Jay Severin, the highly paid talk show host whose provocative on-air comments twice resulted in suspensions, was fired by WTKK-FM (96.9) today.
Severin was let go because he did not maintain an "appropriate level of civility and adhere to a standard that respects our listeners and the public at large," according to a statement released by Greater Media Inc., which owns WTKK. "Unfortunately, it had become clear at several points in the past two years that Jay was either unwilling or unable to maintain our standards on the air. It's for that reason we have made the decision to end our relationship."
Severin, who signed a seven-year contract in 2006 that pays him close to $1 million a year, was suspended last week for saying on the air that he had slept with female employees years ago. "That's not the purpose for which they were hired," he said while discussing the case of a CEO who was sued for sexual harassment. "I don't think of myself as a monster or strange in any way because of that. All I was was a young man who was the boss, and I did it because I could."
Severin was pulled off the radio in 2009 after he called Mexican immigrants "primitives," "leeches," and exporters of "women with mustaches and VD." He returned to the air a month later, apologizing for his "hurtful, unkind, and wrong" commentary. Severin did not return calls today, but his attorneys, George Tobia and Laura Studen, did.
"It's pretty transparent that this is no more than the station's interest in saving money," Studen said. "Jay's the highest paid guy at the station and they have a ratings problem, so they look at his contract. Jay's going to pursue all of his rights under his contract. He was terminated for no cause. This is a thinly veiled attempt to get out from under his contract."
For now, Michael Bower, who was Severin's occasional cohost on the 2-6 p.m. show, will take over while the station reviews its programming option for the time slot. By midafternoon yesterday, Severin had already been removed from the WTKK's website.
It had been a tumultuous tenure for Severin, who arrived on local airwaves in 2000, a self-described libertarian and "rock `n' roll Republican" with a fondness for tossing rhetorical bombshells. He used a crude epithet to refer to Hillary Clinton, called Jesse Jackson a "pimp, a race hustler," and said, in his world, "the poor and stupid would starve."
The firing did not come as a complete surprise to some observers, who suspect that Severin's high salary and also-ran ratings had become a problem for his bosses.
"I'd guess it was a business decision," said Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers magazine. "If you have a controversial host, you have to put up with a lot of heat from special-interest groups and, sometimes, the FCC. If the host is worth it, you keep him or suspend him. But when the heat outweighs the benefits, you get rid of him, and I'd say that's what happened in this case."
Since Arbitron instituted a new digital ratings system two years ago, Harrison said the numbers for Severin's show, once a leader among 25-to-54-year-old listeners, have been lackluster. He also said the culture of talk radio has gradually changed.
"There's less tolerance for frivilous, insulting, or offensive behavior," Harrison said.
That was certainly true two years ago when Severin made derogatory comments about Mexican immigrants. Organizations such as the Massachusetts Immigrant & Refugee Advocacy Coalition and the Retailers Association of Massachusetts protested, and Governor Deval Patrick, who does a monthly "Ask the Governor" segment with WTKK morning hosts Jim Braude and Margery Eagan, said he was "embarrassed to be associated with the station."
In suspending Severin that time, Greater Media issued a statement affirming its commitment to "basic principles of civility, common decency, and respect for all cultures."
On March 29, while discussing the case of American Apparel CEO Dov Charney, who is being sued for sexual harassment by two former female employees, Severin called the women "whores and liars" and said they belong in jail. He went on to say that he had slept with interns.
"Those girls that got to sleep with me got to know their boss better, they got to go on trips, they got to travel in some cases to various parts of the world, to see things and meet people that they never would have seen or done," he said.
Greater Media management would not comment beyond its email statement yesterday, but a person close to the decision to fire Severin said his salary had little to do with the decision to terminate him.
"This was quite simply about a guy who ran out of second chances, and just couldn't maintain basic civility on the air," said the source, who asked not to be identified because was not authorized to speak publicly. "It's not about money. They will lose advertisers who believed in and supported Jay. But it was the only credible and honest way to deal with it."
Greater Media's full statement today:
Boston, MA (April 6, 2011): "Greater Media today ended its relationship with Jay Severin. Our company has always encouraged a free and open dialogue on a variety of issues and topics, and we will continue to be guided by that principle. But we also demand that our on-air talent maintain an appropriate level of civility, and adhere to a standard that respects our listeners and the public at large.
Jay Severin has been an important part of what we have accomplished with 96.9 WTKK-FM since its inception in 2000 and for that we are grateful and wish him well in future endeavors. Unfortunately, it had become clear at several points in the past two years that Jay was either unwilling or unable to maintain our standards on the air. It's for that reason we have made the decision to end our relationship.
In the interim, Michael Bower will be assuming the on-air duties from 2 to 6 p.m. each day on WTKK while we review our long-term programming plans for that time slot."
Vice President of Corporate Communication
Greater Media, Inc.
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