Don Imus, Radio Icon And Former WFAN Host, Dead At 79

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Don Imus, the legendary radio talk show host who led WFAN's morning show for nearly 20 years, has died. He was 79.

His publicist told multiple media outlets that Imus had been hospitalized at Baylor Scott and White Medical Center in College Station, Texas, since Christmas Eve and died Friday morning. The cause of death was complications from lung disease.

The cowboy hat-wearing, foulmouthed and oft-controversial Imus rose to stardom in the 1970s and '80s on WNBC Radio and famously had a rivalry with Howard Stern. In 1988, "Imus in the Morning," which he hosted for a half-century overall, moved to WFAN. While the fledgling WFAN was otherwise an all-sports station, Imus' show retained its largely news, politics and entertainment format. His show has been credited with helping the station establish its footing in the New York market by providing a highly rated lead-in to its other programming.

"Imus put this station truly on the map," said Mark Chernoff, WFAN's vice president of programming, who worked with Imus for 14 years. "And he was the springboard for the success that came afterward."

Mike Francesa, who co-hosted the "Mike and the Mad Dog" afternoon-drive show during nearly all of Imus' tenure at WFAN, called in to the station Friday to discuss his friend and mentor.

"When you write the history of radio, Paul Harvey's name will be there. Howard Stern's name will be there. Hopefully Mike and the Mad Dog's name will be somewhere near the top. But Don Imus will be in the top three or four, for sure," Francesa said. "He was one of the real radio icons.

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"The idea of a sports station taking off at the beginning was crazy. No one thought it was possible. And because of what Imus gave us in terms of revenue, in terms of name value, in terms of branding, in terms of stability allowed the rest of us to build a sports legacy on top of what he had already established. And that's where FAN came from, and that's why FAN is now one of the iconic brands in the history of radio."

Added Chris "Mad Dog" Russo, Francesa's longtime partner: "This is obviously sad news. I've got a lot of reasons to thank Don Imus for this success, I can tell you that. As you know, very important to our careers, and very important to the growth of the station. If it weren't for him ... I don't know if FAN would have survived those early days."

Update anchor John Minko, an original WFAN employee who worked alongside Imus, agreed that the station would likely not be around today if it weren't for "the I-Man."

"Radio legend, icon -- you can throw every single one of those superlative words in there, and they would all fit," Minko said on the air Friday. "To me, he's the smartest person that I ever met in radio. I mean, he was more than just an entertainer. ... He knew the business. He knew how to conduct a show."

Imus survived drug and alcohol addiction and several firings. He was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 1989 and was named to Time’s 25 Most Influential People in America in 1997. 

Among his most controversial moments, Imus was the featured entertainer at the 1996 Radio and Television Correspondents Association dinner in Washington and joked about Bill Clinton's womanizing and called the then-president a "pot-smoking weasel" while he and first lady Hillary Clinton sat nearby.

His "shock jock" shtick, however, caught up with him in 2007, when he referred to the mostly African-American Rutgers women's basketball team, which had reached the NCAA final, as "rough girls" and "nappy-headed hos." The remarks were met with a backlash from black organizations and sponsors, leading to the cancellation of his show despite his repeated apologies. Imus' program was later picked up by WABC and dozens of its affiliates. He continued to host his morning show until his retirement in March 2018.

"When you were listening to him, you were listening to somebody who was unique and somebody who was outrageous and somebody who was gruff and somebody who was so outspoken," said longtime WFAN host Steve Somers. "And like the rest of us, I mean, he certainly wasn't perfect and got into the issue that he got into. And a lot of us still think, as politically incorrect as it was, that cost him his place here, the bottom line is that he certainly, with his heart, with his mind and with his soul, absolutely loved and cared about everybody."

Boomer Esiason recognized Imus' dedication to being an entertainer long before he replaced him at WFAN. When he was quarterbacking the Jets in the 1990s, Esiason had a regular Monday morning appearance on Imus' show during the football season.

"He didn't really care about the ... football game," remembered Esiason. "He didn't care about sports in general. He just would want to argue with me, and he'd want to get into it with me and create drama. And I also knew he was about his show."

As controversial as he was, Imus was also extremely charitable. A pediatric medical facility bearing his name stands at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey. He ran a ranch in New Mexico for children with cancer and other major illnesses. And he raised more than $40 million for charities, including the CJ Foundation for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. 

Chernoff remembered once visiting Imus on the ranch. 

"We saw him in action," Chernoff said. "He got up early, did his show, hung with the kids all day. Was truly like master of the house there. People said, why was he doing this? Well, it was in his heart. It was what he wanted to do.

"Just the amazing things he did -- people just didn't see all these things. They just took, 'Well, he's a shock jock. He says all these horrible things about people.' Yeah, that was part of what Imus was, but he was a philanthropist."

Joel Hollander, WFAN's general manager during Imus' first 10 years on the station, said the radio icon "helped untold people professionally, multiple causes."

"Whether they were SIDS, Tomorrows Children's Fund with cancer, war veterans, he never turned away anybody that was in need," said Hollander, who also served as the president and CEO of CBS Radio, which previously owned WFAN. "He is one of the more iconic figures of the last 50 years. And at the end of the day, there was Howard Stern and there was Don Imus, and everybody else was on a different planet."

Imus, who was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2009, is survived by his wife of 25 years, Deirdre, and his six children -- sons Wyatt and Lt. Zachary Don Cates and daughters Nadine, Ashley, Elizabeth and Toni.

"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," Imus' family said in a statement.

A small service for Imus will be held in the next few days, according to The Hollywood Reporter.