April 10, 2007


Through a Lens, Darkly: A 40-year radio veteran with close to three million die-hard fans, Don Imus looks as if he's been to hell and back. He has. Spending a week with the merciless shock jock, the author discovers what makes him tick—and explode (Buzz Bissinger, February 2006, Vanity Fair)

During the week I spend with the legendary radio host listened to by millions on his nationally syndicated show, Imus in the Morning, my reactions to him swirl round and round in a game of emotional roulette.

After nearly 40 years in radio, he is still making waves. The way he did in the late 60s at an AM radio station in Sacramento when, still developing his persona of flamboyant outrageousness, he called up a local McDonald's posing as the sergeant of something called the International Guard and ordered 1,200 hamburgers for his soldiers, to go. The way he did in the 70s when he took New York by storm on WNBC, and Life magazine called him the "country's most outrageous disc jockey." The way he did in the 80s when he developed twin dependencies on vodka and cocaine and lived in such debauchery that a close friend worried he would have the same tragic demise as John Belushi. The way he did in the early 90s when his radio show moved from shock-jock shtick to substance and began to wield such influence that some political pundits credited him with a pivotal role in guest Bill Clinton's victory in the New York presidential primary. The way he did several years later, in 1996, at the annual Radio & Television Correspondents' Association dinner, when he delivered tasteless remarks about President Clinton's alleged extramarital affairs while the president and Hillary sat only a few feet away. The way he did in 2004 when remarks he made on the air caused a prominent physician to sue him for defamation.

He has taken off his cowboy hat in the stretch limo, revealing a thin cloak of gray and white hair that looks like an Elizabethan wig. He's wearing cowboy boots, blue jeans, a soft blue shirt, a finely tailored Joseph Abboud jacket, and a western-style belt buckle big enough to be a breastplate. He's not wearing a gun on his hip, because he's not licensed to carry a gun in New Jersey. But when we get back to his office in Queens, one of his first acts will be to strap on a .40-caliber Glock, since he is licensed in New York. Like many celebrities, he worries about being accosted. But given where we are when he packs heat, inside the studios of WFAN radio, his flagship station, I am not sure whom he thinks he might have to shoot.

He's seated in the corner of the limo and appears pale and frail and sucked dry. At 65 he looks 10 years older. He's been a mine worker, a window dresser, a failed singer, a New York shock jock on the meteoric way up and then down, an alcoholic, a cocaine user, a rehabbed newlywed at 54, a new father near 60, and he's still the powerful Pied Piper to such members of the media elite as Tim Russert, Andrea Mitchell, and Tom Brokaw, and to such members of the political establishment as Senators Joe Biden, John McCain, and Chris Dodd.

"I don't feel well," he says in the limo. It's something he says a lot during the week, just as he groans a lot and sighs a lot and has coughing fits and screams that his ears hurt and utters "Oh, man" and "Oh, shit." He often sighs when he walks, as if this were his final step, and his body has been to hell and back, damaged beyond the considerable toll taken by the booze and the drugs and the smoking—a mining accident when he was a young man that broke both his legs, a collapsed lung, a terrible fall from a horse that collapsed his other lung and broke his ribs, collarbone, and shoulder and almost killed him, a rotator cuff torn after pulling off a saddle (it still hasn't healed), a little emphysema (he needs oxygen at night when he sleeps in the high altitude of New Mexico), difficulty hearing from years of spinning rock 'n' roll and wearing headphones.

He looks tired, perhaps from getting up at 4:30 in the morning for nearly 40 years and doing the morning drive time on the radio with energy and focus. The voice, once a manic rat-a-tat as sharp and syncopated as an extended Buddy Rich drumroll, is softer now and sometimes garbled. His eyes seem squeezed, compressed.

Minutes earlier he finished his radio show, carried by roughly 90 stations around the country, along with the MSNBC simulcast. It has at least 2.75 million individual listeners a week, according to the latest survey by Talkers magazine, which covers the talk-radio industry. It ranks Imus 13th nationally, significantly behind Rush Limbaugh (13.75 million), Sean Hannity (12.5 million), and Howard Stern (7.75 million). Regardless of ranking, what continues to separate Imus from his competitors is the influence and impact of the show, often a source of news because of revelations made by high-echelon politicians craving air time. His audience base is considered to be loyal, affluent, and coveted by advertisers. The show that Monday had its usual array of diverse guests calling in, among them Newsweek assistant managing editor Evan Thomas, NBC White House correspondent David Gregory, and author Doris Kearns Goodwin, promoting her latest book, Team of Rivals, about Abraham Lincoln. "Who gives a [****]?" he said of Goodwin's book off the air. "Just what we need, another Lincoln book." But he deftly showed interest and appreciation when she came on the air, leading me to assume that—beyond his general fondness for Goodwin, a regular guest—there must have been something about the book he had responded to.

"How much of Doris's book did you get through?" I ask him in the limo.

"The Lincoln book?"

"How much did you get through?"

"None of it."

"None of it?"

"No. I didn't read a page of it. Why?"

"When you were interviewing her, it sounded like you had read some of it."

"I didn't tell her I read it. I know about Lincoln."

"You sounded very informed."

"I am informed."

"I know you're informed. I thought you'd read it."


He has no qualms about saying this, just as he has no qualms about saying almost anything.

He's said offensive things for a living for 40 years now. It's not apparent why his most recent trangression should stand out nor what basis his employers could have for suspending him. They pay him to say such things because they want the audience it brings. Why not suspend themselves?

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 10, 2007 11:37 PM

It'll be interesting to see how many or how few of his stable of regular guests abandon him, and for how long. My bet is that by this time next year, they'll all have been back multiple times. (And my inner curmudgeon says, "The last few days couldn't happen to a more deserving guy.")

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at April 11, 2007 12:24 AM

Why be nice to Doris Kearns Goodwin, she is a hack.

Posted by: pchuck at April 11, 2007 10:21 AM

and a plagiarist.

Posted by: erp [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 11, 2007 12:11 PM

It's not apparent why his most recent trangression should stand out

It doesn't. In fact it wasn't even a joke. It was a placeholder for a joke, the point being that it's a sportscast wobbled slightly off track the way all Imus sportscasts are wobbled slightly off track (here, giving ugliness scores). That makes it parody the stay-tuned-gosh-isn't-this-exciting standard sportscast. Nothing more.

The reactions of Imus's management, here's the important thing, was WAY out of character. Completely off the wall. This is what has to be explained.

It's not that somebody suddenly discovered something, but that somebody suddenly took advantage of an opportunity.

One day earlier (Tuesday), what had happened?

One thing was that Hillary found out, via Donald Trump calling producer McGuirk, that Hillary will never be invited on the show.

Taking Imus down may be way out of character for Imus's management, but it's not out of character for the Clintons, at all.

The developments since then have shaped themselves as they will, namely towards the soap opera audience that consumes all the broadcast news.

(If anything, the standard analysis seems to me to take the line that blacks are incapable of functioning as adults, and every aspect of the media developments seem to confirm it. Geez, try some other blacks, fellows.)

Posted by: Ron Hardin at April 11, 2007 12:51 PM

"Why be nice to Doris Kearns Goodwin, she is a hack."

"and a plagiarist."

It's even worse than that folks:

She a Red Sawx fan. And before that she was a Brooklyn Dodger fan. Which means in effect that she just roots against the Yankees, and has her whole life.

Come the revolution we will have a place for such people.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at April 11, 2007 1:42 PM

... a Brooklyn Dodgers fan!! Obviously, these hideous assaults on Dori are only the ravings of outclassed Yankee fans and shouldn't be taken seriously.

Posted by: erp [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 12, 2007 7:14 AM