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Imus' radio future in question after MSNBC pulls the plug

Gail Shister
The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

With advertisers bailing and critics boiling, MSNBC late Wednesday canceled simulcasts of Don Imus' popular weekday radio show, "Imus in the Morning."

The decision, effective immediately, was announced five days before the 66-year-old "shock jock" was to begin a two-week suspension for his racial slurs last week against the Rutgers women's basketball team.

Imus' 6-to-9 a.m. EDT show, based out of New York's WFAN and syndicated by CBS Radio to 70 cities, was broadcast Thursday and will be again Friday with a previously scheduled charity fund-raiser.

NBC News president Steve Capus, whose purview includes MSNBC, had been under intense pressure to drop Imus since he referred to the national runner-up Scarlet Knights as "nappy headed hos" on the air April 4.

Some of the heaviest lobbying came from within NBC's ranks.

About two dozen NBC staffers, including African Americans Al Roker of "Today" and New York-based correspondent Ron Allen, met with Capus on Tuesday in New York. Some called in on speakerphone.

The emotional gathering, scheduled for 30 minutes, lasted two hours.

"There were many strong feelings," Allen said. "We felt if we continued to have Don Imus and his brand of programming on the air, we would be tainted. We all believed we could rise above this.

"We needed to say to America, to the people who watch us: `We believe there's a higher ideal we can hold ourselves to. We stand for something better.'"

Capus and Jeff Zucker, president and chief executive of NBC Universal, made the call. Neither was available for comment.

But Bo Dietl, a security expert who is a frequent guest on Imus' show, told the New York Times that he had talked by phone with the host Wednesday night and that his mood was "very down, very upset about what occurred with MSNBC."

NBC's Tim Russert, CBS's Bob Schieffer, MSNBC's Chris Matthews and ABC's Cokie Roberts - all longtime Imus regulars - did not return calls or e-mail.

"I'm not sure what else could have been done," says Rene Syler, an African American and exiled coanchor of CBS's "The Early Show." "He certainly had to be held accountable. He hurt so many people."

Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer told the Associated Press late Wednesday that she had not called for Imus' ouster but was pleased with the outcome.

Despite Imus' repeated public apologies, national outrage against him has been growing by the day.

Bruce Gordon, former head of the NAACP and a director of CBS, Wednesday urged the company to fire the radio host.

American Express Co., General Motors Corp., Procter & Gamble, Bigelow Tea, and Staples Inc., among other sponsors, said this week that they were pulling their ad spots from Imus' program indefinitely.

Imus in the Morning reportedly generates more than $20 million in annual revenue for CBS Radio. It has made no decision about his future there, a spokeswoman said.

Keeping Imus "could be politically tricky," says CBS News' Jeff Greenfield, a frequent Imus guest. "It would be tough for CBS to put on the air what another major media outlet has said is unacceptable."

Imus, who has a long history of offensive remarks against minorities and women, had been simulcasting on MSNBC since the cable network's launch in 1996.

He had just signed a five-year contract for an estimated $10 million a year. His show averaged 358,000 total viewers in the first quarter, up 39 percent over the same period in 2006 and within easy striking distance of CNN's "American Morning."

Imus' dismissal "is really going to surprise a lot of people," says African American Robin Roberts, coanchor of ABC's Good Morning America and a former basketball star at Southeastern Louisiana University.

"He makes a lot of money for a lot of people. He's popular. He has a following. This sends a loud and clear message that this type of insensitivity is not going to fly.

"He lost his job because of this. Wow. Wow."

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