By David Abel, Globe Staff
Some sponsors at Boston's WTKK-FM radio station have stopped advertising and balked about whether to resume their ads if the station reinstates Jay Severin, the talk show host suspended last week for derogatory comments about Mexicans.
Severin began talks this week with the station about returning to the air, and George Tobia, Severin’s agent, said he expects he will be back on his afternoon drive-time show soon.
Severin was suspended last week after calling Mexicans "criminaliens," “leeches,” "the world's lowest of primitives," and exporters of "women with mustaches and VD," among other incendiary comments he made as the swine flu spread from Mexico.
Among advertisers who pulled their spots was The Retailers Association of Massachusetts, which planned to broadcast commercials over 10 days against a proposed hike in the state’s sales tax. The Retailers Association planned to air about 25 spots over two weeks.
“If he comes back on, we’re not spending any money with him,” said Will Keyser, a spokesman for the Retailers Association. “We don’t want to be associated with him. This guy is very controversial right now. He said some things we don’t want to be associated with.”
Reeds Ferry Sheds of Hudson, N.H., has long had Severin pitch the company’s products and was proud the talk show host had one in his backyard. Now, the company is not so sure it wants him as its spokesman.
“This definitely gives us pause,” said Tim Carleton, president and co-owner of Reeds Ferry Sheds. “When someone is suspended who endorses your product, it’s never good. He definitely made a mistake and made unacceptable comments."
Carleton said his "first and foremost concern" was that the company could be seen as bigoted for advertising with Severin. But Carleton also said Severin had been an effective spokesman before his suspension, and the company spent about 15 percent of its advertising budget at the station.
“From my standpoint, we’re just trying to sell sheds,” he said. “We’re trying to reach as many people as possible, and the controversy of his show is why he gets the amount of listeners he does.”
He described his company’s advertising plans with the station as “in a holding pattern.”
“If the situation is rectified correctly -- an apology and a retraction of his statement would be appropriate – I would consider advertising with him again,” Carleton said. “There’s no need for any racism, and we don’t want to offend a group of people. I am waiting to hear from the station about their plans.”
Neither station officials nor Severin would answer questions today. Tobia did not return messages.
“Jay remains suspended indefinitely,” wrote Heidi Raphael, a spokeswoman for the station, in an e-mail. “We have no further comment.”
Some of the station’s advertisers said they plan to stick by Severin.
“Do I agree with everything that he says? Absolutely not. Do I agree with the premise of most of what he says? Yes,” said Mark Lamoureux, owner of The Countertop Shoppe in Leominster. “But if he goes back on the air, I would absolutely advertise on his show. The marketplace will determine this. If people don’t listen to him, why would I want to advertise with him?”
But WTKK, which reportedly pays Severin more than $1 million a year, has been falling in the ratings war among local radio stations. For the first three months of the year, the station has fallen to second to last in the local market for listeners. In March, the station had a 3.7 share of the Boston area’s 4.2 million listeners, compared with rival WRKO-AM, which had a 5.0 share, according to Arbitron, which monitors audience size.
The combination of stalled ratings and Severin's controversial comments has left advertisers such as Currier’s Leather Furniture in Hampton Falls, N.H., waiting to see whether the station fires or reinstates the talk show host.
“We’re backing off to see what happens with him,” said Stephen Currier, the company’s owner. “We wouldn’t want to throw him under the bus, and I think everyone says things that are off the cuff sometimes that we don’t agree with. If he does come back, we would just prefer he takes more of a breath between saying our name and Hillary Clinton’s, or someone else he’s talking about.”
Neal Bocian, president of Neal Advertising in Danvers, which represents Herb Chambers, also is reconsidering their advertising. “We’re having a discussion about it [today],” he said.
After four years advertising with Severin, Stoughton-based 1-800 Mattress also has suspended its ads on the station. Evan Saks, a spokesman for the company, called it a “tough choice” about whether to resume advertising with the station if it reinstates Severin.
“The same power that makes Severin a good salesman cuts the other way,” he said. “The association is favorable when such talk show hosts are popular, but there’s a potential negative when they make inappropriate comments. And there’s no doubt that those comments were inappropriate – and deeply troubling.”
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