At the close of my interviews with each of my guests, I like to ask one question: how would you like to be remembered?
If I had the opportunity to ask pioneering shock jock, Don Imus, that question, I imagine he might have said that he wanted to be remembered for the trail he blazed during this five-decade career in broadcasting. Perhaps he might have said he would like to be remembered for the enviable number of broadcast awards and recognitions and accolades that came his way during the course of that long career.
Surely he would want to be remembered as a compassionate and charitable man who raised millions for the Imus Ranch, which offered life-changing experiences to critically ill children.
But after Imus passed away on Dec. 27, 2019, it quickly became clear what he would be remembered for. Every story I read in the wake of his passing mentioned comments he made in 2007 about the Rutgers University women’s basketball team. Imus referred to members of the team, most of whom were African American, as “nappy-headed hos.”
The racist comments were swiftly and rightfully condemned. He took responsibility for his comments and apologized, but still lost his radio show and suffered a significant backlash.
If Imus’ comments were a one-off mistake, I might lament that it is all he is remembered for. But they weren’t. The comments were very much on-brand for him, and he made similar off-color, off-putting remarks throughout his career. That was a significant part of his appeal. He said things out loud that his audience might have been reluctant to even whisper, and his audience loved him for it. He made his fame and fortune by mocking and insulting everything and everyone from his wife to the president.
In the end, Imus’ acid tongue threatened to overshadow his moxie. Here’s what I see:
Moxie survives hard knocks.
Imus was born and mostly raised on his family’s large cattle ranch outside Kingman, Arizona. That cowboy persona Imus put on was authentic. The life he knew on the ranch changed significantly when his parents divorced when he was 15. He spent the rest of his adolescence bouncing from school to school. He was an indifferent student and frequently in trouble.
He eventually dropped out of high school and joined the Marines. He didn’t make a career of it but did make his way through to an honorable discharge. He found work as — of all things — a window dresser at a department store, but was fired after staging the mannequins to look like they were performing a striptease act. He bounced around Hollywood for a bit looking for a way into the entertainment industry but ended up homeless before returning home to Arizona to work in copper and uranium mines. Mining was hard, dangerous work that left Imus with broken bones and a collapsed lung.
All of these early experiences shaped Imus’ everyman sensibility. His blue-collar, no b.s. attitude resonated because it was authentic. If you grew up working-class, Imus and his outlook were very familiar.
Moxie plays to its strengths.
He bounced through the stint in the Marines, the jobs in a copper mine and a uranium mine, and homelessness before responding to an ad for the Don Martin School of Radio and Television Arts and Sciences. He enrolled, but was kicked out before he graduated for being “uncooperative.” He learned enough to talk his way into a job with a local radio station.
From that point on, Imus laddered his way up to bigger markets along the way. Firings — which were not infrequent for Imus — just seemed to lead to bigger opportunities. Imus’ irascible personality and shocking stunts (he once pranked called a McDonald’s and ordered more than a 1,000 hamburgers for military troops) delighted his fans. The very personality traits that made him virtually unemployable in any other context turned out to be a boon in broadcasting. You might not want to work with a guy like Imus, but he made your drive into work a whole lot more fun and interesting.
Imus pioneered the “shock jock” style of a radio personality. He offered up outrageous commentary on every news story of the day. He relentlessly teased and abused guests and staff members, frequently relying on anti-Semitic, racist, homophobic and sexist tropes as “jokes.”
While his schtick seemed intended to needle coastal elites, scolds and wags and those in power, Imus’ humor occasionally punched down, as in the case of the Rutgers team. It can also be argued that even if he himself did not hold anti-Semitic, racist, homophobic and sexist views, his “jokes” gave cover to those who do. It’s a complicated legacy for a man who leveraged his cantankerousness so powerfully.
Moxie gives back.
In 1999 after a couple of decades of success and excess as a pioneering shock jock, Imus and his wife Diedre founded the Imus Ranch for Kids with Cancer. Don and Diedre welcomed kids suffering from myriad afflictions for life-altering stays at their working cattle ranch. Campers had the opportunity to forget about their illnesses and challenges for a week or two, and instead be cowboys and cowgirls.
The Imus Ranch was just one of a host of charities Imus raised millions for over the years. His efforts continued even after the ranch closed several years ago.
But when controversy struck, Imus seemed to want to hold up his charitable work as evidence of his goodness. Even while declaring he was not using his charity work as an excuse, he pointed to it, saying that he was a “good man who said something bad.”
People are complicated. Most of us are genuinely trying to do good in the world, and all evidence points to that being true of Imus. But that doesn’t negate or even mitigate the pain or damage our words and actions cause when unleashed upon the world.
I think Imus carried that realization with him to the end. When he retired from radio for the final time in 2018, he noted the Rutgers incident with regret. More than 10 years later, he continued to take responsibility for his words and the pain they caused. When he passed away, Rutgers coach Vivian Stringer extended her condolences to the family.
Were you a fan of the I-man? What do you make of his legacy?