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.
In a strange twist, the man who had suggested the mansion as a location for the meeting - Gov. Jon Corzine - was not there. He is in the hospital after aon his way back to the mansion.
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.
"They gave us the opportunity to listen to what they had to say and why they're hurting and how awful this is," Deirdre Imus said on his radio program Friday morning.
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.
"You have to be accountable for what you do," Sharpton said on CBS News' The Early Show Friday. "And the fact that he had done this over and over and apologized before, made that very suspect."
MSNBC and CBS suspended Imus for two weeks, and the heat only grew.
"I think the real issue for CBS and NBC was policy," Sharpton told co-anchor Harry Smith.
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 subbed for him Friday.
"This remains very much 'Imus in the morning and 'DI' — it's just not Donald Imus, it's the much better-looking of the Imus duo. It is Deirdre Coleman Imus," said McCord Friday morning.
Some Imus fans considered his punishment harsh.
"If you want to send hate mail, send it to my husband. I mean, don't be sending hate mail to these young women," Deirdre Imus said on the air.
"I'm embarrassed by this company," said WFAN DJ Mike Francesa, whose "Mike and the Mad Dog" 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.
He first came to prominence at WGAR Cleveland, a widely-heard clear-channel station, then moved to WNBC-AM in New York in the early 1970s. His humor then was more prankish, with routines such as "10,000 Hamburgers To Go," in which he pretended to be an Army Reserve general placing an order at McDonald's for his troops.
But a mix of cocaine and vodka made him undependable, and WNBC took him off the air. After sobering up, he returned to the air and settled into a mix of highbrow talk about politics and culture, with locker room humor sprinkled in.
When WFAN moved from the 1050 frequency and took over WNBC's 660 AM, the "Imus in the Morning" program stayed in place, the only non-sports programming on the station.
He issued repeated apologies as protests intensified. But it wasn't enough as everyone from Hillary Clinton to Barack Obama to Oprah Winfrey joined the criticism.
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. CBSNews.com is also part of CBS Corp.
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.