NEW YORK – Don Imus walked into the studio and took off his long, dark coat. He sat down at one end of the table and pulled on his earpiece. The Rev. Al Sharpton, holding court during his radio show, asked him if he was all set.

It was about the only bit of small talk the two men shared.

In an awkward, uncomfortable and occasionally testy broadcast just hours before CBS and MSNBC suspended his show for two weeks, Imus sought to save his job. Sharpton insisted in the interview that he should be fired for calling players on the Rutgers women’s basketball team “nappy-headed hos.”

“What is any possible reason you could feel that this type of statement should be forgiven and overlooked?” Sharpton asked off the bat.

Imus, while acknowledging the severity of his mistake, said he just hadn’t been thinking when he made the comments. He also said that those who called for his firing without knowing him, his philanthropic work or what his show was about would be making an “ill-informed” choice.

Sharpton wasn’t impressed, saying Imus could be “the nicest guy in the world, but you ought to be fired.”

Sharpton speculated that Imus could walk away unscathed, but a fired-up Imus interjected: “Unscathed? Are you crazy? How am I unscathed by this? Don’t you think I’m humiliated?”

“You’re not as humiliated as young black women are,” Sharpton responded.

The commercial breaks were, if anything, even more tense. Sharpton excused himself from the studio during a few of them, and the two men barely spoke when they were in the same room.

“If I have a show after today, are you willing to come on?” Imus asked.

Sharpton, not looking at him, was silent for a bit before replying, “Let’s get this done today.”

Earlier Monday, on his own radio show before the suspensions were announced, Imus called himself “a good person” who made a bad mistake.

“Here’s what I’ve learned: that you can’t make fun of everybody, because some people don’t deserve it,” he said on his show, which is nationally syndicated to millions of listeners. “And because the climate on this program has been what it’s been for 30 years doesn’t mean that it has to be that way for the next five years or whatever because that has to change, and I understand that.”

The fate of Imus’ show could be in real danger if the outcry causes advertisers to shy away from him, said Tom Taylor, editor of the trade publication Inside Radio.

“Everyone is on tenterhooks waiting to see whether it grows and whether the protest gets picked up more broadly,” Taylor said.

Imus’ audience is heavy on the political and media elite that advertisers pay a premium to reach. Authors, journalists and politicians are frequent guests – and targets for insults.

He has urged critics to recognize that his show is a comedy that spreads insults broadly. Imus or his cast have called Colin Powell a “sniffling weasel,” called New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson a “fat sissy” and referred to Colorado Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, an American Indian, as “the guy from “F Troop.”‘ He and his colleagues also called the New York Knicks a group of “chest-thumping pimps.”

Imus said he hoped to meet the Rutgers players and their parents and coaches. The Rutgers team, which includes eight black women, had lost in the NCAA women’s championship game the day before Imus made his remarks.

“Their golden moment was stolen from them less than 24 hours after their last game,” said Rutgers President Richard L. McCormick.

Monday evening, in a statement, Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama weighed in with his thoughts. “The comments of Don Imus were divisive, hurtful and offensive to Americans of all backgrounds. With a public platform, comes a trust. As far as I’m concerned, he violated that trust,” said the Illinois senator.

Earlier Monday, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and about 50 others marched outside the Chicago offices of NBC, the General Electric Co. subsidiary that owns MSNBC, carrying signs and shouting “Imus must go.” Jackson said Imus’ comments contribute to “a climate of degradation” and stem from a lack of blacks as program hosts.

Imus made the now infamous remark during his show April 4. He was speaking with producer Bernard McGuirk about the game when the exchange began on “Imus in the Morning,” which is broadcast on more than 70 stations and on television via MSNBC.

“That’s some rough girls from Rutgers,” Imus said. “Man, they got tattoos … .”

“Some hardcore hos,” McGuirk said.

“That’s some nappy-headed hos there, I’m going to tell you that,” Imus said.

Imus apologized on the air Friday, but his mea culpa has not quieted the uproar.

Julian Bond, chairman of the NAACP board of directors, said it is “past time his employers took him off the air.”

Karen Mateo, a spokeswoman for CBS Radio, Imus’ employer and the owner of his New York radio home, WFAN-AM, said the company was “disappointed” in Imus’ actions and characterized his comments as “completely inappropriate.”

Allison Gollust, a spokeswoman for MSNBC, said the network considers Imus’ comments “deplorable.”

MSNBC said Imus’ regret at making the inappropriate comment and his stated dedication to changing the show’s discourse made it believe the suspension was the appropriate response.

“Our future relationship with Imus is contingent on his ability to live up to his word,” said the network, which simulcasts his radio program weekday mornings.

On Sharpton’s program Monday, Imus said that “our agenda is to be funny and sometimes we go too far. And this time we went way too far.”

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