Friday, January 03, 2020

4534 Imus and the Mourning

Yeah, the picture of the RCA 44 is squshed so that it fits neatly next to the grim-faced guy looking at it.

Don Imus outlived his talent by about a dozen years.  When he died last week, his obituaries ran the gamut from “...Maybe the greatest radio personality of all time…” to “the original shock jock” to “Racist Radio Show Host Dies at 79.”

The first quotation is from Allan Sniffin, proprietor of a group of radio message boards, websites, and an internet radio station.  The second quote is generic.  Everyone says that about him.  The third is from the website, whose writer Sebastian Murdock had a few choice things to say.

Among them:
--He was fired for calling members of the Rutgers University Women’s basketball team “Nappy headed hos.” But he bounced back pretty quickly.

That kind of summarizes things.  But the obit goes on to mention that Imus...

--Called Gwen Ifill “a cleaning lady.” Ifill was the first black woman to anchor a nationally broadcast news program (on PBS.) She had worked for NBC News, The New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Baltimore Sun, among other places.

--Called the people at publishing house Simon & Schuster “thieving Jews.”

--Called Washington Post media columnist Howard Kurtz a “boner-nosed beanie-wearing Jewboy.”

--Called Arabs “rag heads.”

You get the picture.

He started out funny.  One of his best known bits was calling a burger joint on the air, pretending to be a sergeant and ordering 1200 burgers with wide variations of toppings to go. There were no troops to feed.

A regular “character” he played was The Right Rev. Billy Sol Hargis as part of an ongoing riff about money-grubbing radio and television evangelists, their lavish lifestyles, womanizing and trading salvation for your dollars.

But as time went on, he got serious.  And seriously racist as you see in the paragraphs above. People of note were guests. People like Maureen Dowd and Dan Rather. Also, Tim Russert, Senators Dodd of Connecticut and McCain of Arizona. And high profile national officeholders like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

Yes, he started and ran charities that helped kids with cancer. But he also gave away plenty of free airtime to his brother Fred who owned an Imus-branded hot sauce business.

He got sick a lot.  That happens to alcoholic cokeheads. He depended for years on help with writing bits and banter with his newscaster, Charles McCord who turned from serious veteran NBC journalist to silly sycophant/yes-man on the air. If McCord has anything to say about his years with Imus, we haven’t yet seen or heard it.

Imus paved the way for other so-called shock jocks.  Early on, he got away with saying things no one else would have.  In some ways, he was the Arthur Godfrey of his generation, someone who revolutionized the previously stiff-assed ways of conventional broadcasting.  Godfrey also was deeply flawed but he kept most of that out of his on-air performances.

In some ways, he also cleared a path for the plague of right wing talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh whom he called a “fat pill-popping loser.” But Limbaugh wouldn’t get away with what he’s been getting away with if Imus hadn’t first cleared the sewer in which they both operated.  Limbaugh can also be funny in a mean-spirited way.

In the last days of his show in 2018, Imus’ patented stylized mumble was often incomprehensible.  Most days he sounded like he didn’t know what was going on around him.  It was like attending a show where an opera star had lost his voice but continued to tour and sing.  

Or a cowboy too often thrown from his horse and landed on his head once too often.  He opened pathways for the rest of us. After years of shooting himself in the foot, he realized that to be effective, he had to shoot himself in the head.  And that’s what he did.

I’m Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to them. ® 
© WJR 2020

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