I was back home in Queens on a break from college in the early 1970’s. My father arrives home from work and he’s got a wicked smile as he informs us, “you won’t believe this new morning guy on WNBC. We were listening to him on the way to work. He’s says the most inappropriate things and he’s hysterical.” That was my introduction to Don Imus, the pioneering and controversial radio personality who died earlier this week.
I took a special interest in anyone on the radio who was breaking new ground because I was a radio and TV major at SUNY Oswego, what would turn out to be a breeding ground for broadcasters. Little known fact, I was the program director at campus station WOCR when a natural behind the mic arrived as a freshman and took an air shift. His name is Al Roker.
It just so happened we received a free, promotional copy of “1,200 Hamburgers to Go,” an LP with highlights of Imus’s on-air hijinks. The title cut was his famous bit where he posed as an Air National Guard officer on the phone who called a McDonalds ordering 1,200 burgers to go…each one dressed differently, which, to say the least, stressed out the poor kid taking the order.” I still have that record. See pic.
For us up and coming DJ’s Imus was a bit of an idol. He was the first guy we knew who identified as a “shock jock,” saying and doing things on the air no one else, until Howard Stern, could get away with. So, we all tried, miserably, copying his style and failed quite decisively.
Oswego is about 30 miles from Syracuse and in that town there was an Imus knock-off morning guy on WHEN radio who went by “Sweet Dick in the Morning.” Pretty risque’, huh? We used to catch his show, while he lasted…which wasn’t very long.
Once I graduated and began my professional radio career, the whole shock jock thing that Imus started was spreading so of course, I gave it a shot on my morning show on WMBO in Auburn, N.Y. One day my fastidious and conservative boss, named Floyd, came into the studio, looked at me and said, “you do a dirty show.” Just trying to keep up. I didn’t. I discovered what Imus and his ilk were doing successfully was much more difficult than it looked.
After moving out to Tucson, Ariz. and winning the morning slot on KCEE while going to grad school, I toned it down a bit, honed my act and doubled their morning show ratings in six months. Too bad. Jealous program director bumped me back to afternoon drive and replaced me with…himself. That was my last radio job. Spun my last record, Eric Clapton’s “Promises,” in September, 1979 and moved to TV news.
By then I had lost track of Don Imus, concentrating on my new broadcast journalism career but then caught up with him many years later when I was transferred by CNN to take over its bureau in Detroit. One of the stations simulcasted his show and I started listening again. Unfortunately, Imus didn’t age well. Still a sharp interviewer, at times, but, no long entertaining, even embarrassing.
Still, I listened while his show was available in our market. I liked what he was doing with the Imus Ranch for kids with cancer and he introduced me to two of my favorite CD’s–The I-10 Chronicles and The I-10 Chronicles 2.They’re a rich compilation of music representing the varied cultures along that long, east-west interstate that runs from Santa Monica, Calif, to Jacksonville, Fla. On those discs I discovered the marvelous Texas duo of Bill and Bonnie Hearne, then went out and bought all of their music I could find. There’s Adam Duritz of the Counting Crows moaning Warren Zevon’s “Carmelita” and Willie Nelson’s untouchable interpretation of “Everybody’s Talkin’.” Ever heard of Garrison Starr or Cherokee Rose? They’re both incredible and on there too. Also Steve Forbert, Bobby Bare Jr., Raul Malo, Joe Ely and others.
No, I never became a successful shock jock but I had my chances. It’s OK. I’ll remember Don Imus as an early inspiration for pursuing what did end up to be a very successful career in broadcasting…and every time I pop in either volume of I-10 Chronicles, listen to Bill and Bonnie Hearne serenade me with “New Mexico Rain,” or John Hammond’s blistering “Fish in the Jailhouse,” I’ll thank Imus for that tip. Somewhere up in radio heaven, he might be shocked.