Bible Belt.
He moved up to Cleveland and eventually word reached New York, where WNBC was struggling, as it it would forever, to compete with top-40 powerhouse WABC and the slowly emerging FM universe. Imus hit New York hard, and quoting his catchlines like “Are you naked?” became a mark of radio cool.
Unfortunately, he was also hitting the bottle, and the party circuit, and spending more time on his new standup comedy act. WNBC started to worry that the radio show had become less of a priority and in late summer 1977 the station decided he was more trouble than he was worth and fired him.
He returned to Cleveland, where Fred became his producer, and he rehabbed his show, though his substance abuse lingered a bit longer. He returned to WNBC in 1981 and became more popular than ever.
WNBC soon hired Howard Stern for afternoons, and while they never exactly bonded — Stern found Imus, let’s say, unpleasant — it gave the station a brand.
Meanwhile, Imus was already shifting gears again. By the time WNBC became all-sports WFAN in October 1988 and kept Imus as the morning show just case the all-sports thing didn’t work out, he was focused on what he called “a program for grownups.”
The juvenile delinquent was still in there, but Imus was determined to become respectable. “I’m Howard Stern with a vocabulary,” he said. And sure enough, within a few years Time magazine had named him one of the 25 most influential people in America. He was syndicated on around a hundred radio stations.
He also got a TV deal, when the new MSNBC network started simulcasting three hours of his show in 1996. Imus insisted he was still a radio guy, that he didn’t care about the video exposure. But his guests, he said, did. “People who wouldn’t consider us before are on the phone begging,” he said.
The Rutgers affair propelled Imus into his last big career makeover when he returned in December 2007, to WABC on radio and RFD on television.
He added two black commentator/comedians to his team and while he insisted he would still practice equal-offender programming, the show felt a little more cautious. By then Imus was also having health issues, including prostate cancer and a collapsed lung that helped lead to serious breathing difficulties.
McCord left the show in 2011, breaking up the long-running team that also included producer Bernard McGuirk, engineer Lou Ruffino and comedian Rob Bartlett. Imus had had other regular contributors come in and depart over the years, including sports reporters Mike Breen and Warner Wolf, but McCord’s leaving — which was never explained in any detail — marked the end of an era for the band.
For years, Imus said, he and McCord had talked every evening, mapping out bits and ideas for the next day’s show. McCord then wrote many of those bits.
Imus’s show was more subdued the last couple of years, as he was clearly slowing down physically. But his last words on the radio, March 29, 2018, were “We did it!”
Which he did.
Nor was radio his only legacy. He also conceived, constructed and ran the Imus Ranch in New Mexico, which every summer hosted children with cancer. With Imus himself in one of the saddles, campers got the full ranch experience, complete with roping and riding. Equally important, Imus said, they were treated exactly the same as he would have treated children without cancer.
When he wasn’t getting down with the cowboys, Imus leaned on his corporate pals to pony up the large sums of money necessary to underwrite the operation. This was, in a sense, an extension of his massive earlier fundraising for the CJ Foundation for SIDS and the Tomorrow’s Children Fund at Hackensack University Medical Center, where there’s a Don Imus-WFAN wing in the Pediatric Center.
With the Ranch, both the cost and the rewards were personal. He and Deirdre attended a lot of funerals. They also adopted a camper, Zach, who now works with Deirdre and Wyatt in running the Ranch Foundation.
Imus also produced records, wrote books, recorded comedy albums and for a time guided Auto Body Express, a weirdly endearing boutique business featuring merchandise branded to Fred’s auto repair shop in El Paso.
After he left WABC, he helped keep himself busy with a stream of tweets that suggested the world kept him just as amused and outraged as ever.
His observations could be grumpy, adversarial and profane. Equally revealing, most of them were complimentary. Some promoted friends like Bartlett or country singers he liked. Many updated fans on Wyatt’s booming rodeo career.
His penultimate tweet, on Dec. 17, noted that day was the 25th anniversary of his marriage to Deirdre — which, not incidentally, reflected another case where he seemed to figure things out.
His first marriage, which produced four daughters with whom he often had difficult relationships, ended in divorce. With Deirdre, who was 24 years younger, he seemed to have found the bright side.
For all the things he said on the radio and the volume at which he said them, Don Imus hid more than he revealed. If he was happy to talk about how much he loved Waylon Jennings, Bob Dylan and Hank Williams, he kept a lot locked away. No matter. Based on the fun and passion he brought to the airwaves, his resting place in the radio pantheon comes as no shock.