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Hosts off air for two weeks

Station suspends 2 for Metco remarks

Faced with searing criticism from parents and political officials, WEEI yesterday suspended prominent radio hosts John Dennis and Gerry Callahan for two weeks for comparing an escaped gorilla to a Metco student waiting for a bus.

The suspensions were announced on the same day that one of the station's advertisers, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Massachusetts, announced that it would pull $27,000 in advertising from the station and donate the money to Metco, the voluntary desegregation program that places Boston children in suburban schools.

The two-week suspensions significantly increase the previous punishments for the hosts. Dennis had been given a two-day suspension, and Callahan, who was not originally thought to be involved in the remarks, faced no punishment at all.

The radio station called the remarks "insensitive and inappropriate" and said in a statement yesterday that it hopes Metco students and parents will begin to heal. The two unpaid suspensions take effect immediately.

"Both Dennis and Callahan have offered their sincerest regrets for the remarks and have volunteered to work with Metco officials and students to create a constructive, positive bond between the station and Metco schools, students, and parents," WEEI officials wrote.

As the criticism mounted over the weekend, Blue Cross-Blue Shield decided to stop supporting the station with advertising, said Peter Meade, the health provider's executive vice president.

"We made this decision because of the extremely egregious statements made on the morning program and the lack of a serious or significant response by the management," Meade said.

Metco officials said the money donated by Blue Cross will go to scholarships.

Two days after the remarks, Dennis apologized on the air. He also drafted a statement that he planned to release today, before station managers decided on the two-week suspensions, that called his remarks "the single stupidest thing I've ever said in 26 years of broadcasting in Boston."

"I've heard people who know nothing about me evaluate my character, analyze my heart, dissect my brain, and pronounce me a lost and despicable soul," Dennis wrote. "I understand their anger, and, frankly, I deserve much of what I'm getting."

The remarks by Dennis and Callahan were made during a news segment of the program on Sept. 29, as the two hosts bantered about a gorilla that had escaped from the Franklin Park Zoo. "Yeah, yeah, he was a Metco gorilla," Dennis said.

"Heading out to Lexington," Callahan replied.

"Yeah, exactly," Dennis said.

Critics, including most of the Boston City Council and some Metco parents from across the region, deluged the station with angry calls, letters, and e-mails. Ten city councilors signed a letter demanding that Dennis be fired.

The announcement of the suspensions yesterday earned station management cautious praise from Councilor Michael P. Ross, who had written the council's letter. "This is an important step for WEEI," Ross said. "It's a move in the right direction. They needed to do more than the two-day suspension."

Metco officials are scheduled to meet with WEEI today to discuss ways that the station can help Metco students. In several days of conversations with WEEI officials, Metco executive director Jean McGuire said she has tried to get the station to address a talk radio culture that she calls a "white male club."

"That's what's wrong. There's no one who says, `Who are you kidding? You need to shut up. You can't talk like that,' " McGuire said. "It's more than WEEI. It's the whole culture of talk radio. It's reprehensible."

Sasha Talcott can be reached at stalcott@globe.com.

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