Talk radio legend Don Imus died Friday, December 27, 2019. He had retired from his iconic radio show in early 2018, after over four decades on the air. Along the way, he created controversy, he skewered politicians thought to be above satire, and he made America laugh. As my friend told me upon hearing the news, Johnny Carson tucked America into bed every night for decades, and Don Imus got just as many folks to work in the morning. The cause of death was not disclosed.
John Donald Imus Jr. was an acquired taste. Often miscategorized as a “shock jock” along the lines of Howard Stern, Imus possessed a wicked and acerbic wit. Imus created a media empire that helped engage and educate regular listeners on politics while finding new and creative ways to satirize politicians, actors, and public figures. He was acerbic, irreverent, and completely unconcerned about the effects his words had. Far from alienating people, however, these public figures knew that appearing on the “Imus in the Morning” show offered a unique opportunity to communicate to America in a way that humanized them and gave them a voice outside of their typical role.
Imus didn’t start out as a political powerhouse. His early career was marked by on-air pranks, memorialized on his comedy albums: This Honkey’s Nuts and 1200 Hamburgers to Go. He would often go on the air to tell jokes or make pointed commentary often considered too extreme for polite company — a trait that led to a massive and loyal audience. At its peak, “Imus in the Morning” was heard on hundreds of radio stations nationwide, and was simulcast on cable news networks, reaching millions more audience members.
His career was marked by high-profile controversies, including the White House Correspondent’s Dinner in 1996, which to this day is one of the most uncomfortable things you can watch:
Of course, no homage to the I-Man would be complete without a discussion of his comments about the Rutgers Women’s Basketball team in 2007, which led to his firing by CBS. Imus and crew, commenting on the appearance of the female basketball players, used what many considered to be a racial slur during a bit in which he riffed in the character of an unsophisticated redneck. This incident caused Al Sharpton, long a target of Imus and his ridicule, to rally forces against him. This was the original outrage mob before social justice warriors were conceived. It hit ESPN. It hit national news. Imus issued an apology and even reached out to Sharpton on air, but the pressure mounted until CBS ultimately fired him. Many of his fans at the time said that this was tame compared to some of the other stuff he’d said over the years and that he wasn’t actually being racist, but rather portraying a racist in order to make a point.
He ultimately sued CBS for wrongful termination and won a rather large settlement. Shortly thereafter, his show went back on the air, this time with ABC. He still maintained his influence and stature for another decade, but something was different. The Sharpton incident made him somehow less edgy, less fearless.
Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, when Imus held the most influence, he could make an author with just a mention on his show. Politicians knew his show was the place to be. He often bragged that he was more influential over the book publishing world than Oprah Winfrey.
My favorite aspect of Don Imus was his ability to interview people. He walked a tightrope by simultaneously being irreverent, intellectually curious, and hysterically funny. Imus had a style that broke down barriers with his interview guests and put them at ease — after, oftentimes, making them profoundly uncomfortable. He was well versed in his subjects, but asked questions with a simplistic approach. He never, ever lost sight of his audience. Imus would ask questions that the average, partially-engaged listener might be thinking to themselves, and elicit responses that educated the audience without going over their heads. It was a very difficult technique because the show often addressed complex social or political topics that otherwise would require a long set-up for listeners to be able to understand.
Just like the Sharpton incident, no article about Don Imus would be complete without mentioning his ranch. The Imus Ranch for Kids with Cancer operated from 1998 to 2014, hosting hundreds of children with cancer and their families. The kids got an opportunity to work and live on a real live working ranch, experiences that they might never have anywhere else.
At its peak, Imus in the Morning was appointment radio. Talk radio would not exist in its current form had Don Imus not shown how to make it successful. He educated, he represented us — our frustrations, our curiosity, our disdain for elites — and most of all, he made us laugh.
There will never be another Don Imus, but here’s hoping that future hosts will examine his career, and understand his formula for success. In our current cancel culture, we could use more irreverence and satire from brave folks willing to take on those who desperately deserve it.
Meanwhile, let’s all sit back and enjoy a clip of George Carlin on “Imus in the Morning,” back when it was syndicated on (believe it or not) MSNBC. Nobody ever did it better:
Jeff Reynolds is the author of the book, Behind the Curtain: Inside the Network of Progressive Billionaires and Their Campaign to Undermine Democracy. You can follow Jeff on Twitter @ChargerJeff.