Don Imus, whose daily broadcasts reach about 70 radio stations and are simulcast on MSNBC television, has one of the most lucrative franchises in the business. His show attracts not only hefty advertising dollars, but also a stream of high-profile guests peddling books, opinions and political gamesmanship.
The racially insulting remarks he made last week could threaten all that, some experts say, if the controversy persists and guests and advertisers flee.
If that happens, Imus - who referred to the Rutgers University women's basketball players as "nappy-headed hos" - could see the two-week suspension he received Monday turn into a more permanent departure.
"Those types of words sting, and memories last, and bells can't be unrung," said Ronn Torossian, chief executive officer of 5W Public Relations in New York, who works with such entertainers as Sean Combs, Lil' Kim, Pamela Anderson and Snoop Dogg, all of whom have weathered legal travails.
"Once it's in the public consciousness, it is going to be difficult to have them forgotten," he said. "Once a high-profile figure like Imus makes disparaging remarks and a controversy begins, the big sponsors and big stations have too much to lose and need to back away."
In addition, Torossian said, Imus, 66, "isn't the youngest shock jock out there" in the radio world. "This could be an easy way for the networks to end this relationship," he said.
There is no evidence of a move by advertisers to drop Imus in the Morning. But at least one celebrity, former Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken Jr. opted not to appear on the show because of the controversy.
Ripken's publicist, John Maroon, said that after he heard of Imus' remarks late last week, he recommended that Ripken, who is to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in July, not go through with an appearance on the show yesterday to plug his new book, Get in the Game. Ripken agreed.
"I did not want anyone to see him on there and get any misconception that he agreed with Imus' comments in any way," Maroon said. "It seemed like a no-brainer."
Former presidential candidate John Kerry, a Democratic senator from Massachusetts, and journalism heavyweights such as NBC's Tim Russert and Brian Williams, and New York Times columnist Frank Rich have appeared often on the show. It was unclear yesterday whether they would do so again.
Another frequent guest, Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican who is running for president, said Monday that he would stand by Imus.
"He has apologized," McCain said. "He said that he is deeply sorry. I'm a great believer in redemption."
On NBC's Today show yesterday, Imus said he would "make an effort" to have more black guests on his program, but he remained combative. He brought up racism "between light-skinned blacks and dark-skinned blacks," and said young black women are "dehumanized" in the hip-hop community.
Imus also assailed coverage of the controversy, pointing out a story on Monday's NBC Nightly News that he called "disgraceful."
Some observers recalled that Imus has apologized in the past, only to disparage again.
The Associated Press dug up several comments tossed out in the past by Imus and his coterie, including his producer, Bernard McGuirk, who was the first to imply last week that the Rutgers players were prostitutes.
They have called Colin L. Powell a "sniffling weasel," New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson a "fat sissy," and the New York Knicks a group of "chest-thumping pimps."
Gwen Ifill, a black reporter who covered the Clinton administration for The New York Times, recalled in a column published in the newspaper yesterday what she was told Imus had said on the air about her in 1993: "Isn't The Times wonderful? It lets the cleaning lady cover the White House."
She wrote that Imus disputes having said that.
Ifill, a former reporter for The Evening Sun and now a senior correspondent for The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, called Imus' latest slur "a shockingly concise sexual and racial insult, tossed out in a volley of male camaraderie by a group of amused, middle-aged white men."
Media Matters for America, a watchdog group based in Washington, issued a statement yesterday saying that on Imus in the Morning on March 16, McGuirk spoke of a "young colored fella pretty much deckin' the old bag from New York and takin' away some of her money." McGuirk was speaking of Democratic Sens. Barack Obama of Illinois and Hillary Clinton of New York.
On Nov. 30, Imus referred to the "Jewish management" of CBS Radio as "money-grubbing bastards," according to Media Matters. Imus was discussing a past conflict with his bosses about hosting the musical group Blind Boys of Alabama. "They're handicapped, they're black, and they're blind," he said. "How do we lose here?"
Karl Frisch, a spokesman for Media Matters, pointed out that Imus - whose suspension is to begin Monday and end April 30 - will be "back on the radio and MSNBC just in time for the spring ratings sweeps in May."
"It would be inappropriate for MSNBC to benefit financially from the publicity likely to surround Imus' return," Frisch said. "It is unfortunate that MSNBC and CBS Radio have failed to accept any responsibility for airing Don Imus' bigoted remarks over the years."
Wayne Friedman, whose TV Watch column runs on mediapost.com, wrote yesterday that the real test is whether Imus can save his job.
"Will the audience return? Will the incident curb his witty edge, and thus any entertainment value of his show?" Friedman wrote.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.