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WEEI host off air for remark

Racist comment brings criticism, suspension

WEEI radio has suspended talk show host John Dennis for two days without pay for making a racially charged comment, as several city councilors and minority leaders urged he be taken off the air permanently.

In a segment discussing news during Monday's "Dennis & Callahan Show," Dennis said that Little Joe, the gorilla that escaped from Franklin Park Zoo, was "probably a Metco gorilla waiting for a bus to take him to Lexington." Metco, the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity, is a voluntary desegregation program that enrolls Boston students in suburban schools. The program provides transportation to some schools.

Dennis's on-air remarks brought immediate condemnation from minority leaders and parents, who said the comparison echoed racial slurs likening black people to monkeys.

"The remarks are offensive, reprehensible, and not something that you can dismiss lightly," Leonard Alkins, president of the Boston branch of the NAACP said yesterday. "We hope he recognizes the seriousness of his action. He can no longer be an impartial representative to WEEI in the capacity that he is serving."

Dennis apologized on the air Wednesday, saying that his remark "was extremely insensitive, and I am truly sorry to anyone who was offended. I in no way meant to cause any student, parent, graduate, or employee of the Metco program any offense."

WEEI remained silent as criticism mounted yesterday, declining to return reporters' phone calls until late in the evening, when it announced that it had elected to suspend the popular host. The Associated Press reported he will be off the air today and Monday.

"John Dennis has been an outstanding employee at WEEI for the past seven years," the station said in a statement. "During that time, he has never said or done anything that has caused even the slightest negative reaction. He is as charitable with his time as any employee we've ever had, having been involved with numerous charities supporting children of all races. We know that this comment was completely out of character for John, and he regrets it terribly."

At least eight Boston city councilors signed letters to WEEI calling for Dennis to be fired. Calling the on-air remark "blatantly racist," Councilor Michael Ross wrote that the radio host's comment was "highly offensive and should not be tolerated. An apology does not adequately address the bigotry of his statement. Should he refuse to resign, WEEI has the right and responsibility to terminate his employment immediately."

Councilor Charles C. Yancey, who signed a letter from the council, said WEEI's punishment is inadequate. "A two-day suspension is not even a slap on the wrist," he said. "I'm not satisfied that the radio station acted responsibly in putting him back on the air. "

John Hudson, a Jamaica Plain parent whose three children have participated in Metco, heard Dennis's remark on the air and called the station Monday.

"To me, there is no other way to take this statement other than describing a relationship between a primate and a person of color," he said.

WEEI has offered Metco free airtime for public service announcements, said Metco executive director Jean McGuire.

In its statement, WEEI said it is "in the process of responding personally to the individual complaints that we have received about this matter."

Local leaders said Dennis's comments are particularly painful because of commentator Rush Limbaugh's resignation from ESPN after saying that the media overrates Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb because he is black.

"This is not a Boston problem, it's a national problem," said Darnell Williams, president of the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts. "You can take that person off the air and replace him, but you haven't gotten to the root cause of the ignorance being spread on our public airways."

Michael Rosenwald of the Globe Staff contributed to the report. Sasha Talcott can be reached at stalcott@globe.com.

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