By Mike Kinosian
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in TALKERS magazine in July of 2011.
NEW YORK — Picture the warm-and-fuzzy wakeup talent who oversees and nurtures a friendly environment. That standard blueprint for eliciting a feel-good attitude has worked ratings wonders for years and is a cherished cornerstone for some of America’s top-tier heritage stations.
Now imagine pretty much the exact opposite with what some would insist is a cynical, bitter-sounding, often-mumbling personality who berates nearly everyone in his path (his bosses, co-workers, advertisers, guests and listeners are never exempt) and you have a reasonably good feel for “Imus in the Morning.”
Despite what might give the impression of being a gloomy depiction, it has proven to be anything but a recipe for disaster since the indispensable cog piloting the wakeup lunacy is Don Imus, quite simply one of the most flat-out consistently funny, genuinely humorous, quick-witted, inventively irascible and biting personalities to have ever worked in the medium.
In the extremely subjective world of comedy, “The I-Man” has – without fail – withstood the test of time and reigned in his own stratosphere by dispensing some of radio’s most memorable scathing one-liners. One would be hard-pressed to ratchet up the name of another talent who elicits more smiles, chuckles and laughs – all done these days with tremendous economy of verbiage.
Timing, tone pacing, and inflection remain perfect. “Shut up and answer the question, you slimy weasel,” might be followed by a completely disingenuous third-person Imus apology such as, “Well that kind of name-calling from the host was unfortunate.” On the flipside, Imus seems to take sincere umbrage whenever anyone tries sucking up to him.
Several ill-chosen adlibs have notably landed the National Association of Broadcasters Hall of Famer and four-time Marconi Award winner in boiling hot water: Three words (“nappy-headed hos”) regarding certain members of the Rutgers University female basketball squad nearly derailed his career permanently in April 2007. In rapid-fire succession, MSNBC, and CBS Radio (New York City sports outlet WFAN was the flagship) torpedoed the morning maven’s AM drive program.
Albeit a nebulous term – and if one were to be a complete stickler for accuracy it is actually a misnomer – “Shock Jock” has become part of radio’s lexicon. As Fox News Radio air talent (and one of Imus’ former WNBC colleagues/frequent Imus guest) Alan Colmes asserted, “Don is truly the original [shock jock].”
Present-day “Imus in the Morning,” simulcast on Citadel Media (via WABC, New York) and Fox Business Channel, has evolved significantly from his WNBC, New York and WGAR, Cleveland days to the point where he established himself as a serious-issues interviewer. So much so that presidential candidates actively seek his blessing on the broadcast that has been in its current incarnation since December 2007.
Furthermore and of much more magnitude, over the last 13 years, the 71-year-old Imus (July 23, 1940) has spent approximately $10 million of his own money to run a working cattle ranch in Ribera, New Mexico for kids with cancer; he himself was diagnosed with prostate cancer more than two years ago (March, 2009).
Cohorts on Imus’ 6:00 – 10:00 am daily wakeup program include executive producer/”Bernie Briefing” host Bernard McGuirk; longtime New York City and Washington, DC sportscaster Warner Wolf (who turns 74 in November); business reporter Dagen McDowell; and Imus’ wife Deidre – who engages in “Blonde on Blonde” segments with Fox News legal analyst Lis Wiehl. A significant shakeup though occurred this past May when Imus’ approximately 40-year sidekick, Charles McCord, departed; Connell McShane succeeded McCord as the show’s newsreader.
Writing skills and delivery of impersonations of such personalities and politicians as Larry King (“Thanks Soupy” never gets old); the Godfather (“act like a man”) John Boehner (on the verge of tears over the least little thing); and “Gangsta’ Mickey” by one of radio’s most underrated talents anywhere – Rob Bartlett – are nothing short of brilliant. The same applies to Tony Powell, who likewise contributes solid writing and impeccable celebrity imitations including the Reverend Jesse Jackson, Bill Cosby, and New York congressional representative Charles Rangel.
The late Don Imus
WNBC had the quintessential nighttime radio talent in ultra-smooth Dick Summer, whose “66-WNBC” stint included a Herculean 10:00 pm – 6:00 am effort, meaning he dovetailed into Imus, but as Summer once candidly recounted, “You could never tell if Don was going to show up at all. He could be as much as 30 minutes [or more] late.”
Troubled by alcohol and drugs, Imus – who says he conquered cocaine in 1983 – was fired by WNBC in 1977 for missing 100 days of work in the course of one year.
Radio has had its share of feuds with some turning ugly. Generally though, they do not involve personalities who work at the same station.
A classic exception, of course, is the bad blood that existed (and probably is still present) between Imus and Howard Stern when the two did morning drive and afternoon drive, respectively, at WNBC. “I hate speaking for other people [but] what I’ve felt over the years is that Howard really dislikes Don,” Imus’ former sports reporter Sid Rosenberg commented in TALKERS’ February 2011 issue. “Imus didn’t treat Howard very well early-on. Don did some things on the air that Howard didn’t appreciate so [Stern] doesn’t like [Imus] but at this point, I don’t think [Imus] really cares. On the air, Don plays it off that Stern made him a lot of money [when they worked together at Infinity and CBS Radio]. It didn’t seem to me that Don was nearly as angry with Howard as Howard is with Don.”
In the Stern-authored “King of All Media,” WNBC program director Kevin Metheny remarks, “Imus was not of a mind to give Howard much of a leg up – and Howard came to resent him.”
At least as viewed through Summer’s eyes, the real Imus is what the morning man portrays himself to be on-air and Summer likes that about the unparalleled morning talent. “He is a smart, pain in the ass who says what he thinks,” Summer declared. “He was like the original reality show and it strikes a nerve. Deep inside that crust [though], Don’s a very decent guy – a soft, warm genuine human being.”
Life Magazine once called California-born Imus, “the most outrageous disc jockey anywhere.” Among TALKERS’ 100 all-time most important radio talk show hosts (“The Heaviest Hundred”), the former railroad brakeman occupies the #5 position.
Whenever you crave a tidal wave of good old-fashioned non-stop sidesplitting laughs, re-listen to or obtain a copy of Imus’ classic “1200 Hamburgers To Go,” incontrovertibly the standard by which other comedy albums done by radio talents are measured.
More hysterical laugh-out-loud comedy is delivered over the course of the title track’s 149 seconds than in easily a half-dozen episodes of today’s average 30-minute sitcom; “Silver Bullet” and “Clark Kent” are also impeccable in terms of content and delivery.
Virtually every cut on the 1972 RCA LP was recorded at WGAR, with all material conceived/written by Imus and by WGAR, Cleveland’s then program director, John Lund. “Studio phone numbers had that dreadful beep that [indicated] a person was being recorded, so we decided to write scripts,” Lund recalled. “Imus came up with the idea and I’d write the outline. I probably spent half my time working with him and developing bits. We’d go to his house at night and write comedy.”
Another absolute requisite for true comedy aficionados and radio historians is the 1973 RCA follow-up “One Sacred Chicken To Go,” which is punctuated by a priceless nearly six-minute “Healing Of Robert W. Morgan” that aired live on Los Angeles’ KHJ “Boss Radio.” The “curing” was performed by Imus, through the persona of his Right Reverend Billy Sol Hargis character (“Put your hands on the radio”).
Fresh out of college and a stint working at KLAC, Los Angeles, which Lund described as “America’s first all-talk station,” the president of San Francisco-area (Burlingame, CA) Lund Consultants landed the programming chair at Sacramento’s KXOA. “The general manager told me to find a funny morning guy and there was Don Imus’ tape and resume,” Lund explained. “He’d just been fired from KJOY, Stockton for doing ‘The Eldridge Cleaver Look Alike Contest.’ We hired him and he had a phenomenal [ratings] book that put [KXOA] on the map.”
Acerbic ex-Marine Joe Pyne (who died of lung cancer at 44) worked at KLAC in the mid to late-1960s and Lund comments that, “Imus had a lot of Joe Pyne, Mort Sahl, and George Carlin in him. In the early years, he often put stories in the framework of skits, which was unheard of in radio. He is one of the truest talents in the world. This guy really gives a lot of himself – there aren’t many others who do that. He’s very much in touch with reality and doesn’t have an air about him – he’s one of us. Don Imus is very intelligent, notices trends, and became the voice for the common person. When they write the book about what happened to radio worldwide, it really goes back to 1970 – 1971 at WGAR, Cleveland and Don Imus.”
Mike Kinosian is managing editor of TALKERS magazine. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.