Don Imus has a cockroach’s knack for survival. Over four decades on and off the air, the down-and-out uranium-mine worker turned multimillionaire thinking-man’s shock jock has made an art form out of bouncing back. He’s had drug problems, alcohol problems, health scares, and career crises, but somehow, Imus has always managed to step back from the brink. In 1977, for instance, he was famously fired from his job at WNBC radio for his dissipated ways and did a stint at Hazelden, only to resurface at a new station, more popular than ever. But this time, it seemed, he was cooked.
It was Thursday, April 12, and Imus had been slow-roasting for a week, ever since he called the young women of the Rutgers University basketball team a bunch of “nappy-headed hos.” Imus had insisted he’d meant it as a joke. But pretty much everyone else, from Al Sharpton down, took it as a bald-faced racial slur, made all the worse for having been directed at a group of plucky young women who had done nothing to provoke Imus but play their way into the NCAA women’s-basketball-tournament finals. The predictable media frenzy ensued, followed by Imus’s suspension from his WFAN-radio and MSNBC-TV gigs and his shaky self-justifications and mea culpas.
Now Les Moonves was set to fire the I-man, but he didn’t have his home-phone number. The polished, poised CBS president and the scraggly, cantankerous radio icon had never spent much time together. WFAN, which is owned by CBS, had made millions from Imus’s show during his twenty years on the program. And Imus had just signed a new five-year, $40 million deal with the network. But Moonves, a TV executive throughout his career, rarely ventured into the radio division. And Imus, whose signature cowboy hat and craggy face cast the original shock-jock mold back in the Transistor Age, had always operated in another universe, far away from the suits, playing by his own rules. The “hos” remark, of course, had changed all that.
Moonves had his assistant call WFAN to find Imus’s number, and Moonves reached Imus at his Central Park West penthouse at about 4:30 that afternoon. The conversation is said to have been brief and to the point. Minutes later, CBS issued a statement saying it was letting Imus go, with Moonves citing “the effect language like this has on our young people, particularly young women of color trying to make their way in this society.”
Imus wasn’t exactly surprised to get the call, but once it happened, he was shaken. He’d been counting on staying on the air at least for one more day. He was in the middle of his two-day radiothon to raise money for children’s charities, and the kids, in his mind, were depending on him. That night, he was going to meet personally with the Rutgers basketball team. After seeing them face-to-face, and asking for forgiveness, he thought perhaps he’d be able to turn things around. “Part of him said, ‘I can fix this,’ ” says Imus’s friend Bob Sherman. “You have to remember, he’s been a very powerful person. Mostly, he’s been able to control a lot about his life, even under some very self-imposed adverse conditions. The guy put himself in rehab and came back and went on the air—more than once. He thought an apology could take care of things.” But once he was actually let go, the enormity of all that had happened set in. “He felt less potent,” Sherman says. “He was amazed. It was shock and awe.”
A hermit even in the best of times, Imus mainly stayed home in the days after he was fired, playing chess with his 8-year-old son, Wyatt, and surfing the Internet. He planned to decamp to his ranch in New Mexico at the end of the month, the way he did every summer; everything else, he decided, could wait.
His close friends, meanwhile, kept wondering when Don would get mad. Privately, they say, Imus had taken a shot or two at Moonves. (“Imus knew Moonves was a weasel,” says one friend. The firing only proved it to him, the friend says.) But the chastened, repentant Imus that those close to him had seen emerge recently seemed like a stranger to them. When would he stop retreating and start fighting back?
Then, about a week after the firing, Imus called a friend on the phone, chuckling. The devilish rattle in his voice was back.
“Hey, I just hired the guy that defended Lenny Bruce,” he said. “Good luck, CBS!”