business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

I was shocked over the weekend to learn that Don Imus, host of the “Imus in the Morning” radio program for almost 50 years, had shut the program down and retired in late March.

Not so much shocked that he retired; Imus was 77, but had seemed older than that for years. Mostly, I was shocked that the tree had fallen in the forest, and few people seemed to have heard it.

Imus, who helped to invent the “shock jock” genre, first in Cleveland and then in New York, reinvented himself in the late eighties when he moved his show to WFAN in New York, the nation’s first all-sports station. The show began being syndicated all over the country. Then, in 1996, he began simulcasting his show on MSNBC, and for a decade was a high-profile place for politicians from both sides of the aisle as well as prominent journalists and athletes, to appear to talk about issues in a more relaxed context. His interviews often created headlines, because he asked questions that few others would think to ask. Imus used his celebrity to raise millions for a variety of charities, with a special focus on children with cancer, wounded veterans, and autism research. And, he even launched, with his wife, a line of environmentally “green” cleansers.

It all came crashing down in April 2007 when he referred to the Rutgers University women’s basketball team, which was competing in the NCAA championships, first as “rough girls” and then as “nappy-headed hoes.” The comment generated outrage about what was then portrayed as a pattern of racism and sexism, but Imus was slow to apologize and realize that he’d put his career and business at risk. Most of the prominent people who appeared regularly on the show were no longer willing to do so - he was toxic.

MSNBC dropped his show. (It was replaced by “Morning Joe.”) So did WFAN. And after a period of exile, Imus returned … with a lower profile, less prominent guest list and smaller syndication value. Later controversies garnered less attention, I think, because fewer people cared.

The Eye-Opening business lesson, it seems to me, is that no matter how secure your competitive position may be, one has to assume that it all is temporary and maybe even illusory. In fact, it seems to me that the right way to approach the conduct of business is to assume that it can all end tomorrow. It keep you sharp. It keeps you connected.

There was a time, not that long ago, when an Imus retirement probably would’ve gotten a ton of attention, marking the end of an era. (Think about what will happen when Howard Stern retires.) There was a time when watching or listening to “Imus in the Morning: was a regular part of my day, usually on in the background while I wrote MNB.

In 2007, though, I decided that there were better ways to go. Thus, in 2018, when the tree fell in the forest, I didn’t hear it, and I didn’t much care.
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