CBS Radio drops shock jock's show

CBS stared down Don Imus, canceling the shock jock’s show.

But with the cancellation, CBS Radio suddenly finds itself once again having to replace a profitable morning drive host.

Unlike with the departure of Howard Stern to satellite radio, however, it was CBS’ decision to cut Imus loose. Move could hurt Imus’ New York flagship, sports talker WFAN, and its long-running status as one of the country’s top-billing radio stations.

The axing leaves 60 other stations without a morning show as well, including WTKK Boston and WTNT Washington, D.C. — and strips Westwood One of one of its key syndicated talkers.

But it became clear to CBS Radio execs that keeping Imus in place would do more harm than letting him go. Decision to dump the long-running AM jock appeared inevitable after major advertisers including Procter & Gamble, GM, American Express, Sprint and Staples pulled their ads from the show.

The furor surrounding Imus’ comments — referring to the Rutgers U. women’s basketball team as “nappy-headed hos” — also showed no signs of abating. Calls for Imus’ firing had also grown louder in recent days.

“From the outset, I believe all of us have been deeply upset and revulsed by the statements that were made on our air about the young women who represented Rutgers University in the NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship with such class, energy and talent,” CBS prexy-CEO Leslie Moonves said in a statement.

“In our meetings with concerned groups, 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,” Moonves said. “That consideration has weighed most heavily on our minds as we made our decision, as have the many emails, phone calls and personal discussions we have had with our colleagues across the CBS Corp. and our many other constituencies.”

In a memo to CBS employees, Moonves added that “the integrity of our company and the respect you feel for CBS becomes the most important consideration.”

CBS had originally opted to suspend Imus for two weeks — but starting on Monday, allowing him to participate in the previously scheduled WFAN charity radiothon.

But MSNBC unplugged the show immediately — and on Thursday’s “Imus in the Morning,” which would become the show’s swan song, Imus lashed out at critics while also admitting that his words were to blame.

“I said it, and if I hadn’t said it, we wouldn’t be here talking about it,” Imus said, according to a transcript created by “I’ve dished it out for a long time, and now it’s my time to take it. That’s fine. Bring it on.”

Imus also called MSNBC “unethical” at one point, but then later said he understood the decision to drop the simulcast.

“The big part of the program is radio,” he said, according to the transcript. “There’s millions of people listening to the radio. At best a few hundred thousand are watching television.”

A few hours later, Imus had lost his radio audience as well.

The writing had been on the wall: Moonves and Imus met on Wednesday, although the gist of their conversation wasn’t revealed (Daily Variety, April 12.) CBS Corp. board member Bruce Gordon also told Daily Variety earlier this week that Moonves was still deliberating whether to turn Imus’ two-week suspension into a permanent departure.

Imus recently signed a five-year, $10 million-per-year extension to continue hosting “Imus in the Morning.”

CBS declined to comment Thursday on how it planned to replace Imus on WFAN and other affils. According to various reports, “Imus in the Morning” is worth as much as $20 million a year for the New York station alone, producing 25% of its revenue.

That’s despite middle-of-the-road ratings for “Imus in the Morning,” which nonetheless pulled strong ad rates due to the show’s upscale aud.

CBS Radio is just starting to recover from the ratings and financial hit it took upon the December 2005 departure of shock jock and longstanding Imus rival Howard Stern. Both worked at WFAN, then known as WNBC-AM, in the early 1980s.

Imus’ long run at the station led some to quickly speculate that he might land at Sirius Satellite Radio — now run by the jock’s former Infinity Radio boss Mel Karmazin. But insiders at Sirius said they had no plans to approach Imus about a show.

The “Imus in the Morning” cancellation also leaves politicos and journos with one less radio spot on which to peddle books or promote their candidacy. Unlike most radio gabbers, Imus attracted guests from both sides of the political aisle, some of whom used the show as a pulpit to announce they were running for office.

In his memo to CBS staffers, Moonves made a point of addressing the current buzz that those guests could be seen as “enablers” who appeared on the Imus show despite the host’s past controversial comments.

“This is about a lot more than Imus,” Moonves said. “As has been widely pointed out, Imus has been visited by presidents, senators, important authors and journalists from across the political spectrum. He has flourished in a culture that permits a certain level of objectionable expression that hurts and demeans a wide range of people.

“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 first joined WNBC in 1971, left in 1977 but returned in 1979 — holding down the morning drive slot until now. He remained with the station even after NBC sold it in 1988 to Emmis, which flipped the outlet to all-sports WFAN. Infinity, which later merged with CBS Radio, took over the station in 1992.

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