One of the most popular radio personalities to be branded with the "shock jock" label, Don Imus was equally loved and loathed by listeners and media critics for much of his 40-year career in broadcasting. The Imus faithful cited his frequently amusing news parodies as well as his charitable efforts and willingness to pursue stories that received little coverage from the mainstream media. And those that loathed the Riverside, CA native only had to point to his frequent on-air use of racial and ethnic insults, as well as long and storied drug and alcohol addictions, as proof positive of his moral ugliness. Unfortunately, that aspect of his personality landed him in considerable hot water in 2007, when his racially charged comments about a black women's basketball team led to calls from political and social leaders for his dismissal.
Born John Donald Imus Jr. on July 23, 1940, Imus' childhood was marked with instability and alcoholism. His family - which included brother Fred, later a regular guest on his radio programs - moved frequently, and his parents eventually separated. He left school early and joined the Marine Corp from 1957-59, after which he held a string of odd jobs - including miner, railway brakeman, and rock musician - before landing a disc jockey gig in Sacramento in 1968. His on-air antics and banter earned him a huge following, and he was soon broadcasting in larger markets like Cleveland and New York. His popularity at WNBC was such that he was able to release a trio of comedy records built from his best on-air skits and pranks. Despite the growing success, his personal life was spiraling in a haze of drugs and alcoholism. The latter cost him his job at WNBC in 1977, but he got sober and returned to the station in 1979.
Imus began a not-so-friendly rivalry with fellow WNBC jock Howard Stern during the early '80s, with the two frequently accusing the other of parroting their career moves - and indeed, the structure and tone of their shows were remarkably similar. Both programs utilized a large and vocal crew of sycophantic sidekicks and oddball characters whose back-and-forth supported and added to the host's frequently inflammatory comments. In Imus' case, his most infamous on-air partners were news broadcast Charles McCord, executive producer Bernard McGuirk, and sports reporter Sid Rosenberg, each of which earned the ire of news and social commentators with unpleasant comments about black, female, Arabic, and Hispanic media figures. Despite the flack caused by these outbursts, Imus retained a solid audience of listeners that averaged a third place listing behind Stern's juggernaut program.
By the mid-80s, Imus had dallied with media appearances outside of WNBC - he was one of the original on-air VJs for the fledgling VH-1 network - but he continued to enjoy his greatest success on radio. When WNBC was sold to Emmis Broadcasting and replaced by the company's WFAN sports station, The "Imus in the Morning" program became nationally syndicated in over 90 markets in 1993, and a simulcast on MSNBC began in 1996.
The change of venue was reflected in both the tone of Imus' show and in his personal life. By 1988, Imus had undergone treatment for his addictions and reshaped his show to focus less on comedy bits and music; more on news and political commentary. Not that the shift in focus tempered the ire of Imus and his crew. His show hammered politicians on the left and right, especially the administration of George W. Bush for its mishandling of the Iraq War. But Imus also invited politicians to appear as guests on his show, and his interviews with senators and other high-ranking officials earned him respect from serious news sources like Time magazine, which named him one of the 25 Most Influential People in America in 1997. He won three Marconi Awards as a broadcast personality in 1992, 1994, and 1997, and was nominated to the Radio Hall of Fame in 1989. In 2002, Talkers magazine named him as one of the greatest radio hosts of all time.
But Imus' inflammatory style continued to chip away at his rise to respectability. A 1996 speech for the Radio and Television Correspondents dinner made pointed comments at guests President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton for their alleged involvement in the Whitewater scandal. Imus was also accused of threatening Wall Street Journal reporter Robert Frank over an article that highlighted a tax investigation into the Imus Ranch, a charitable organization that worked with children with cancer and those affected by Sudden Infant Death Syndrome - two of Imus' personal causes. And his on-air cronies were constantly hit with accusations of racism, sexism and homophobia. Indeed, Rosenberg, whose comments were among the most unstable and hateful of the group, was eventually fired after mocking singer Kylie Minogue's battle with breast cancer.
And it was Rosenberg who joined Imus in the most damaging chapter of the broadcaster's career in April of 2007. While conversing with Rosenberg about women's college basketball, Imus referred to the Rutgers University women's team as "nappy-headed hos." The comments immediately drew ire from black leaders such as Jesse Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton, who called for his dismissal from MSNBC. Despite apologies from Imus and a meeting with Sharpton, the network suspended Imus for two weeks, as did CBS Radio, the owner of WFAN. And to add insult to injury, several major companies, including Staples, General Motors, and Proctor & Gamble pulled their advertising from the show.
Due to the public uproar, on April 11, NBC announced that MSNBC would no longer simulcast the radio show, effective immediately. While the decision came on the same day that several advertisers deserted Imus, the network also said employee concerns played a role. The next day, CBS went a step further, firing Imus and cancelling his radio show, effective immediately. CBS President and CEO Leslie Moonves released a statement to the media, defending the company decision, amidst concerns over entertainers losing their freedom of speech: "From the outset, I believe all of us have been deeply upset and revulsed by the statements that were made on our air about the young women who represented Rutgers University in the NCAA Women's Basketball Championship with such class, energy and talent. There has been much discussion of the effect language like this has on our young people, particularly young women of color trying to make their way in this society. That consideration has weighed most heavily on our minds as we made our decision." Imus eventually came back to radio, but in March 2009, he announced he was suffering from prostate cancer.