Imus was initially suspended for two weeks after he called the Rutgers women's basketball team "nappy-headed hos" on the air last week. But outrage kept growing and advertisers kept bolting from his CBS radio show and its MSNBC simulcast, which was canceled Wednesday.
"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. "That consideration has weighed most heavily on our minds as we made our decision."
Imus, 66, had a long history of inflammatory remarks. But something struck a raw nerve when he targeted the Rutgers team - which includes a class valedictorian, a future lawyer and a musical prodigy - after they lost in the NCAA championship game.
A spokeswoman for the team said it did not have an immediate comment on Imus' firing. But Imus was scheduled to meet with the team Thursday evening at the governor's mansion in Princeton, N.J., and the team was seen entering the mansion.
He was fired in the middle of a two-day radio fundraiser for children's charities. CBS announced that Imus' wife, Deirdre, and his longtime newsman, Charles McCord, will host Friday's show.
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.
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.
The Rev. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson met with Moonves on Thursday to demand 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."
In a memo to staff members, Moonves said the firing "is about a lot more than Imus."
"He has flourished in a culture that permits a certain level of objectionable expression that hurts and demeans a wide range of people," Moonves said. "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."
It's also likely to trigger a wider debate about expression and forgiveness. Some of Imus' fans have pointed to inflammatory statements made by Sharpton and Jackson in the past, or in the lyrics of popular music.
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. One potential replacement: the sports show "Mike & the Mad Dog," which airs afternoons on 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.