American radio personality and TV show host

Born: July 23, 1940;

Died: December 27, 2019.

DON Imus, who has died aged 79, was an American radio broadcaster and ‘shock jock’ whose five decades in the industry helped revolutionise the medium in the United States, as one of a new generation whose few-holds-barred commentary upon politics, news and pop culture excited the passions of his listenership.

In 1971, just three years into a career which had largely been spent in California up until this point, he was hired by the WNBC station in New York on a six-figure salary, being dubbed by Life magazine the “country’s most outrageous disc jockey”, and went on to be a pillar of the city’s – and by extension America’s, once his show was syndicated widely – broadcasting community.

His audience was in the millions, and he had the ear of the rich and powerful, mocking them all equally; he counted both the Democrat former Vice President Joe Biden and the Republican former Presidential candidate John McCain among his listeners and guests. Prior to his Presidency, Donald Trump would also call in to Imus in the Morning to discuss his show, The Apprentice.

While with KXOA in Sacramento, California, Imus famously prank-ordered 1,200 burgers to a McDonald’s restaurant under the guise of a representative of the National Guard, which resulted in a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ruling that DJs must identify themselves when making phone calls on air. Shortly afterwards, in 1971, Imus won his second Billboard Award for radio.

Dressing in public in a cowboy style which reflected his Arizona upbringing, including a ten-gallon hat, and known by the nickname “the I-Man”, Imus’ longevity was credited in part to keeping pace with the more political shift in shock radio style following the first Gulf War in 1990-91. Yet he retained many of the longstanding tropes of shock radio, and much of the banter which he and his on-air ensemble engaged in was long criticised as being borderline racist, sexist and homophobic.

This came to a head in April 2007, with an on-air comment he made about the Rutgers University women’s basketball team being “nappy-headed hos”, a statement whose racial connotation caused a firestorm of criticism across America.

In the end an advertiser boycott caused Imus to be dropped by CBS Radio, although after voluble displays of public contrition his show was picked up again by WABC in New York (with a simulcast for a number of years by Fox Business Network), until a bankruptcy filing on the part of the station’s parent organisation caused it to end in 2018.

He had won four Marconi Awards during the 1990s, was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 1989 and named one of Time magazine’s 25 Most Influential People in America in 1997.

John Donald Imus Jr was born in Riverside, California, to wealthy ranch owners John Sr and Frances, who divorced when he was in his teens. Raised and privately schooled in Arizona, he dropped out and joined the US Marine Corps, first in artillery and then the drum and bugle corps. A known troublemaker, he was nevertheless honourably discharged, and then worked as a window dresser in California and a songwriter in Hollywood with his brother Fred (who joined him in later, more conventional business interests), as well as briefly attending university in California.

He worked on the South Pacific Railroad and at a uranium mine in Arizona, suffering two broken legs and a collapsed lung as a result of an accident at the latter, and studied at Hollywood’s Don Martin School of Radio and Television Arts and Sciences, where he obtained an FCC licence before being expelled. His first radio show on California’s KUTY station in 1968 was an instant success, and he transferred to New York in 1971

Imus’ early years in the business were marred by alcohol and cocaine abuse; by the time he got clean in 1987, he had released recordings of his radio shows on RCA, worked as a stand-up comedian, written a best-selling book named God’s Other Son featuring his evangelist character Billy Sol Hargis, worked as a VJ on VH-1 and developed an on- and off-air rivalry with fellow shock jock Howard Stern.

He did charity work for wounded veterans of the first Iraq War and for children with cancer, and opened the charitable Imus Ranch in New Mexico with his second wife Deirdre. He had two children and two-step-children from his first marriage and two children from his second, becoming a father again when he was almost 60. Having recovered from a diagnosis of prostate cancer in 2009, he died from complications of lung disease in Texas at the age of 79.

By David Pollock