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'CBS Sunday Morning' Interviews the Retiring Don Imus
March 25, 2018  | By David Hinckley

Television salutes a man from another medium Sunday when Anthony Mason talks to the retiring Don Imus on CBS Sunday Morning (9 a.m. ET).

Imus will wrap up nearly five decades of radio hosting next Thursday with the final broadcast of the syndicated Imus In the Morning.

For the record, Imus says he’s not shutting up for good, which could mean he will periodically be heard with Bernard McGuirk and Sid Rosenberg on the successor morning show from his flagship WABC (770 AM) in New York. Or it could mean something else.

Still, Mason frames his segment Sunday as a retrospective, asking things like where Imus belongs in the pantheon of radio broadcasters – and where he would rank fellow host Howard Stern. The answer there might surprise some viewers.

What won’t surprise anyone is Imus telling Mason that yes, there are things about being on the radio every day that he will miss. 

In any case, the attention Mason pays to Imus’s retirement is well earned, because for all the controversy he sometimes sparked, Imus created a remarkable radio legacy. Much more than a “shock jock,” he and his team at their best blended sharp-edged satiric humor into intelligent radio for grownups.

It also had an extended television presence, which was instructive both for what it was and what it wasn’t.

Beginning Sept. 3, 1996, the 6-9 a.m. hours of the radio show were simulcast on MSNBC. That ran until April 12, 2007, when an ill-advised reference to Rutgers University women’s basketball players as “nappy-headed 'hoes'” led MSNBC to join his bosses at CBS Radio and New York’s WFAN in terminating the show.

The radio show was picked up by WABC on Dec. 3, 2007, and from then until August 2009 it was simulcast on the RFD television network. On Oct. 5, 2009 it was picked up for a simulcast on the Fox Business channel, where it ran until May 29, 2015.

The first thing to keep in mind about the simulcasts, as Imus correctly noted many times, is that he always saw it as a radio show that now happened to have cameras in the room.

Still, television did lead to a few changes.  

The biggest one, Imus pointed out with some amusement, was that guests who used to be perfectly happy to talk on the phone now suddenly wanted to come to the studio.

Does anybody not like being on TV?

Running show topics that once were purely verbal, like Imus’s hair or Imus’s general appearance, became visual to some part of the audience.

By the time he got to Fox Business, it looked like he was broadcasting from a TV and not a radio studio. Fox Business also jammed the screen with financial crawls and other promotional material, which made the show look much more like a TV production there.  

As time went by, the television portion of the show often became the whole show. The 9-10 a.m. hour on the radio became reruns of earlier segments.

In any case, if television was an add-on to Imus, it was more strategic for MSNBC, RFD and Fox Business.

At the time they picked up Imus, all three were looking to create higher profiles.

MSNBC was working to get a piece of CNN’s 24-hour news channel audience. This was before MSNBC became primarily a voice of the left, and executives there saw Imus as a way to draw a new audience.

RFD, looking to become more than a farm channel, knew Imus had a lot of listeners in New York, Boston, Washington and other big cities.

Fox Business wanted to become more competitive with rivals like Bloomberg and CNBC, and saw Imus as a nice name addition.

How those hopes worked out is hard to quantify, because other factors were also in play. Both MSNBC and Fox Business were more vigorous players at the end of Imus’s run. RFD remained pretty much a farm channel.

For Imus, the immediate value of TV was hard to miss. Money. When he was doing his annual charity fund-raisers or promoting his late brother Fred’s Auto Body Express merchandise, the extra eyeballs and visual element didn’t hurt.

It’s tricky to quantify the value of those TV years for the listener. For long-time fans, it was often fun to see the faces behind the voices. Some of the non-verbal byplay was amusing. It’s likely that just being on TV added some new fans.  

On the other hand, Imus in the Morning never rose or fell as a TV show. However well it worked as radio, that’s how good it was. At its best, that was very good.

And as kind of postscript, a discussion of Imus’s TV career wouldn’t be complete without mentioning his other, shorter-lived TV gig.

On Jan. 1, 1985, three and a half years after MTV became a hot ticket with its non-stop video programming for young pop music fans, the company launched VH1 as a parallel video channel for an older crowd.

Imus was one of the original VJs, alongside fellow radio jocks Scott Shannon and Frankie Crocker and Jon Bauman of Sha Na Na.

A much younger Imus, wearing a tie, sat in the no-budget studio and pretended to be enthusiastic about videos by the likes of Hall and Oates and Air Supply.

Remembering Imus for VH1 would be like remembering Bill Clinton for playing the saxophone on Arsenio.

But a year after VH1 launched, Bob Dylan recorded a song called “Brownsville Girl,” and when Anthony Mason walks back through Imus’s radio career this Sunday, you can almost hear Dylan crooning behind him: “I don’t have any regrets / They can talk about me plenty when I’m gone.”

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