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Don Imus, U.S. Radio-Show Host Who Thrived on Shock, Dies at 79

Stephen Miller
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Don Imus, U.S. Radio-Show Host Who Thrived on Shock, Dies at 79

(Bloomberg) -- Don Imus, a U.S. talk-radio host famed for his verbal grenades and jocular interviews with prominent figures in the media, politics and sports, has died. He was 79.

Imus died Friday morning at the Baylor Scott & White Medical Center in College Station, Texas, according to a statement from publicist Matthew Hiltzik. With a weekday morning show on radio and cable television for more than 40 years, Imus had a career that spanned generations of on-air formats.

From his early days in New York as a song-spinning disc jockey who often asked female callers if they were naked, Imus thrived on shock. His provocations backfired in 2007, when he described the Rutgers University women’s basketball team as “nappy-headed hos.” His employers, WFAN radio and the MSNBC cable network, dropped his show after protests from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and other groups.

Within two years, Imus was back -- and still sporting his cowboy hat and in a perpetually foul mood -- with a successful morning show on WABC radio and the Fox Business Network. The show, “Imus in the Morning,” ended last year.

“The I-Man retired from his Imus in the Morning show in March 2018 but Don continued to share his candid opinions about elected officials in both parties up until the end,” according to the statement from his publicist.

Early in his career, Imus broadcast comedy routines and practical jokes, such as ordering 1,200 Big Macs on the air. By the 1990s, he focused more on interviews, often with newsmakers. He also became a force in the publishing industry, able to propel books that he liked, such as Pete Hamill’s “A Drinking Life” and Jane Mendelsohn’s “I Was Amelia Earhart,” up the best-seller lists, according to a 1998 profile in the New Yorker.

“It wasn’t so much the shock factor,” Michael Harrison, the editor and publisher of Talkers magazine, said in a 2014 interview. “It was the honesty and the authenticity around his performance. Imus wasn’t kidding. He was just a very nasty fellow.”

He was also a powerful one too, able to summon politicians to his show, where they traded political banter and locker-room humor with the “I-Man,” as he was known.

He also drew prominent media figures, which at the time included former CBS News anchor Dan Rather, as well as the late Cokie Roberts and Tim Russert.

All were given the Imus treatment of alternating flattery and snark to the accompaniment of laughter by his on-air flunkies.

Early Life

John Donald Imus Jr. was born on July 23, 1940, in Riverside, California, according to Marquis Who’s Who. His parents ran a ranch in Kingman, Arizona. Imus played up his roots, wearing cowboy regalia on the air and sometimes packing a .357 magnum.

“His familiar cowboy persona is completely legitimate,” according to a biography on his website.

Imus dropped out of college after one week and entered the Marines at 17. He held jobs as a copper and uranium miner, and a brakeman on the Southern Pacific Railroad, before attending the Don Martin School of Radio and Television Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles. Imus told Newsweek in 1999 that he became a DJ partly to promote the records he made in a rock band with his brother, Fred.

His first radio jobs were in Stockton, California, as well as Sacramento, where he won Billboard magazine’s middle-market air-personality award in 1970.

‘Garbage Mouth’

Imus moved to Cleveland, where his provocative style took WGAR from last to first in the ratings in 1971, Billboard magazine reported at the time. When he left for New York, the Cleveland Plain Dealer headlined, “Garbage Mouth Goes to Gotham.”

After he became the drive-time DJ at WNBC in New York, his erratic behavior and a general decline of AM radio led to his firing in 1977. Imus returned to Cleveland before being rehired at WNBC in 1979. Another “shock jock,” Howard Stern, became the station’s afternoon DJ in 1982, kicking off an on-air feud over who deserved more credit for their crass broadcasts.

In the 1980s, Imus nursed alcohol and cocaine habits that became fodder for his show after he entered rehabilitation in 1987.

The same year, WNBC rebranded itself as WFAN, a sports-talk station. Freed of the need to introduce hit records, while not restricted to the sports format, “Imus in the Morning” went all-talk and was nationally syndicated. The newly sober host helped WFAN become, by 1996, the top-grossing radio station in the country, with revenue topping $50 million, according to a 1997 story in the New York Times.

Imus’s ratings slipped over the next decade, “but he always drew a desirable crowd for upper-end advertisers,” said Harrison of Talkers magazine. “He was a qualitative buy.”

In 1998, Imus founded the Imus Ranch near Santa Fe, New Mexico, as a haven for children with cancer and other diseases. The family will hold a small private service and requested that any donations be made to the foundation.

With his second wife, Deirdre, he had a son, Wyatt. Imus had four daughters from his previous marriage: Nadine, Toni, Elizabeth and Ashley.

To contact the reporter on this story: Stephen Miller in New York at smiller244@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Steven Gittelson at sgittelson@bloomberg.net, Linus Chua, Nick Turner

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