NEW YORK – The chief of CBS Corp. said the furor over Don Imus' racist remarks had escalated beyond mere disgust with the talk show host. But it was Imus who ultimately paid the price.
CBS abruptly fired Imus on Thursday from the radio show that he has hosted for nearly 30 years, a day after MSNBC said it would no longer televise it. Imus' description of the Rutgers women's basketball team as "nappy-headed hos" set off a national debate about taste and tolerance.
"He has flourished in a culture that permits a certain level of objectionable expression that hurts and demeans a wide range of people," said CBS Corp. chief executive Leslie Moonves in a memo to his staff. "In taking him off the air, I believe we take an important and necessary step not just in solving a unique problem, but in changing that culture, which extends far beyond the walls of our company."
Imus made the remark on April 11, the day after the Rutgers team lost in the national championship game. He met with team members for about three hours at the governor's mansion in Princeton, N.J. Thursday night, but left without commenting to reporters.
C. Vivian Stringer, the team's coach, spoke briefly on the mansion's steps.
"We had a very productive meeting," she said. "We were able to really dialogue. ... Hopefully, we can put all of this behind us."
She did not say if the team forgave him for the remarks.
For Imus' critics, his recent remarks were the latest in a line of objectionable statements by the ringmaster of a show that mixed high-minded talk about politics and culture with crude, locker-room humor.
Imus apologized, and tried to explain himself before the Rev. Al Sharpton's radio audience, appearing alternately contrite and combative. But many of his advertisers bailed in disgust, particularly after the Rutgers women spoke of their hurt.
"He says he wants to be forgiven," Sharpton said. "I hope he continues in that process. But we cannot afford a precedent established that the airways can commercialize and mainstream sexism and racism."
MSNBC and CBS suspended Imus for two weeks, and the heat only grew. He was then fired so swiftly that he had to awkwardly do his last show from an MSNBC studio — even though MSNBC wasn't televising it — then was cut loose in the middle of an annual two-day radiothon to raise money for children's charities. Imus' wife, Deirdre, and his longtime sidekick Charles McCord were called in to sub for him Friday.
Some Imus fans considered his punishment harsh.
"I'm embarrassed by this company," said WFAN DJ Mike Francesa, whose sports show with partner Chris Russo is considered a likely successor to Imus in the morning. "I'm embarrassed by their decision. It shows, really, the worst lack of taste I've ever seen."
The cantankerous Imus, once named one of the 25 Most Influential People in America by Time magazine and a member of the National Broadcasters Hall of Fame, was one of radio's original shock jocks. His career took flight in the 1970s and with a cocaine- and vodka-fueled outrageous humor. After sobering up, he settled into a mix of highbrow talk about politics and culture, with locker room humor sprinkled in.
Losing Imus will be a financial hit to CBS Radio, which also suffered when Howard Stern departed for satellite radio. The program earns about $15 million in annual revenue for CBS, which owns Imus' home radio station WFAN-AM and manages Westwood One, the company that syndicates the show nationally WFAN.
The radiothon had raised more than $1.3 million Thursday before Imus learned that he had lost his job. The annual event has raised more than $40 million since 1990.
"This may be our last radiothon, so we need to raise about $100 million," Imus cracked at the start of the event.
Volunteers were getting about 200 more pledges per hour than they did last year, with most callers expressing support for Imus, said phone bank supervisor Tony Gonzalez. The event benefited Tomorrows Children's Fund, the CJ Foundation for SIDS and the Imus Ranch.
Imus' troubles have also affected his wife, whose book "Green This!" came out this week. Her promotional tour has been called off "because of the enormous pressure that Deirdre and her family are under," said Simon & Schuster publicist Victoria Meyer.