Love him or hate him — and there were plenty of people on both sides — Don Imus was a force to be reckoned with. In the late 1980s and early '90s broadcasting from New York's all-sports radio station WFAN, "the I-Man" dominated southern Connecticut ratings with his controversial, possibly deliberately incendiary act. But was it an act, or not? As we learn in this 1991 profile, the Southport resident could be just as short-tempered and abrasive in real life as his radio persona; but he also had a softer side, as an outspoken and genuinely passionate advocate for a children's cancer charity. Less than two years after this article was published, Imus (who died in 2019) followed the Howard Stern model and took his act to national syndication, where he met with even greater success, as well as greater controversy over several inflammatory remarks.
This article is being posted to the web in June 2021 as part of Connecticut Magazine's 50th anniversary celebration.
THE I-MAN COMETH
Say what you will about radio's morning megalomaniac Don Imus—he is getting it done.
By Andrew Marlatt
The first time I see Don Imus, he is right where you would expect a man of his reputation to be: in a small, padded room in a basement somewhere in Queens.
From this dimly lit chamber, Imus occasionally claims to speak for Jesus, contemplates immoral acts with a chain saw and confesses his belief that television anchorwomen are secretly sending him messages of lust during newscasts. "Come down here in your limousine, Imus," they allegedly signal with their eyes. "Come down to the studio and tie me up.”
While bearing a striking resemblance to the bumper room at Bellevue, this is actually the broadcast booth at all-sports radio station WFAN, home to the legendary “Imus in the Morning" program, the show that is to tact and good taste what a tornado is to a trailer park. "How old is your niece, Eileen?" Imus asks Eileen Marchese, the show’s much-maligned traffic reporter. Reluctantly, Marchese admits the girl is 14. In his patented low rumble, Imus gently tells Marchese that her niece is a very attractive young woman—so attractive, in fact, that he would like to marry and impregnate her.
"You are repulsive!" Marchese points out.
"I understand that," answers Imus.
Repulsive, by the way, is in. Riding WFAN’s powerful 50,000-watt AM signal, Imus' irreverent ramblings begin the day in at least seven states, from Delaware to Massachusetts. And nowhere does Imus leave a louder wake-up call than in Connecticut. The Arbitron Co., the industry-standard rating service, tracks six metropolitan listening areas in the state. Among FAN's target audience—males age 25 to 54—Imus owns the top spot in four of the six: Stamford/Norwalk, Bridgeport, New Haven and New London. He is also No. 3 in the Waterbury area and No. 6 in Hartford/Middletown/New Britain. And his numbers are climbing. The year before, his show was No. 3 in New London, No. 6 in Waterbury and No. 7 in Hartford.
The humor may be sophomoric. but some of Imus' biggest fans have MBAs. In the metropolitan New York area, including much of Fairfield County, his show ranks first among people who earn more than $100,000 a year. "The number of affluent listeners he has is mind-boggling,” says Imus fnend and program sponsor Bernadette Castro, president of sofa-bed giant Castro Convertible Corp. “I go to board meetings in the city with really important bankers and executives and they'll pull me aside and say, ‘What is Imus really like?'"
That question is tough to answer. Castro tells the curious that he’s "a very nice man, not mean-spinted at all," which is exactly what Imus enjoys denying. "I am not a nice person. This is the real me," he claims. "You'll just have to believe that."
"Are there elements of his personality that come out on the radio? Yeah," offers close friend Mike Lupica, columnist for the New York Daily News, "But is he 'Imus in the Morning' 24 hours a day? No, he's not. He's not any more than Carson is, or any of those."
“What he does is no act," counters Bernard McGuirk, the show’s producer. “He’s opinionated, short-tempered and funny. In short, he’s like what he is on the air—cubed. Cubed, plus the profanities."
At 51, the l-Man, as he likes to call himself, has made a career out of being opinionated, short-tempered and funny. His 24 years in radio have been marked by excellence and expletives, intellect and insults, philanthropy and pharmacy. He has been called bigot and big-hearted, shock pioneer and chauvinist pig. Some of this is indisputable: He is in the Radio Hall of Fame, he gives to charity, he is a recovering alcoholic and cocaine addict, and he swears a lot. As for racism, his show plays on stereotypes of blacks, Jews, WASPs, Hispanics and more. In short, “We satirize everybody," says Imus, who is actually hardest on himself. The racist tag, he contends, is “a cheap shot" from people who just don’t understand the humor.
As Imus fans know, that humor is not for the timid. He’s no Andrew Dice Clay, but he’s not exactly Victor Borge either. He is more like the little voice in your head that urges you to do or say the truly inappropriate. Most people shut that voice out. Don Imus gives it a microphone. A small percentage of Connecticut residents, however, wish he would just give it a rest.
MORE RADIO PERSONALITIES FROM THE CONNECTICUT MAGAZINE ARCHIVES:
- 'Those Drive Time Morning Men' (Oct. 1981)
- Bob Steele a Connecticut radio legend, in 'WBOB' (March 1978)
- Meet Sebastian, 'Radio's New Bad Boy' (Aug. 1986)
- Faith Middleton is profiled in 'Keeping Faith' (Oct. 2005)
In the Gold Coast town of Fairfield is a gilded enclave called Southport, a coastal bastion for old money and aging Republicans where charity functions are the hit of the social season and the local Pequot Yacht Club the center of social attention. “They are,” says one Fairfield resident, “snobs. But they want you to know they are snobs. They want people to know that Southport is a step above the average place to live."
Into this exclusive china shop comes a bull with a bullhorn, a man who flaunts his incorrigible nature like the average Southporter flaunts his zip code. In January,
Don Imus bought a $1.275 million weekend home there.
Not surprisingly, Southport welcomed Imus as it would a homeless liberal Democrat. Imus, likewise, has treated Southporters as he does, well, almost everybody. "They are insignificant specks on the I-Man’s windshield,” as he puts it. Then came the article of infamy, The Bridgeport Post's interviews with Imus' new neighbors. Many of the
comments were along the lines of, “Move out," “He’s obnoxious,” and “He’ll never be one of us.” This had much the same effect on Imus as attempting to scare a shark away with chunks of bloody meat. He threatened to cut one neighbor's legs off with a chain saw. He claimed he would “rather tongue-kiss Al Sharpton than go to the Pequot Yacht Club.” Months after the article ran, he still acts upset. “These people really have spent their lives being snotty and horrible to people," says Imus, who, I don't remind him, has made a living doing pretty much the same thing. “They live their own little insulated, pretentious lives, and nobody's ever had any recourse with them. Well, f—— ’em! I don't care what they think. And if they f—— with me, I’ll make their lives a f——n' nightmare."
Don’t think he can't. I called one neighbor who presumably had never even met Imus, said I was doing a story on him and was interrupted with this: “I do not want my name used in the article, and I do not want my comments used in the article, and if my name is used in the magazine, I will sue the magazine."
Why has Imus been so ruthless? "It's just material," he says in a moment of calm. I ask Southporter Robert Wright, president of NBC and Imus acquaintance, if any of that material hits the mark. “There’s always a certain amount of truth in every shot he takes," Wright says diplomatically, “and you kind of have to sort it out for yourself."
And since any good argument has three sides, there is this opinion from Bernadette Castro: "His moving there is a major compliment to Southport. Major. They just don't realize it. In fact," she continues, apparently quite serious about this, "the state Chamber of Commerce could not do more for the state of Connecticut than this man is doing for Connecticut."
As ever, Imus is appreciative of his friend's support. “Bernadette's on those pills again, isn’t she?"
Imus has immersed himself in the state since his arrival. He joked about becoming Fairfield’s harbormaster so he could make miserable the lives of local boaters. He toyed with running for first selectman. On the air, he talks often with Gov. Lowell Weicker, who—and you may want to sit down for this—has offered to let Imus be “Governor for a Day." And while you might think residents would be outraged with Weicker for associating with a man known to end a sentence with “Eat me!” think again. According to McGuirk, "Some people who are angry with the governor call and say, 'How could Imus possibly be friends with him?”’
Weicker won’t discuss the relationship, at least not for this story, but perhaps he sees through the attack- dog subtlety to the sweeter side of Imus. In August, for instance, Imus made two public appearances on behalf of the Connecticut Special Olympics. As FAN program director Mark Mason theorizes, “Imus has a very big heart, but it's bad for his image."
There are occasional indications of his divided temperament. He will call New York Mayor David Dinkins a “girly man” and later say, “but I like him.’’ If he blasts some non-public figure on the air, he may phone him or her afterward. "I don’t want them to feel bad,” he explains, obviously none too happy discussing the topic. But it is Imus’ involvement with The Tomorrows Children’s Fund, a parents’ group that raises money for children with cancer, which gives the lie to his uncaring facade. For each of the past two years, WFAN has held a 28-hour radiothon for the charity. Last March, the drive brought in more than $1.2 million, nearly half the fund’s annual take. Most of that money came in during Imus’ eight-hour shift, but his commitment does not stop there. He visits the children, talks about the group all year and has become, in the words of the fund’s president, “a hero to the kids.” I ask Imus why he’s so involved with TCF and for a moment, there emerges more person than persona. "When you see a 17-year-old girl lying in the middle of her bed—all her things are around her, and she knows she’s going to die in a month—it's got to get to you," he says, his voice trailing off at the end.
David Jurist, TCF president, speaks of Imus with reverence. "I don’t think he understands the depths of what he’s done," Jurist says. “He hasn’t just raised money, he has given the children a purpose. When he talks about them, he makes them feel important. He’s their hero, their leader... their mentor.”
Of course, it’s not Mother Teresa you see while driving the Bruckner Expressway toward FAN’S studio. Next to the highway, painted on a warehouse, is an enormous color mural of Imus and FAN sports jocks Chris Russo and Mike Francesa. Imus is holding two baseballs, and the message, in body-high letters, reads, “We’ve Got New York Sports By The ...”
Not seen on this blunt billboard is the talented cast of merry wits—or moral degenerates, depending on your point of view— who help Imus keep this firm grip on the ratings. Newsman Charles McCord, an Ed McMahon with talent, sits next to Imus, writes much of the show's material and acts as both foil and flunky. Sharing a microphone with traffic reporter Marchese is sports jock Mike Breen, who likes to doctor taped quotes to make, say, Mets crybaby Gregg Jefferies sound suspiciously like tennis teen Jennifer Capriati. In the adjoining engineer’s booth is Imus’ assistant Laura Nembach, the quietest pack member, and producer McGuirk, who reads the daily Lotto numbers in the voice of Cardinal O’Connor, complete with off-color wisecracks that make Imus sound tame. The hard-working engineer is Lou Rufino, whose cacophonous laughter is familiar to millions. Intermingled with all this locker room banter are professional imitations, usually on tape, of notables ranging from Jean Kirkpatrick and Richard Nison to Mike Tyson and Jay Leno.
After spending four-and-a-half frantic hours with these folks, Imus retreats to his office, which resembles not so much a place of business as a bomb shelter where the explosion occurred on the inside. The walls are plastered with skewed photographs and pictures: a life-size cardboard cutout of himself, a drawing of Lenny Bruce; a poster declaring “F—— Tipper Gore!" Compact discs, primarily blues music, litter every flat surface from the floor up. A badly broken stereo stand leans from rectangle into rhomboid, as if waiting for permission to collapse. Coffee mugs, shoes, T-shirts and other gifts from fans and friends find refuge on tabletops, shelves and the two pieces of sittable furniture—a tan, rumpled- leather couch and chair. In this disheveled, frat- house environment, yet another facet of the I- Man is revealed
While we talk, Don Imus, demeaner of women, fighter against pretense, basher of the affluent and tormentor of the “girly man,” is having a manicure.
“Look, there’s still dirt under that one!” he complains, pointing to the offending nail and waiting for a response from Fran the manicurist. “You’re doing a hideous job,” he adds. Fran smiles valiantly and ignores him as the phone rings. “I don’t care if you’re stuck in traffic,” Imus barks into the receiver. “Traffic is a part of life. Get over it.” He turns back to me “Now, what’s your next hideous question?"
“Hideous” is Imus' favorite insult. I am hideous. The manicurist is hideous. Station management is hideous. Basically, anything with DNA is hideous. “‘Hideous’ sounds good,” Imus explains. “But I’m looking for a new one. I like ‘amorphous,’ or I was thinking of switching to ‘licentious,’ or maybe ‘lascivious.”’ He has a long list to choose from, insults being the ammunition in the Imus artillery. One recent morning, in a two-and-a-half-hour stretch, he launched an even 100 insults at a variety of people, groups and ideas. This barrage included 66 different slurs, from the everyday “moron,” “tubbo” and "idiot,” to the more inventive “blood-sucking leeches,” and “amorphous old bag,” to the truly inspired “parrot-head.” If you subtract all the commercials, taped skits, sports, traffic and news reports, Imus was on the air for 63 of those 150
minutes. This gave him an average of one insult every 18 seconds. The next morning, from 7 to 8 a.m., was one for the ridicule record books. He averaged an insult every 23.2 seconds. “I really think you’re exaggerating this," Imus protests when I present him with the statistics. He fails, however, to suppress a smile.
This smile theatrically disappears when two cast members, comedian Rob Bartlett and imitation expert Larry Kenney, walk in and sit on the couch. "What do you want?" grunts Imus—it’s his way of saying "Hello." (As a substitute for "Goodbye," Imus uses "Get out,” which McGuirk says serves his boss well: "You know how it’s sometimes uncomfortable to end a conversation with somebody? Well, Imus doesn't have a problem with that.")
The boss tells Bartlett one of his imitations on that morning’s show was “hideous," then continues the pleasantries by ordering the comedian to stop “popping your f——n’ gum and twirling the f——n’ couch pillows.” Naturally, Bartlett intensifies both activities. “I want you to have a f——n’ heart attack," Imus says. During a lull, I question Imus about his recent burst into the spotlight. He has appeared on "Late Night with David Letterman." “Prime Time Live" ran a profile. New York magazine featured him on the cover. "That was the best-selling issue in the history of the magazine. you know," Imus declares.
“I don’t think it was,” Bartlett chimes in.
IMUS: “Yes it was."
BARTLETT: “No it wasn't."
IMUS: “Why do you say that?"
BARTLETT: “ ’Cause it’s true.”
IMUS: “You are fat and stupid!”
BARTLETT: “I am not fat!"
IMUS: “You are fat!”
BARTLETT: “I’m just overweight.”
Bartlett leans to me and adds, in a stage whisper, “It wasn’t the best-selling issue.” Kenney decides to stoke the fire by proclaiming that he and Bartlett are responsible for “90 to 95 percent of the show’s success.” In the last 10 years, he adds, “Imus has been responsible for about 2 to 3 percent."
Imus lowers his chin, raises one bushy red eyebrow toward me and points a beautifully manicured finger at them. “If these two disappeared from the face of the earth tomorrow," he growls, “we’d lose no listeners. None.”
“Hey, we listen,” Kenney reminds him.
"Okay, we’d lose two listeners," Imus corrects himself.
In the early afternoon, the happy trio heads for the production studio, where two tapes are to be made—one of Kenney doing Andy Rooney and one of Bartlett’s stock character, a blues singer named "Blind Mississippi White Boy Pigs Feet DuPree." When Bartlett finishes his bit, Imus says it wasn’t funny. Bartlett says it was. I begin to jot down notes, expecting another “Was not!"/“Was too!” routine, but stop when Imus slams his fist on a table. He is furious. “I decide what's funny on this show!” he screams, his face redder than usual. "If you don't like it, you can go somewhere else!" Imus turns to me with a warning: “This better not show up in the magazine.” The next morning, Imus talks about the confrontation on the air. Later that day, I remind him of his warning. "Oh yeah, I wasn't serious, I don't care what you print," he says.
"How can you tell when he is serious?" I ask McGuirk.
"It's survival of the fittest here,” he answers. "Darwinian radio."
Consider two events that take place minutes apart that morning. On the air, Imus, an avid jogger, mentions he has several pairs of new running shoes he doesn't need. After the show, a local charity calls to say it could use the shoes. Imus says he will have his limousine driver drop them off. Imus the Great.
Also on the show, Marchese gives the I-Man a running jacket for his birthday. Imus (good- naturedly?) blasts her, saying he has more running jackets than he can use. An hour later, McCord walks into Imus’ office, sees the jacket lying on the couch and picks it up. “You want it? Take it," says Imus, and McCord does. Imus the Ingrate.
To some, he may be the latter. But to his millions of fans, Imus is not only great, he is, it must be said, an icon. Legions of I- Man junkies plan their mornings around him. They quote him. They call him. If he likes a product. they buy it. If he likes a book, they read it. And the more he claims to be a rotten person, the less they believe him.
Soon after The Bridgeport Post ran its Southport-interviews story, Post reporter Cindy Simoneau’s office was flooded with calls. Most wanted copies of her story, but some wanted more. “A woman from New Jersey called and asked what Imus was like to talk to off the air,” Simoncau recalls. "I told her he was just like he is on the air and she said, ‘No, what’s he really like?’ The woman then proceeded to tell me how she plans her morning around listening to Imus. Her friends know better than to call her or invite her places before 10 a.m. So I told her, ‘Excuse me for saying so, ma’am, but I think you need a hobby. The woman's answer: “Imus is my hobby.” To Pat LaRocca of Farmingdale, N Y. Imus is an expensive hobby. Not only does she regularly send him gifts such as birthday balloons, bill she recently look out an $800 ad in a local Fairfield newspaper asking Imus to lunch. He didn't respond. (Alter I interviewed LaRocca for this piece, she sent me a gift in the mail: a create-your-own children’s book in which the names of the Imus crew were substituted for those of the characters.)
"Because people don't get to see him very often, there’s a real rock-star mystique about him,’’ says Lupica. "I’ve been out in public with him enough to know that I can't imagine that anybody provokes the kind of reaction that he does." This is possibly an understatement. I had heard that every Friday, when Imus slops off at Southport's Spic & Span Market to buy provisions for the weekend, the employees at Travel Express across the street are on “Imus lookout.” When the I-Man's limousine pulls up, one of the agents calls the market to see if Imus or his driver, Brant Eaton, is in the store. If the answer is Imus, some of the agents suddenly decide they need to buy a snack. I walk into Travel Express and ask agent Pam Ardell if this story is true.
“Elaine, what time does Imus get here on Friday?" Ardell calls to a woman sitting by the window.
"Four o’clock." Elaine announces
Ardell turns hack to me. "See?” she says.
If they can’t find Imus locally, the hard core will go as far as El Paso, Texas, home of Imus’ younger brother Fred, 49. “I guess 15 or 20 people stopped by here in the last year," says Fred, who has his brother's wit but chooses to restore classic Chevrolets for a living. A program regular who phones the show almost daily, Fred offers more insight into his brother. “You know what? They don't pay me for being on the show. They won’t even throw me a few bucks. And he’ll deny this, but he gets pissed off if l don’t come up with something funny every day. And I’m not a funny guy. I restore cars.” Hmmm. Imus the Cheap.
Despite Fred’s humility, "funny" is apparently in the Imus blood. Born in California, the Imus brothers were raised on an Arizona ranch by quick-witted parents. “Mother and Dad were both funny. We had a funny family,” Fred says, and then offers a telling addendum. "In fact, the ones that weren’t funny were crazy. No. really.”
Imus likes to paint himself as an angry adolescent, though Fred disagrees. “He wasn’t a vicious kid. He was no worse than any of the rest of them." But Imus did, not surprisingly, get into fights quite often in high school. "Why? Oh, I suppose it was because of something he said,” recalls Fred.
By 1968, after a stint in the Marines and several odd jobs, Imus took this provocative sense of humor to a radio station in Palmdale, Calif. Three years later, he was the morning man at WNBC in New York. He quickly became the toast of the town and, accordingly, got toasted. Heavy drinking led to his 1977 firing, but poor NBC ad sales led to his quick rehiring. He’s been in New York ever since, though the bouts with alcohol and cocaine nearly cost him everything. He has been clean and on the rise since 1987, the same year WNBC sold out to WFAN. Imus credits himself with making FAN a success, and no one is arguing: WFAN's projected ad revenue for this year is $20 million (not including $8 million from Mets' broadcasts). “Imus in the Morning” should account for $10 million of that. What FAN pays their star for this work is a well-guarded secret, though reportedly it‘s around $1.5 million.
(On a whim, I ask Imus to reveal his salary. Amazingly, he does.
“Okay. I make $18,000 a year,” he confesses. “Next year? $20,000. Maybe $21,000, I hope.")
A 60-second commercial on “Imus in the Morning” costs $1,500. For an additional $300, Imus will read the copy himself and denigrate the company. He reads a spot for a restaurant, tipping off listeners that “the roach problem has been cleared up." He finishes a promo for Milford Jai Alai by declaring, “It’s the worst."
“I have to be on the phones constantly to hold clients’ hands,” says Joel Hollander, WFAN's general sales manager. "We lose a sponsor a couple of times a year, or maybe three."
The hell-raising host claims to regret only one of those losses. Last year, after Imus offered his opinion of a sponsor's product, the company canceled its ads. When it later decided it wanted to return, Imus made the company’s representative bark on the air first. “I really feel horrible about that," he says, admirably hiding this heartfelt remorse behind a widening grin.
It may seem mind-boggling that anyone would bark for Imus, but such is the power of his show. One morning in July, Imus briefly—very briefly—mentioned that he liked Stonyfield Farm yogurt. Two hours after the mention, I called Stonyfield, a tiny company in New Hampshire. “My phone’s been ringing off the hook,” said an elated Gary Hirschberg, Stonyfield's president. Hirschberg predicted that a "surge in business" would follow. A week later, orders to delicatessens and groceries in the New York area were up 10 to 20 percent.
Imus’ reaction to this type of news is typical. “Yeah, well, that’s the way it is, isn’t it?” I propose that Connecticut stations would love to have his pull, telling him that Smith & Barber, the morning deejays at New Haven’s WPLR, have even criticized this magazine for doing a story on an out-of- state station.
“You tell [Smith & Barber] that they are not getting it done!" he bellows. "If they were getting it done, you'd be up there asking them these boring questions instead of here in New York.”
"'Getting it done’—that's another standard Imus line," responds Brian Smith of WPLR's comic duo. "Pretty soon, he's not going to need cue cards." After defending his show’s standing in New Haven—they are behind Imus in males 25 to 54, but on top in males 18 and older—Smith admits he is flattered to be considered a competitor. "I grew up listening to Imus, and now we're playing against him. It’s like playing with Babe Ruth."
Imus’ view of his competition is somewhat different: “Are there radio stations in Connecticut?”
Near the end of the interview, I ask Imus to share a quick thought on some of the people who talked about him for this story. True to form, his responses arc a mixture of the complimentary and the caustic.
*Sidekick Charles McCord: “He's a wonderful person. Of course, there’s a little bit of Jeffrey Dahmer in him.”
*Engineer Lou Rufino: “The single best engineer I’ve ever had.”
*Traffic reporter Eileen Marchese: “I have this new book called How to Satisfy a Woman Every Time and Have Her Begging for More. I want to try it out on her."
*Comedian Rob Bartlett: “He’s more talented than people realize.”
*Voice whiz Larry Kenney: “The single most talented person I've ever met."
*Tomorrows Children's Fund President David Jurist: “I want him to keep his hands off me. He hugs me too much."
*Fred Imus: “The single best person I know. Of all the people on the planet, he is my single best friend.”
*NBC President Robert Wright: “If I owned a company, I’d want Bob Wright to dismantle it for me."
*Producer Bernard McGuirk: “A great kid. Very talented."
*WFAN Sales Manager Joel Hollander: “He’s a thieving little f——n’ rug merchant who I happen to like.”
*Columnist Mike Lupica: “One of the brightest people I know, and one of the most loyal."
*Sofabed czarina Bernadette Castro: “The Ayatollah in a dress. Oh, wait a minute. The Ayatollah wore a dress too, didn’t he? Okay, then there’s no difference."
The last time I see Don Imus, he is about to leave for the day. “I believe it now," l confess. “You really are just like you claim to be.”
“I told you,” says Imus, who pauses, lowers his chin, raises one bushy red eyebrow and offers his cheery goodbye: “Now get out."
DON IMIS: STAND-UP GUY?
Last March, Imus helped bring in over $1 million for the Tomorrows Children’s Fund to fight cancer in children. Here he’s pictured with patients Eileen Jurist and Robert Grijfo.
OR FALL-DOWN CLOWN?
at a benefit softball game for the Special Olympics in New Haven in August, Imus gets a hand up from WFAN's Mike Francesa after tripping over first base.