NEW YORK (WCBS 880) — Legendary radio personality Don Imus, who hosted the radio show “Imus in the Morning” for nearly 50 years, has died. He was 79.
A representative for the cowboy hat-wearing host confirmed Imus passed away Friday morning at Baylor Scott and White Medical Center in College Station, Texas.
Imus had been hospitalized on Christmas Eve but a representative would not reveal the cause of death.
WFAN's Mike Francesa reacted to the news on Twitter writing, "Shocking news on the passing of my friend, Don Imus. He will long be remembered as one of the true giants in the history of radio. My thoughts and prayers to Deirdre and Wyatt. God speed."
“I think I learned more about radio from Don than anybody else and I think what he also gave the station was a sense of professionalism and a sense of accountability,” Francesa said on a WFAN broadcast. “We knew that he expected a lot from people who came on this program.”
The radio personality began broadcasting in 1968 at KUTY in Palmdale, California.
Three years later, he landed the morning spot at WNBC in New York before leaving in 1977. He returned a short while later and stayed on through the 1980s, when his show was moved to WFAN.
Imus quickly gained widespread popularity, his show entered national syndication and he was often referred to as “I-Man” by his fans.
“He eventually became a, you know, music disc jockey who talked a lot – which turned into sort of being a shock jock, as people referred to him” said WFAN program director Mark Chernoff. “He was able to change and become a political guy, a guy who was concerned with charitable causes.”
For years he was a household name, but stirred up controversy in 2007 when he was fired for using racial slurs when speaking about the Rutgers University women’s basketball team.
“Sometimes what sounds or appears to be funny is not funny and, you know, it was a case of – maybe at the moment it happened, not realizing the impact it did have on people,” Chernoff explains. “He did realize it, shortly after, and he was just extremely apologetic about it. He was sorry that he said what he said. Sorry about the whole incident.”
Imus later met with the team at Rutgers University about the comments along with Chernoff, who says the team welcomed the apology they received.
“They said they would forgive Imus for what he said – they wouldn’t forget what he had said – but they would forgive him,” the program director said of the meeting.
Imus returned to radio soon after that, but under a cloud of criticism. Francesa notes that, despite this, he was able to rebuild a career and notoriety.
“The great ones are able to reinvent themselves and I think Imus did on two or three different occasions and different stages of his very, very long and incredibly successful career,” the WFAN host said.
Imus' death comes less than two years after he retired. His final day on his radio program was March 29, 2018.
The radio personality announced he would be stepping away from broadcasting on Twitter in January 2018, saying: “Turn out the lights…the party’s over.”
He is survived by his wife, Deirdre, sons Wyatt and Lt. Zachary Don Cates and daughters Nadine, Ashley, Elizabeth and Toni.
The Imus family released a statement regarding the 79-year-old's death to Hollywood Reporter:
“Don loved and adored Deirdre, who unconditionally loved him back, loved spending his time watching Wyatt become a highly skilled, champion rodeo rider and calf roper, and loved and supported Zachary, who first met the Imus family at age 10 when he participated in the Imus Ranch program for kids with cancer, having battled and overcome leukemia, eventually becoming a member of the Imus family and Don and Deirdre’s second son.”
A private funeral service is expected to be held in the next few days.
The family requests any donations be made to the Imus Ranch Foundation, which supports children with cancer and other major illnesses.