Don Imus was under fire, his job was in jeopardy, and his big mouth was to blame.
This was 1969, at a small radio station in Stockton, Calif., and the nascent disc jockey was the target of outrage for rattling local sensibilities by uttering a bad word on the air: “hell.” Imus was fired, but — in what became a continuing pattern — the controversy only boosted his profile and career prospects.
The up-and-down arc of Imus’ nearly 40 years in broadcasting bottomed out Thursday after his mouth finally went too far. The veteran DJ, who mingled political punditry with his penchant for pushing the boundaries of bad taste, was fired for ridiculing the Rutgers women’s basketball team as “nappy-headed hos.”
Critics demanded his resignation. Advertisers bailed from the program. And Imus, whose sharp tongue and biting barbs were hallmarks of his broadcasting ascension, was reduced to a series of endless apologies.
The 66-year-old Imus was born on a California cattle ranch, with his family moving to Arizona when he was young. Imus served in the Marines before taking jobs as a freight train brakeman and a uranium miner; it wasn’t until he was 28 that he found his niche at a small radio station in Palmdale, Calif.
After moving on to Stockton and getting fired, Imus jumped to a larger station in Sacramento — and earned Billboard’s Disc Jockey of the Year award for medium-sized markets after a stunt where he ordered 1,200 hamburgers to go from a local McDonald’s.
His next stop was Cleveland, where he won DJ of the year for large markets. By 1971, he was doing the morning drive-time show on WNBC-AM in New York. Imus developed a destructive taste for vodka, along with a reputation for an irascible personality.
In 1977, Imus was fired and returned to Cleveland. Within two years, though, he turned the disaster into triumph, returning to WNBC while adding a new vice: cocaine. He eventually landed in rehab, and has been sober for about 20 years.
He engaged in a long-running feud with shock jock Howard Stern, who usurped Imus’ position as the No. 1 morning host in the nation’s largest radio market. Yet in 1982, when Stern arrived at WNBC for his New York debut, the pair were peddled as bad-boy bookends for the station.
In the past decade, Imus redefined his show by mixing his show’s comedy segments with A-list guests: politicians like Sens. John Kerry and John McCain, journalists like NBC’s Tim Russert and The New York Times’ Frank Rich, musicians like Harry Connick Jr. and John Mellencamp.
Imus has been married to second wife Deirdre Coleman since 1994. They have a son, Wyatt. He also has four daughters from his first marriage.
He was known for his western attire that usually included a cowboy hat — a tribute to his ranching upbringing. He’s also heavily involved in the Imus Ranch, a working cattle ranch for children with cancer and blood disorders in New Mexico.
His popularity soared to new heights when MSNBC began simulcasting his radio show in 1996, delivering strong ratings over an 11-year period that ended Wednesday when the cable network pulled the plug. CBS followed suit Thursday and dumped Imus from his radio program.
A February 2006 profile in Vanity Fair contained the quote that might best serve as Imus’ epitaph.
“I talk to millions of people every day,” he said while riding home in a limousine after one show. “I just like it when they can’t talk back.”