Ironic, isn't it?
Over Christmas week, we ran a “Best of” JacoBLOG post about the most admired radio personality – based on the votes of 1,000 American radio personalities.
If you didn't read the post, I'll spare you the suspense:
It was Howard Stern – and he won by a wide margin.
So, the strange coincidence is that his long-time nemesis, Don Imus, passed away the next day.
And of course, that started a torrent of response – good, bad, and yes, ugly – on social media.
I've written about Imus numerous times in this blog over the years. While he had little influence on me personally, he was worshiped by radio pros of a certain age whom I respect.
I've always been in awe of Imus' ability to “jump shift” from one environment to another – a top 40 bad boy in Cleveland, the WNBC phase, his transition to WFAN mornings, and his remarkable years on MSNBC where we got to watch great radio in action. (Decades later, most air talent is still reluctant to show their faces, their teammates, their inner workings in a video format.)
The eulogies came pouring in as the news of Imus' passing spread. And immediately, it started. The vitriol, the yelling, the debating, the love, and the hate.
Who was Imus?
On the one hand, he helped revolutionize “shock jock” radio while raising millions to help cure Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and other important causes. And on the other, his sarcasm, edginess, and tasteless comments hurt millions of listeners.
How can anyone say anything kind or respectful about a guy who routinely offended pretty much everybody at one time or another?
And yet, wasn't he also a pioneer in personality radio broadcasting?
Since the news broke about his death, these diametrically opposed sentiments on social media have cascaded liked a broken sewer, spurring arguments and disagreements. Everyone has an opinion about whether Imus should be revered or reviled. And these questions began to surface:
Why was Howard Stern trending on Twitter?
Who was the bigger talent – Stern or Imus?
How will we remember Rush Limbaugh (and those in his wake), another personality who is both worshiped and despised at the same time?
In fact, much of the static, noise, anger, and love had little to do with the Imus' talent and accomplishments. It became about us. How did Imus make us feel? Was he funny, influential, and an example for thousands of fledgling broadcasters? Was he a racist jerk, not always apologizing for his missteps later on?
I get it – when you make your reputation as a so-called “shock jock,” you deserve the brickbats, bombast, and bows that come your way. After all, it's how your career was made.
It took Don Imus dying for Howard Stern to finally trend on Twitter. pic.twitter.com/KIdiRFuFgf— Rob El (@RobEl77LGBTQ) December 28, 2019
When it's time to go to that radio studio in the sky, the social media “community” contains the full spectrum of opinion – those trying to remember his career for what it was, with so many others arguing about what the guy said about this guy or that group?
Imus wasn’t a good guy on the air. He was racist. Openly. More than once. A homophobe. Openly. More than once. Death doesn’t change that.— andy lassner (@andylassner) December 28, 2019
Some are inclined to let Imus off the hook – admitting that he was racist, sexist, and every form of “ist” there was. And like Stern, Limbaugh, and yes, Donald Trump, Imus managed to offend, piss off, and rankle just about everybody during his long career. But Imus transitioned – making the pivot from shock to substance (not unlike how Howard Stern is a very different performer today than he was on DC101, WNBC or WXRK earlier in his career).
Steve Goldstein – longtime radio programmer and now head of AmplifiMedia – was one of Imus' biggest fans. Steve interviewed Imus while writing a story for his high school newspaper. Steve reminds us of the famous 7:30 block on WFAN where routinely, some of the biggest names in politics vied to sit down and schmooze with the I-Man. We're talking John McCain, Bill Clinton, Mitt Romney, John Kerry, and other luminaries. And then there were the media stars – Andrea Mitchell, Tom Brokaw, Cokie Roberts, Jeff Greenfield, Bob Schiefer, and so many others who shared a mic with Imus and his team.
As Steve notes, “The maturation of Imus is similar to Stern's trajectory. He knew he needed to move past dick jokes and duck quacks, and as part of his reinvention, he brilliantly broke new ground for commercial radio with his interviews. No one had done anything like that before. They were revealing conversations that in some ways are the model for so many podcasts today.”
If you watch “Morning Joe” on MSNBC – ironically, the show that succeeded “Imus In The Morning” – you clearly see the Imus influence: an informal round table, a smart cast, a sarcastic host, and a frank discussion of the world around us.
Morning Joe obviously owes its format to Don Imus. No one else could have gotten away with that much talk on cable news. Thanks for everything, Don, and Godspeed.— Joe Scarborough (@JoeNBC) December 27, 2019
But sadly, Imus would drift back into those old, familiar, and offensive patterns. His passing is a reminder of those who courageously stood up to him – notably, journalist Gwen Ifill and Rutgers women's basketball coach C. Vivian Stringer. They are as much a part of his story as any the rich, famous, and powerful who fawned all over Imus.
And so his death brings out the full rainbow of emotions, stirring perhaps the best and worst in all of us:
Don Imus was a legend in broadcasting. He gave money to charity. He had a family. Don Imus was also an abusive man who used his power to silence others. All of these statements can be true at the same time.— Janice Dean (@JaniceDean) December 28, 2019
These are the times when social media becomes excruciating. Yes, everyone deserves a voice and the right to be heard. But when it turns into an angry, incoherent cacophony, what is being accomplished and who is being served?
Don Imus' legacy will forever be debated for his role in personality radio as well as our culture. Imus is one among many amazing talents behind the mic with the ability to impact millions of listeners. Like Imus, some are highly polarizing figures who remind us how the airwaves can be a place where good and evil can be both spread and amplified – simultaneously.
Social media has become the virtual town hall where our innermost thoughts can be shared, often without any sense of responsibility or accountability. It remains a largely unpatrolled, unmanaged flea market of opinions that are the catalysts for love, hate, truth, and lies.
Sadly, Imus' passing on Twitter and other social spaces reads like a reality TV shit show. But in a way, it captures the dichotomy that was his career. Put a pin in this one. There will be many other so-called “shock jocks” that will follow Imus in the coming years. It will be fascinating to see how they are remembered.
So long, Imus. Rest comfortably in the notion that you stirred up the emotional intensity in all of us. On a 1-to-10 scale, no one ever gave you a “5.”
A radio broadcasting original who helped others. A racist pig who routinely hurt others. A brilliant innovator who cleverly navigated a rapidly changing radio environment. A manipulative host who used his powerful mic to stir up hatred, while generating profitable ratings and making advertisers wealthy.
All of these statements can be true at the same time.
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