"There has been much discussion of the effect language like this has on our young people, particularly young women of color trying to make their way in this society," CBS President and Chief Executive Officer Leslie Moonves said in announcing the decision.
One of those discussions took place at noon today with a coalition of leaders from the civil rights and women's movements, who said it was time for Imus to go, reports CBS News correspondent Nancy Cordes.
"It's important that we stand with the women of Rutgers who are deeply hurt by the highly insensitive comments of Don Imus," said Marc Morial, CEO of the National Urban League.
It's a stunning fall for one of the nation's most prominent broadcasters. Time Magazine once named the cantankerous host as one of the 25 Most Influential People in America, and he is a member of the National Broadcaster Hall of Fame.
But Imus found himself at the center of a storm after he called members of the Rutgers team "nappy-headed hos" last week. Protests ensued, and one by one, numerous sponsors pulled their ads from Imus' show. On Wednesday, MSNBC dropped its simulcast of the program.
Losing Imus will be a financial hit to CBS Radio, which also suffered when shock jock Howard Stern departed for satellite radio early last year. The program is worth about $15 million in annual revenue to CBS, which owns Imus' home radio station, WFAN-AM in New York, and manages Westwood One, the company that syndicates the show across the country. CBS Corp. is also the parent company of CBSNews.com.
The Rev. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson met with Moonves to advocate Imus' removal.
Jackson called the firing "a victory for public decency. No one should use the public airwaves to transmit racial or sexual degradation."
Said Sharpton: "He says he wants to be forgiven. I hope he continues in that process. But we cannot afford a precedent established that the airways can commercialize and mainstream sexism and racism."
Sumner Redstone, chairman of the CBS Corp. board and its chief stockholder, told Newsweek that he had expected Moonves to "do the right thing," although it wasn't clear what he thought that was.
The news came down in the middle of Imus' Radiothon, which has raised more than $40 million since 1990 for good causes. The Radiothon had raised more than $1.3 million Thursday before Imus learned that he lost his job.
"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 Tony Gonzalez, supervisor of the Radiothon phone bank. The event benefited Tomorrows Children's Fund, the CJ Foundation for SIDS and the Imus Ranch, which hosts kids with cancer.
Imus, who was suspended by CBS Radio for two weeks without pay beginning next week, was in the awkward situation of broadcasting Thursday's radio program from MSNBC's studios in New Jersey, even though NBC News said the night before that MSNBC would no longer simulcast his program on television.
He didn't attack MSNBC for its decision — "I understand the pressure they were under," he said — but complained the network was doing some unethical things during the broadcast. He didn't elaborate.
He acknowledged again that calling the Rutgers women's basketball players "nappy-headed hos" a day after they had competed in the NCAA championship game had been "really stupid." He said he had apologized enough and wasn't going to whine about his fate.
"I said it," he said. "I wouldn't be here if I didn't say it."
Sharpton and Jackson emerged from a meeting with Moonves saying the corporate chief had promised to consider their requests.
"It's not about taking Imus down," Sharpton said. "It's about lifting decency up."
While Imus' dismissal may seem like a huge story, it is not the first time something similar has happened, reports Jeff Greenfield, CBS News' soon-to-be senior political correspondent.
Bob Grant, a popular New York radio host, was put off the air for calling the African-American mayor at the time a "washroom attendant." And Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder lost his CBS job on NFL football pre-game telecasts by saying black athletes were superior to white athletes.
Throughout all of this, Imus has said he wants the chance to apologize to the 10 players face to face, adds Cordes.
On the "Oprah" show today, the team indicated that could happen very soon.
"We promise to come into this meeting with an open heart and open mind," said C. Vivian Stringer, Rutgers' coach.