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Don Imus, former radio broadcaster, dead at 79

Don Imus, a brash and wildly popular New York-based broadcaster whose country drawl and swagger transcended mediums, has died at the age of 79.

His death was first confirmed to The Desk by a source who worked closely with him on his radio show. It was later supported by a statement from the Imus family who said the broadcaster was admitted to a Texas hospital on Christmas Day.

For days, Imus had been battling pneumonia, according to a source who is close with the Imus family and spoke with The Desk on condition of anonymity.

Imus began his career in the late 1960s after joining a small AM radio station in Palmdale, California. He rapidly rose to the top of the radio industry after securing a spot as the morning drive broadcaster at NBC Radio’s flagship New York Station WNBC (660 AM). He was briefly fired, then re-hired to fill the same spot, which he did even after NBC sold the station to Ellis Broadcasting and flipped the format to sports.

It was during his time at the new WFAN (660 AM) that he saw the most success: Induction into the National Association of Broadcasting’s Radio Hall of Fame in 1989, then a syndication deal for his morning program in 1993 and national syndication via television on then-upstart cable news channel MSNBC in 1996.

He saw himself as a sort of maverick, the radio equivalent of a cross between film legend John Wayne and the Marlboro Man: When he wasn’t on the air, he lived on a ranch; when he was, he wore a cowboy hat, a gun and country western-inspired clothing. He considered himself a straight shooter who told it like it was, even if it meant using language others found uncomfortable and tasteless.

But he also had a soft spot. Throughout his career, Imus was charitable, raising millions of dollars for those suffering from a variety of ailments. Iraq war combat vetarns, victims of sudden infant death syndrome and young cancer patients were among those who benefitted from the broadcaster’s philanthropy. For some, he opened his home — a ranch in Ribera, New Mexico — where they stayed throughout the summer.

And he was open about his stumbles, confiding in his national radio audience that he suffered from — and eventually overcame — alcoholism and cocaine addiction. He also experienced bouts of unemployment due in large part to his brash nature and offensive remarks, some of which crossed from his private dealings into the public arena.

“On the air, he was an irascible, confrontational growler who led pranks and parodies that could be tasteless, obscene and sometimes racist, sexist or homophobic,” the New York Times wrote in their obituary on Friday.

At no time was this more true than in 2007 when his MSNBC simulcast deal and employment at WFAN came to an end following a racist remark he made about a female college basketball player. The controversy over the Rutgers comment promoted others, including former WNBC colleagues Howard Stern and Robin Quivers, to shed light on Imus’ off-air behavior, with some alleging his comments were much worse away from the microphone.

The comment regarding the Rutgers player drew strong condemnation from across the industry — and the country. The strongest rebuke came from then-President Barack Obama, who took the remark personally.

“He didn’t just cross the line,” Obama said. “He fed into some of the worst stereotypes that my two young daughters are having to deal with today in America.”

Imus later sued CBS Radio, the parent company of WFAN, over the dropped contract. Both sides settled the lawsuit out of court. A Rutgers player filed her own lawsuit against Imus over the remark; the suit was later dropped.

Though he did not reach the same level of success, he bounced back from the Rutgers scandal, landing a deal with rival New York City station WABC (770 AM), a radio syndication deal with station owner Cumulus Media, and a new television syndication agreement with rural satellite TV broadcaster RFD-TV. He event moved the televised program to the Fox Business Network, where it continued to air until 2015.

In 2018, he retired at the request of Cumulus Media as the company restructured its business dealins after declaring bankruptcy. In his post-radio career, he worked on his ranch and oversaw operations of a coffee shop at a Connecticut-based casino and resort.

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About the Author:

Matthew Keys

Matthew Keys is a nationally-recognized, award-winning journalist who has covered the business of media, technology, radio and television for more than 11 years. He is the publisher of The Desk and contributes to Know Techie, Digital Content Next and StreamTV Insider. He previously worked for Thomson Reuters, the Walt Disney Company, McNaughton Newspapers and Tribune Broadcasting.
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