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Don Imus, controversial radio broadcaster and pioneer, dies at 79

Don Imus removes a wireless microphone following his

Don Imus removes a wireless microphone following his nationally syndicated morning radio show on WFAN-AM at Kaufman Astoria Studios in New York on March 25, 1996.  Credit: AP/CLARK JONES

Don Imus, the irascible radio shock jock who abraded and courted power brokers en route to becoming one himself, has died, according to his publicist. He was 79.

According to a statement, Imus "passed away this morning at Baylor Scott and White Medical Center in College Station, Texas, after being hospitalized since Christmas Eve." The statement added that his family was at his side.

Imus -- who long called himself the "I-Man" --  ended a 50-year run in 2018 by saying “I know in my heart there’s been nobody ever better on the radio than me. I mean that. I’m telling you how it is." In a tribute on WFAN Friday, Mike Francesa said, “when you write the history of radio, Don Imus will be in the top three of four [names] for sure. He was one of the great radio icons.”

With the exception of rival and nemesis Howard Stern, certainly no one ever did radio as ferociously, or as theatrically -- or to critics, of whom he had a few himself -- as boorishly as Imus either. Imus essentially self-destructed in 2007 in the wake of a racially insensitive remark about the Rutger's womens basketball team. His many critics, most notably the Rev. Al Sharpton, said the remark was not isolated, and had been preceded by years of racial insensitivity -- or outright hostility -- on his part.

To the end of his career, Imus rejected both the charge and his critics. In his sign-off, he dismissed the Rutgers fallout as just another contretemps "lost in the dust of the caravan rolling on the road to greatness. 

 Yet after he was fired by CBS in 2007, and then re-hired by WABC a year later, he said  “I will never say anything in my lifetime that will make any of these young women at Rutgers regret or feel foolish that they accepted my apology and forgave me.”

By most accounts -- and this being Imus, those are impossible to verify -- he never did.

Before the Rutgers comment, and long before the relatively quiet final years at WFAN, Imus was talk radio’s hellion of the ’70s and ’80s, then a national political power broker during the ’90s. In that latter phase, he was a self-styled truth-to-power prophet, who regularly drew senators and congressmen to his morning show for a ritualized cleansing, or scolding. He affected a pose of political non-partisanship -- particularly effective, in fact, because Imus was almost impossible to pin down politically. He regularly torched members of both parties and -- for example -- at the 1996 Radio-Television Correspondents Association, he sweated his way through a speech that directly maligned no fewer than 54 people and one cat (Socks). Many of his targets were also regulars on "Imus in the Morning."

During the '90s, he attacked everyone, most notably President Bill Clinton -- "fat," "weaselly," "lying" were favored modifiers.  The president finally stopped talking to him, and Imus in turn later said he wouldn't talk to the president either, or "until he's indicted." Show loyalists for years included Sens. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), Alfonse M. D'Amato (R-N.Y.) and Bill Bradley (D-N.J.)  

To his admirers, he was churlish, abusive, scurrilous, insolent and a first-rate interviewer with a deep moral streak. To his detractors, he was largely the same. To be noticed by Imus was an honor in Washington, but to be called a"lying, thieving little weasel," "a big, fat moron," or "an arrogant little bastard" was to achieve stardom, if only fleeting. He regularly referred to CNN's Wolf Blitzer -- whom he  actually liked -- as "that U-boat commander."

Imus wasn't feared as much as needed. In a media world long before the one that has split into warring camps of today, Imus and "Imus in the Morning" were seen as a way to speak directly to 10 million listeners a day, and through the Imus filter.  It was in fact a filter uniquely his own. He was a crank who gleefully embraced his mean streak. He could also be funny and had a laconic style not dissimilar to another son of the Far West, Will Rogers. He was also deeply loyal to the few people he cared about, and to the causes -- notably the fight against pediatric cancer --  he was so passionate about. 

Born in Riverside, California, he split his time growing up on his father's 35,000-acre ranch in the high country between Kingman and Seligman, Ariz., and near his father's cattle feedlot in Perris. (His father died when Imus was 20, mostly broke.) At 17, he joined the Marine Corps, then enrolled at the University of Arizona, dropping out after a week.

He and his brother, Fred, then jumped into the record business, but in an interview with Newsday in 1996, he said, "I just ran out of money, you know, and I was sleeping in this Laundromat on Vine Street, a block or two below Sunset. I used to sleep behind the dryers there, then I'd go around to get money out of the phone booths."

In his early 20s, he set out for Arizona and got work as a miner at a uranium mine at the Grand Canyon, later broke his leg in an underground train accident, "but I made a lot of money" and went on to work at a copper mine near Superior, Ariz., then as a brakeman for the Southern Pacific Railroad.

He then decided to go into radio, he called, because he wearied of paying stations to play his records -- he had started a rock and roll band with Fred -  and figured the cheapest way to promote his music career was by playing his own records. But in 1968, during his first stint at a Palmdale station, "I recognized that essentially my records sucked," and Imus began developing the shtick that would later make him the highest-paid radio personality in the country. 

He also became a drug addict and alcoholic. As a top WNBC DJ in the '70s, he was frequently absent, and was fired in 1977, then rehired two years later. The drinking and drugs did not stop, and one morning, he awoke shaking violently. He checked himself into Hanley-Hazelden Center in West Palm Beach, Fla., for two months of treatment.

Imus would stay sober, and often spoke with considerable pride about beating his demons.  He also long believed his signal achievement had been the many charity drives he had conducted over the years for children suffering from cancer, or for research on Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or for wounded veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. WFAN – Imus’s previous station – and the other stations he’s worked for raised about $30 million in radiothons over the years for the Imus Ranch in New Mexico, which had been built as a camp for sick children. Imus and his wife, Deirdre, closed it down in 2014.

Friday's statement in fact noted that "The family will hold a small private service in the coming days and request that any donations be made to the Imus Ranch Foundation  which continues to provide resources to other outstanding charities which support families of children suffering from cancer and other illnesses during their times of needs."

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