Don Imus, Divisive Radio Shock Jock Pioneer, Dead at 79

Don Imus, a foul-mouthed pioneer of the shock-jock radio format, died Friday at the age of 79. His family said his wife and one of his sons were by his side at the Baylor Scott and White Medical Center in College Station, Texas, according to ABC News, but neither they nor his publicist revealed a cause of death. He had been hospitalized on Tuesday.

As the cowboy-hat-wearing, pistol-toting host of the popular Imus in the Morning syndicated radio show for nearly five decades, Imus found ways to offend all walks of life. With an abrasive personality and a knives-out mentality, Imus took on liberals and conservatives alike, calling Dick Cheney a “war criminal” and Hillary Clinton “Satan.” He also drifted into racism, homophobia, and sexism, and despite losing his contract several times at various stations, managed to bounce back.

Despite his scabrous persona and frequent turnover at stations, he was inducted into the National Association of Broadcasters and the National Radio Hall of Fame. He also managed to show a softer side with his charity work, inviting children with cancer to spend their summers at his Imus Ranch in New Mexico for the past 20 years, and donating money to Iraq war vets.

In a reflective interview around his retirement in 2018, Imus told CBS News that he felt he was “one of the best ever” radio personalities. He put himself in the company of Arthur Godfrey, Jack Benny, Wolfman Jack, and his onetime rival Howard Stern. “Nobody’s ever done what I’ve done. Ever,” Imus said. “Done this for 50 years, making a lot of money. Only person’s that’s won more Marconi [Awards] than me is Paul Harvey. What was he on, three minutes a day? Stop it! Come on!”

John Donald Imus, Jr. was born on July 23rd, 1940 in Riverside, California and endured what he described as a rough childhood. His family were ranchers, and he grew up on a cattle farm near Kingman, Arizona. His parents divorced when he was 15, and he often changed schools. He was once arrested for a schoolyard fight and impeached as class president. At the behest of his mother, who wanted him to avoid more jail time, he joined the marine corps at 17. His official bio states that he “graduated with no honors and no skills, a rare stroke of luck because a broadcasting career required neither.”

Once out of the marines after committing several infractions, Imus found himself in a variety of odd jobs: working in an Arizona copper mine and a Grand Canyon uranium mine (where he broke both of his legs in an accident), a department store window dresser (where he made the mannequins do stripteases, according to The New York Times), and working as a freight brakeman on the South Pacific railroad. He also made it through periods of homelessness.

He got his first radio job in 1968 on Palmdale, California’s KUTY and later switched to Stockton’s KJOY. Although he was fired for saying “hell” on the air, according to the Times, and organizing an Eldridge Cleaver look-alike contest, according to The Hollywood Reporter, he managed to continue to get DJ gigs. While at KXOA in Sacramento, he phoned a fast-food restaurant on the air and pretended to be a sergeant who wanted 1,200 hamburgers for his men to go. The gag got him an FCC fine and huge ratings. The FCC also made a new rule, as a result of it, forcing DJs to identify themselves when making calls. A couple of years later, after he was more established, he put out a comedy record called 1,200 Hamburgers to Go.

He premiered Imus in the Morning on New York City’s WNBC in 1971 and cultivated more characters, including the Rev. Dr. Billy Sol Hargus, to huge ratings. He also launched a standup comedy career and, in 1981, published the book God’s Other Son, which contained stories of Hargus. After VH1 launched in 1985, Imus became one of the station’s earliest VJs. Around this time, Imus launched a feud with nascent shock jock Howard Stern, who had started working at WNBC in the early Eighties. Throughout his ascent, Imus battled alcohol and cocaine addictions, which he kicked after going to rehab in 1987.

He gained notoriety in the political arena in the mid-Nineties after insulting Bill and Hillary Clinton at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner and started inviting politicians and presidential hopefuls on his show. But he found himself in the biggest trouble in 2007 when he expressed outrage at the success of Rutgers University’s women’s basketball team, which had entered the NCAA finals. He referred to the women, who were mostly African American, as “rough girls” and “nappy-headed hos.” The statements sparked outrage from activists like Rev. Al Sharpton and Barack Obama, the latter of which had just begun his first presidential bid. Although he apologized — “This time we went way too far,” he said in a statement — his employers, CBS and MSNBC, fired him. He nevertheless was back on the air less than a year later with a new contract at a competitive broadcaster; he and CBS also settled a lawsuit over his $40 million contract and a suit by a Rutgers player was dropped, according to the Times.

In 2009, Imus revealed that he was battling prostate cancer; at the time, he said he preferred a holistic approach to treatment over radiation. He later battled emphysema and had to spend a lot of time off the air in 2017. The next year, he announced he would be retiring. According to ABC News, Imus began his radio career on June 1st, 1968 and kept it going for nearly 50 years, calling it quits on March 29th, 2018. The Times reports that in his final broadcasts, he expressed regrets for his racist statements about the Rutgers players, praised his colleagues, and thanked listeners who donated to his charities.

In addition to his other awards, he won four Marconi Awards (broadcasting’s equivalent to an Oscar) and was once named one of Time’s 25 Most Influential People.

Imus married Harriet Showalter in 1969 and adopted her two daughters, Nadine and Toni. They had two more daughters, Elizabeth and Ashleigh, before divorcing in 1979. He married Deirdre Coleman in 1994, and the couple had a son, Frederick Wyatt; they also adopted Zachary Don Cates, who had visited the Imus ranch as a 10-year-old.

His family is planning a service in the coming days, according to The Hollywood Reporter, and have asked for interested parties to make donations to the Imus Ranch Foundation.

“I always had it in my head that I was talking to one person,” Imus told CBS News at the time of his retirement. “I felt that when I walked in there and sat down and turned the mic on, that I was talking to you. I’m gonna miss that.”

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