Original ‘shock jock’ Imus dies at age 79

Don Imus on the air in 2007. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

Don Imus, the high-school dropout who helped start the “shock jock” movement in radio and became a “must appear” for politicians as he made millions trading insults and slinging racists epithets that got him fired time and again over a career that spanned more than 50 years, died in a hospital in College Station, Tex. at age 79.

Imus was suffering from prostate cancer, although the news from his family did not state a cause of his death,

At the height of his rollercoaster career, his “Imus in the Morning” show, broadcast jointly on WFAN radio and MSNBC on cable TV brought in millions of dollars in advertising and appearances by presidential candidates, members of Congress and celebrities.

Yet that came to an abrupt end when he called a mostly African-American college women’s basketball team “nappy-headed hos.” Fired by both MMSNBC and WFAN, he disappeared from the airwaves for eight months until returning in a less-prominent spot on Rural Free Delivery (RFD) cable TV and syndicated out of WABC radio in New York, where he apologized for his “reprehensible” comments  while saying “Dick Cheney is still a war criminal, Hilary Clinton is still Satan and I’m back on the radio.”

Six months after returning to the air, however, Imus got into trouble again when NFL player Adam “Pacman” Jones was arrested and he asked a sports reporter on the air: “What color is he?”

“African American,” replied Warner Wolf, a frequent guest.

“There you go,” Imus said. “Now we know.”

By that time, he was appearing on Fox Business Network’s cable TV and syndicated on radio but the company that owned many of those stations went bankrupt and he signed off for the last time two years ago.

Imus’ over the line insults and taunts helped another shock jock, Howard Stern, get started. They shared a show together for a while but hated each other both on and off the air.  After years of guzzling vodka and drugs like speed and cocaine, checked into the Hanley-Hazelton rehab center in West Palm Beach, Fla. in 1978 and said he remained sober for the rest of his life.

While his style of insults and racist remarks is continued by the current president of the United States, Imus considered Donald trump “a hideous, transparent goon…an unctuous, gauzy, pumping twit. His show became a stopping point for politicians like Senators John McCain and John Kerry as well as newspaper columnists Maureen Dowd and Frank Rich. The Washington Post called his show  one with “a locker-roo atmosphere, wich a musty mix of gossip, insider analysis and flat-out name-calling — attracting a high-end audience that advertisers would pay a premium to reach.”

Former Washington Post columnist Tony Kornheiser, on his radio show in Washington, asked: “How can he do five minutes on the size of his penis and then interview Bill Bradley?”

Imus’ response: “I have varied interests; they range from NAFTA to my penis,” he told biographer Kathleen Tracy, who wrote his biography: “Imus: American Cowboy.”

Notes Marc Fisher in the obituary of Imus in The Washington Post:

For his high-end guests and listeners, Mr. Imus was a window onto a coarser America, a place where real men dished out ethnic slurs and poked fun at the overeducated. The Imus show was a way to listen in on the chatter at a fictive clubhouse of the rich and influential.

When the journalist Buzz Bissinger spent a week with Mr. Imus in 2006 for a profile in Vanity Fair, the writer concluded that the radio host had many faces: “Perverse. Smart. Savvy. Curious. Child-like. Moody. Mercurial. Out of it. Into it. Appealing.”

For all his antics, Imus was also a generous donor to causes ad used his 4,000-acre ranch in New Mexico as a place where children suffering from cancer could come, play and have fun while they struggled with their diseases. He raised and gave millions to other causes, including help for wounded soldiers.

In his final broadcast, he said:

I always thought and still think I was always talking to one person. I didn’t know if you were male or female, I just knew there was one person that I talked to and that would listen to me.

In that same broadcast, he called Rev. Al Sharpton “a racist, bigoted civil rights charlatan.”


© 2004-2021 Blue Ridge Muse

© 2021 Blue Ridge Muse