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Don Imus, the radio personality whose insult humor and savage comedy catapulted him to a long-lasting and controversial career, has died at 79. His three-hour radio program, Imus in the Morning, was widely popular, especially with the over-25 male demographic.
Imus died Friday morning at Baylor Scott and White Medical Center in College Station, Texas, after being hospitalized on Christmas Eve, a representative said. The cause of death was not disclosed.
Mike and the Mad Dog host Mike Francesa tweeted Friday, “Shocking news on the passing of my friend, Don Imus. He will long be remembered as one of the true giants in the history of radio.”
Morning Joe host Joe Scarborough added, “Morning Joe obviously owes its format to Don Imus. No one else could have gotten away with that much talk on cable news. Thanks for everything, Don.” Morning Joe started as a fill-in for Imus in the Morning after Imus was fired from MSNBC in 2007.
Imus in the Morning, which debuted on WNBC-AM in New York in 1971, most recently reached radio listeners via Citadel Media and was simulcast on the Fox Business Network.
Imus was loved or hated for his caustic loudmouth. Outspoken in an age of political correctness, his often coarse satire offended sensibilities. Yet his listeners included those whom he often ridiculed. His call-in guests included President Clinton, Dan Rather, Tim Russert, Bill Bradley, David Dinkins, Rudy Giuliani and political analyst Jeff Greenfield, who once remarked, “He’s out there talking the way most of us talk when we’re not in public.”
He sparked national outcry in 2007 when he made derogatory, racist remarks about the Rutgers women’s basketball team. CBS Radio and MSNBC then dropped his show.
He rebounded by signing a multiyear contract with the Fox Business Network in 2009 to simulcast Imus in the Morning from 6-9 a.m., with Fox anchors appearing during the program.
Imus battled a lifelong addiction to drugs and alcohol. In 2009, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer.
Imus was often compared to syndicated shock jock Howard Stern, who also had a stint on WNBC radio early in his career, and they frequently appeared on each other’s shows. Although Imus could not match Stern’s audience in terms of numbers, advertisers were well aware of Imus’ better-educated and richer demographic, often preferring him.
Imus in the Morning sandwiched music around his in-your-face commentary, in which he mocked authority figures and ridiculed social and political problems. His no-holds-barred humor, including gags and pranks, spurred the onset of “shock jocks” like Stern. A mix of rock ’n’ roll, raunchy humor, call-ins and hard barbs, Imus in the Morning was a huge hit.
He also performed stand-up for a time, garnering favorable reviews from such unlikely reviewers as The New York Times.
An active philanthropist, Imus and his wife, Deirdre, founded the Imus Ranch in 1999, where each summer children with cancer could enjoy the outdoors.
John Donald Imus Jr., was born on July 23, 1940, in Riverside, California. He was raised in Prescott, Arizona, where his family owned a large ranch. He dropped out of high school to join the U.S. Marines, and after basic training won a chair in the band.
Following discharge, he worked at an array of odd jobs: window dresser (he was fired for staging mannequin striptease shows), uranium miner and railroad brakeman, where he suffered a serious neck injury and won a large cash settlement.
While recovering, he set his sights on becoming a disc jockey, ostensibly to play his own music on the airwaves. He moved to Los Angeles, enrolled in a Hollywood broadcasting school and landed his first deejay job at KUTY, a station in Palmdale, California.
During an eight-month stint there, he developed a skill for comic patter and moved to KJOY in Stockton, California, where he staged satirical social and political gags, including an Eldridge Cleaver look-alike contest when the Black Panther was on the lam. His station manager did not see the humor, and he was fired.
He moved to KXOA in Sacramento, where his satirical hijinks were appreciated by the station manager, who counseled him that his humor would be more lethal and less likely to attract legal action. Intent on becoming more lethal, Imus created a slew of satirical characters, including the huckster Rev. Billy Sol Hargus.
His on-air antics infuriated authorities, including the FCC, which was not amused when he phoned a fast-food outlet and ordered 1,200 hamburgers and requested a bizarre array of toppings. The gag resulted in a ruling that deejays must identify themselves when making on-air calls. The clash with government authority, not surprisingly, boosted his ratings, and KXOA was No. 1 in Sacramento while he was there.
Imus is survived by his wife, Deirdre; sons Wyatt and Lt. Zachary Don Cates; and daughters Nadine, Ashley, Elizabeth and Toni.
“Don loved and adored Deirdre, who unconditionally loved him back, loved spending his time watching Wyatt become a highly skilled, champion rodeo rider and calf roper and loved and supported Zachary, who first met the Imus family at age 10 when he participated in the Imus Ranch program for kids with cancer, having battled and overcome leukemia, eventually becoming a member of the Imus family and Don and Deirdre’s second son,” his family said in a statement.
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