Don Imus, controversial radio legend, has died at 79

Entertainment

(CBS) – Controversial radio personality Don Imus has died, his representative confirmed to CBS News. He was 79. 

A statement said Imus died Friday morning at Baylor Scott and White Medical Center in College Station, Texas, after being hospitalized since Christmas Eve. The cause of death was not released. 

Imus is survived by his wife of 25 years, Deirdre; sons Wyatt Imus and Lieutenant Zachary Don Cates, who will be returning from military service overseas; and daughters Nadine, Ashley, Elizabeth, and Toni.

WFAN host Mike Francesa, a longtime friend, called Imus “one of the true giants in the history of radio.”

Imus spent more than 50 years on the air. Time magazine once named the cantankerous host as one of the 25 Most Influential People in America, and he is a member of the National Broadcaster Hall of Fame.

But his career almost came to a halt in April 2007 after an ugly on-air remark. Imus referred to members of the Rutgers women’s basketball team as “nappy-headed hos.” His syndicated radio show on CBS was canceled, and MSNBC canceled his TV show.

He told CBS “Sunday Morning” in his final interview in 2018 that the “Rutgers thing I regret,” saying “I knew better.”

Yet he was back on the air before the end of 2007. “Dick Cheney is still a war criminal,” he told the audience upon his return, “and I’m back on the radio!”

Imus told CBS News’ Anthony Mason his comeback was possible because “I’m not full of sh*t. If I’ve done it, I’ll own up to it. And then I have some sorta weird relationship with the audience. I think they saved me most of the time.”

Raised on a ranch in Arizona, a young Don Imus aspired to be a singer and even made some records with his brother. To get them some radio play, he applied to be a DJ. That led to his first jobs in California, where he garnered attention by posing as a National Guard sergeant on air and ordering 1,200 hamburgers to go from McDonald’s.

In less than three years, the irreverent young DJ had made it to WNBC in the No. 1 market, New York.

He said that when he “listened to what was on in New York… I thought, ‘Man, this is gonna be easy!'” 

He was an overnight sensation. In the ’80s, “Imus in the Morning” evolved into a talk show, attracting the high and mighty. More than 100 stations syndicated his show, and by the 1997, Time magazine named him one of the most influential people in America.

Don Imus in 2018 CBS NEWS

Then came the 2007 downfall. After his comments, protests ensued. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson advocated for his firing. Jackson called Imus’s ouster “a victory for public decency. No one should use the public airwaves to transmit racial or sexual degradation.”

In a late-night meeting after the Rutgers remark, Imus apologized to his team. He said if they forgave him, he would “never give them a reason in their lifetime to be sorry that they forgave me. And I haven’t.”

It wasn’t the only time he was fired — in fact, he was let go at least four times before he finally retired in 2018, but still had many fans.

“I wasn’t trying to be outrageous,” he told “Sunday Morning.” “It’s just the way I thought. My feeling was then, and is now, that if they didn’t like what I did, get somebody else to do it.”

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