Shock Is His Middle Name

Verne Gay writes about television for Newsday

The lion's den is not such a terrible place at all. It is almost erudite, really, more like the sanctum sanctorum of a stern but imminently respectable professor than the warren of a notorious radio talk show host.

The walls are dark burnished wood, and from ceiling to floor shelves are crammed with hundreds of books, mostly nonfiction. Three pleasantly plump chairs are covered with Southwestern designs, giving this windowless, dimly lit place in the bowels of the ancient Kaufman-Astoria Studios in Queens a faint and welcome suggestion of the great outdoors.

And--what's this?--a human hand is sticking out between the ceiling panels of the office. It is plastic, thankfully.

There is the lion himself, looking more flustered than ferocious.

"See if you know some sports moron from Philadelphia who can do this," he grumbles to an associate who is preparing a segment for the next day's show. John Donald Imus Jr. swings around in his chair and glares at a visitor with a pair of ice-blue eyes that could burn a hole through the steel shell of an assault tank. "So what," he demands, "can I do for you?"

Imus is no longer the bad boy of shock radio, of course. But for a guy who has lived life very, very hard--cocaine and alcohol abuse, homelessness, a career trajectory that could charitably be described as erratic--he looks pretty good at 55. The face remains as angular and sharp as ever, anchored by a glaring scowl that by now has become a permanent fixture. The head is topped with a copious swirl of trademark curls, and the almost adolescent appearance is complemented by jeans, a denim jacket and slightly soiled, untied Nikes. He is sockless.

Save for the pressures of getting ready for the next day's show, the I-Man looks as if he hasn't got a care in the world, which seems kind of odd for a fellow who has abused the president of the United States for so long--favorite adjectives being "fat," "weaselly" and "lying"--that if a secret enemies list exists somewhere, he must surely be at the very top of it. And as the honored (now dishonored) speaker at a March 21 dinner for the Radio-Television Correspondents Assn., he sweated his way through a speech that directly maligned no fewer than 54 people and one cat (Socks). Many of these people are the mighty and influential, who also happen to be regulars on his daily hit show, "Imus in the Morning."

Alas, Imus isn't worried in the least. No, President Clinton hasn't spoken to him since the dinner. And fact is, Imus doesn't want to speak to him either--"or until he's indicted." Cokie Roberts says she will never return, because Imus' speech include brutal barbs about her ABC colleague Peter Jennings, but no others have abandoned the show. Loyalists like Sens. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), Alfonse M. D'Amato (R-N.Y.) and Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) have been on since.

But if the law of unintended consequences needed an example--something that perfectly embraced the notion that for every action there is a completely unexpected reaction--it may be this: The dinner has been a booster rocket for the show. Since that night when Imus defamed the media and political elite of Washington, some 20 stations have added the syndicated show to their daily lineup (for a total of 85). Executives associated with the show say this is the single biggest growth spurt in the 2 1/2 years since "Imus in the Morning" became nationally syndicated.

Beginning Monday at 5 a.m., two L.A.-area stations--KLAC-AM (570) in Glendale and KMEN-AM (1290) in Riverside--will start airing the show. (L.A. listeners till now have heard it only when they could pick up San Diego's KOGO-AM.) Stations in Philadelphia and Detroit will pick up the show as well. Deals for these stations had been on the back burner for months, but observers say it was the Dinner From Hell that helped moved them to the front.

"It took me on a different level," says Imus, who played the speech three times on the air to prove that people in the audience really were laughing (some newspaper accounts reported that they were not) and to milk the publicity for all it was worth.

Mike Wallace of "60 Minutes," who has been a regular listener and guest for three years, explains that the "evening really brought him more forcefully to the attention of the general public because a lot of cities where it hasn't appeared suddenly began to ask, 'Who the dickens is this Don Imus?' "

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So who the dickens is he? To his admirers, he is a churlish, abusive, brilliant, funny, scurrilous, insolent, slightly twisted, brutally honest man who also happens to be a first-rate interviewer. He also has a deep moral streak that seems in direct contradiction to the scatological and faintly racist humor in which he frequently engages.

Oddly enough, his detractors feel pretty much the same way about him.

Compounding the difficulty of understanding Imus is the show, which is almost as much about longtime regulars like Charles McCord and Bernard McGuirk as Imus himself. Thoughtful interviews with political figures, authors, media and entertainment types are interspersed with . . . uh . . . well . . . you name it. There are little satirical ditties (an infamous one was "The First Lady Is a Tramp"), impersonations (Rush Limbaugh, Elvis, Richard Nixon, Ted Kennedy, Walter Cronkite, Ross Perot and Clinton, some done brilliantly by regular Rob Bartlett) and boatloads of invective.

In recent weeks, Imus has called Secretary of Transportation Federico Pen~a a "lying, thieving little weasel," former White House security chief D. Craig Livingstone "a big, fat moron," Federal Aviation Administration chief David Hinson "an arrogant little bastard" and CNN reporter Wolf Blitzer "that U-boat commander."

Ten million people listen to this every weekday, and increasingly many of them are in Washington, where "Imus in the Morning" is considered more influential than any of the network Sunday morning shows and on a par with "Nightline" and "Larry King Live."

"The reaction I get [from the show] is unbelievable," says "Nightline" correspondent and frequent Imus call-in Jeff Greenfield. "When you go to a ballgame, people yell out, 'Say hello to Imus,' not 'Say hello to Ted Koppel.' "

Many political heavyweights have carried on a conspicuous flirtation with Imus for years, some of whom have joined in since the program went national, mindful that his show reaches plenty of upscale, white-collar voters in their home states. Some political types have also used the show to create what might be called a human face. An appearance on "Imus in the Morning" says, in effect, "I am not a humor-impaired stiff but a regular guy who can hold his own with the I-Man." Bob Dole, presumptive GOP presidential candidate, has taken numerous gibes from Imus but still dutifully shows up. He has been on dozens of times and even gave Imus his first interview on the day after he resigned from the Senate.

But, of course, the Imus association comes with a price. Critics have increasingly noted an inherent contradiction when politicians supporting family values appear on a show on which humor occasionally centers on subjects like "choking the chicken"--slang for masturbation.

Former Secretary of Education William J. Bennett once asked Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, the Connecticut Democrat with whom he has led an assault on daytime talk sleaze, just exactly why he was appearing on the show so often. Lieberman says Bennett now "mostly teases me about it," but he says he goes on because "Don Imus cares about what's happening in the world, and he follows the news very carefully. He's an informed conversationalist." He adds: "I'm not here to say I agree with everything he's ever said on the air, but . . . there aren't many kids listening to the show, and that's the real difference."

In fact, the move to Los Angeles raises another question: Will Imus himself broaden the focus of his show to accommodate the larger canvas he is about to inherit? Imus' fodder, for the most part, comes from either New York or Washington (mostly the latter). Hollywood industry gossip is a staple too but only to an extent. So will Hollywood assume even greater prominence? To Imus, such a question is an affront to his artistic integrity--as though he would ever consider changing the successful formula simply to pander to a new audience.

"I don't think there are a lot of people out there in Los Angeles sitting and waiting for some local reference," he says. "That's old thinking and provincial thinking and why many radio stations are reluctant to turn to syndicated programs."

He says that the program may be Washington-centric for the simple reason that "that's the focus of the country."

"If you're interested in current events," he says, "it's a current-events-focused program, and the capital happens to be based in Washington. That's where the media people are. That's where the politicians are."

Still, there are plans for some slight changes to appeal to Angelenos: "We may do part of the show in Spanish," Imus says, "because, you know, the No. 1 station in Los Angeles is in Spanish." No, Imus wouldn't speak in Spanish, but he'd have an interpreter on hand to translate some of the show. "We haven't made a decision yet."

"Imus in the Morning" is no stranger to Californians. Besides San Diego, it is already carried in San Jose, Santa Barbara, San Francisco, Bakersfield, Sacramento and Palm Springs. But until now, the show could hardly boast a national following without the second-largest market in the fold. With KLAC, the puzzle--if not complete--at least has all the major pieces in place. Still, it is a troubled station, ranked 17th in the morning.

The station's program director, John Sebastian, says: "We expect it to be widely successful."

But Imus recognizes that his show won't be a magic bullet, at least not yet.

"It takes a while for this program to find an audience because our listeners are generally the same people who listen to a news station or National Public Radio. . . . We don't share a lot of audience with Stern or Mark & Brian." Even so, there is speculation that KLAC may change its format to all sports by the fall, mimicking, in effect, Imus' extraordinarily successful New York flagship, WFAN.

But the addition of KLAC and KMEN is more than a major business move. For Imus, it means that he is coming home again after a very long absence.

He was born 55 years ago in Riverside, and he split his time growing up on his father's 35,000-acre ranch in the high country between Kingman and Seligman, Ariz., and near his father's cattle feedlot in Perris. (His father died when Imus was 20, mostly broke.) At 17, Imus joined the Marine Corps, then enrolled at the University of Arizona. His tenure in the world of higher education lasted a mere week.

Imus then went to Hollywood, where he and his brother, Fred, started a rock band (mostly " '60s rock 'n roll and blues stuff"), then decided to jump into the record business. Fred had some luck, recording a number of his own country hits, but Don, alas, did not.

"I just ran out of money, you know, and I was sleeping in this Laundromat on Vine Street, a block or two below Sunset. I used to sleep behind the dryers there, then I'd go around to get money out of the phone booths, and there was this place--it may still be there--called the old Ranch Market, where they had absolutely the best doughnuts on the planet."

But he got "sick of that" and, still in his early 20s, set out for Arizona and got work as a miner at a uranium mine at the Grand Canyon. He broke his leg in an underground train accident, "but I made a lot of money" and went on to work at a copper mine near Superior, Ariz., and later as a brakeman for the Southern Pacific Railroad.

He then decided to go into radio, he says, because he wearied of paying stations to play his records and figured the cheapest way to promote his music career was by playing his own records. But in 1968, during his first stint at a Palmdale station, "I recognized that essentially my records sucked," and Imus began developing the shtick that would later make him the highest-paid radio personality in the country. (These days he pulls in about $4 million a year, topped by Howard Stern's reported $7 million--plus the lucrative stock both hold in their stations' shared owner, Infinity Broadcasting.)

Imus made stops in Stockton (where he was fired for promoting an Eldridge Cleaver look-alike contest), Sacramento (where he ordered 1,200 Big Macs on the air) and Cleveland (where he helped the station shoot to No. 1 in a matter of months), before he was hired away by New York's WNBC in 1971. There, he gained national notoriety with routines that many people never really imagined were possible on the radio (he'd ask female callers if they were naked).

But the next seven years would be hard ones. Imus began to work through a booze-induced haze, and the station itself began a long slide to oblivion as Top 40 AM radio began to be overshadowed by FM album-oriented rock stations. Imus, who didn't help his cause any by frequent and unexplained absences, was fired in 1977 and was out of work for a year before taking his act to a different station in Cleveland. Two years after he was fired at WNBC, he was rehired.

Once Imus was back in New York, he began a ferocious cocaine habit. That stopped, but the drinking didn't, and one morning in 1987 he woke up shaking violently. He checked himself into Hanley-Hazelden Center in West Palm Beach, Fla., for two months of treatment.

He now talks about the drug problem almost compulsively on the air but observes: "I do think that people like me who talk about their recovery send a mixed message, because people with ordinary jobs and in ordinary situations don't get cut as much slack as I was. . . . It was in [NBC's] interest to overlook a lot of behavior."

Randy Bongarten, then head of NBC Radio and now president of GAF Broadcasting Co. in New York, says: "There were a lot of attempts to get him to straighten out . . . but the fact of the matter is somebody else can't tell you what to do."

In 1988, WNBC was sold and became WFAN, a sports station. It was this format change, says Paul Colford, author of the newly published "Howard Stern: King of All Media" (St. Martin's), who has written extensively on Imus, that set the stage "for one of the great second acts in the history of American show business--he literally reinvented himself." The reason, simply, is that free of the burden of spinning records, "Imus in the Morning" became wall-to-wall talk, and just about everything else under the sun too.

During eight years of sobriety, Imus has helped WFAN become the top-grossing radio station in the land. And there is little dispute that they have been the best years in Imus' life. He was married recently (his second marriage) to Deirdre Coleman, a New York actress. During the last several years, he has held radiothons that have raised $6 million for children with cancer, as well as $3 million for a research and support foundation for sudden infant death syndrome. His novel "God's Other Son" (Simon & Schuster, 1981) was reprinted two years ago and became a bestseller. He is asked frequently to host TV shows (all offers have been turned down). And the recent sale of Infinity Broadcasting--which owns his show--to CBS also makes Imus, a big Infinity stockholder, a very wealthy man.

But it is the melee in Washington that has really charged him up in recent months. He wrote the speech with McGuirk, Bartlett and McCord and even removed some of the more inflammatory material.

And although Clinton and the first lady took some knocks, they were puffballs compared to what he usually says about them on the show. (One oft-quoted joke of the speech: When Clinton yelled "Go, baby, go" at a baseball game, "I remember commenting at the time, 'I bet that's not the first time he said that.' ") Imus says he recalls glancing back at the president and "it was very [expletive] tense. When it opened up, the first lady was screaming laughing, but two minutes [later], they were [expletive] not amused.'

Imus, of course, took heat for his sustained lack of taste that night. But "when you hand a 6-year-old an Uzi," caller Greenfield says, "there will be blood on the floor. He is all id and no superego."

And even Imus (who later apologized to Jennings) now seems to understand the fuss: "In retrospect, I'd probably do it again. However, I recognize that it might have been poor judgment even though I knew everybody in that room, and even though the things I said about the president and the first lady in front of them I'd already said to him but in a different context, on the radio."

Can it be? The I-Man is remorseful? The I-Man is feeling the twinges of a guilty conscious?

Nah. He's writing a book of essays for Doubleday titled "You Can't Suck Enough." In it, he promises to include the unexpurgated version of the speech.

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Starting Monday, "Imus in the Morning" will air from 5 to 10 a.m. weekdays on KLAC-AM (570) and KMEN-AM (1290).

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