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WFAN family remembers how Don Imus saved the station

Radio personality Don Imus interviews Sen. John McCain,

Radio personality Don Imus interviews Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., by telephone during his debut show on the Fox Business Network in New York on Oct. 5, 2009. Credit: AP/Richard Drew

People who work at WFAN rarely agree on anything — which is part of the point of sports talk radio, after all — but on one matter there is unanimity among station veterans: Don Imus rescued the place in 1988.

“He saved the radio station; I don’t care what anybody says,” former “Mike and the Mad Dog” co-host Chris Russo said on the station on Friday, the day Imus died at age 79. “Without him, we were in big trouble.”

Added Russo’s old partner, Mike Francesa, “It turned the station around.”

WFAN had launched in July 1987 as the first 24-hour sports talk station, but its initial plan foundered when it focused on national personalities rather than local ones. It also suffered from an inferior signal at 1050-AM.

In October 1988, the station took over WNBC’s more reliable signal at 660-AM and inherited the “Imus in the Morning” program from WNBC’s lineup.

Joel Hollander, a sales executive at WFAN at the time, recalled on the air on Friday his first meeting with Imus, who said to him,   '' 'How do you feel, [expletive]? I just doubled your revenue.’ And you know what, he was right.”

But Imus did much more than bring money, visibility and morning drive time stability to WFAN. For a guy who was a casual sports fan at best, he played a pivotal role in developing the station’s sports sensibility.

That included featuring sports news contributors such as Francesa, Russo, Mike Breen, Sid Rosenberg and Chris Carlin, as well as his support of Francesa and Russo as an afternoon show to bookend his show starting in September 1989.

He famously dubbed the pair “Fatso and Fruit Loops” and is credited by both with boosting their radio careers.

Russo was a sports update regular for Imus in the spring of 1989, around the time Francesa made a splash on the show by correctly predicting that Seton Hall would reach the men’s basketball Final Four. Soon they were a team.

Francesa said he learned more about radio from Imus than from anyone else. He recalled noon-time conversations with him between their shows in Imus’ office in WFAN’s original Astoria studios.

“When I think back to the days and the many years we spent together, it was a very special time,” Francesa said. “We built something that will last a very long time.”

Imus first came to attention as an early “shock jock,” but he was 20 years into his career when he joined WFAN and reinvented himself as a tamer figure, with interests in politics and (to an extent) sports.

“I really felt like the golden years [of his career] were here,” Mark Chernoff, a top executive at WFAN since 1993, said on the air on Friday. “Imus put this station truly on the map and was the springboard for the success that came afterward.”

WFAN people uniformly praised Imus for his charitable endeavors, including the Tomorrows Children’s Fund, the CJ Foundation for SIDS and his own Imus Ranch.

But it also was on WFAN that his career took its worst turn, when he was fired after making a racist and sexist remark aimed at the Rutgers women’s basketball team in 2007.

Rosenberg was his sports update man that day.

“We certainly had our public ups and downs, but no one had a bigger influence on me,” said Rosenberg, who himself had been fired by Imus in 2005 for offensive on-air remarks. In 2018, he replaced Imus on WABC-AM.

“He will always be remembered as controversial, but I also saw the charitable and funny side often during our 18 years together,” Rosenberg told Newsday. “Truly a legend and a pioneer. His talents will be missed.”

Said Francesa, “Don Imus’ legacy will live as long as FAN lives, and as long as radio lives.”

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