WBUR apologizes after hoax caller makes racist on-air remarks

The Boston-based public radio station says it is "looking into technology that can enhance our screening capabilities."

Radio host Meghna Chakrabarti prior to a debate between Incumbent Democratic congressman Michael Capuano and primary challenger Ayanna Pressley at the University of Massachusetts, in Boston, Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2018. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
WBUR host Meghna Chakrabarti prior to a September congressional debate in Boston. –Charles Krupa / AP

WBUR is apologizing after a caller apparently pretending to be an employee of a national seafood chain made racist, on-air remarks Thursday morning during the live broadcast of “On Point.”

“On Point screens its callers to create the most robust hour of live conversation possible,” the Boston-based, national call-in news show said in a statement. “We apologize that this hoax got on the air.”

The incident occurred during the second hour of Thursday’s show around 11:30 a.m., during an interview with Soleil Ho, the newly hired restaurant critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, whose work has often explored food through the lens of politics, culture, and identity.

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“We’ve got a lot of people who want to talk to you, so let me get some of them in here,” “On Point” host Meghna Chakrabarti said, before turning the conservation over to callers.

However, not all were fans. The show’s second caller, who identified himself as “Dominic” from Aspen, Colorado, and said he was the vice president of the seafood chain Chart House, criticized Ho for not concentrating on the “ambience” of restaurants. The caller went on to assert that his restaurants have had issues with “some clientele” ruining the experience for everyone.

When Chakrabarti questioned what he meant, the caller said it was “normally black people that do that, they ruin the meal for everyone.”

After beginning to interrogate the caller, Chakrabarti decided to cut off the call.

“Dominic, thanks for your call, I guess,” she said. “Soleil, I did not see that one coming, so apologies for that.”

According to Chart House, the caller also made false statements about his employment. The national seafood chain — which has 26 locations in 15 states, including one on Boston’s waterfront — tweeted Thursday afternoon that they have “no Vice President named Dominic” and that no vice president of Chart House called into the show.

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“This is a horrible hoax and misrepresentation of Chart House,” the company said. “Our company has zero tolerance policy towards racism.”

Chart House opened its first location in Aspen, Colorado. However, that restaurant closed in 2003. Steve Scheinthal, the executive vice president and general counsel for Landry’s, the Houston-based company that has owned Chart House since 2002, told WBUR that there has “never been a company officer named Dominic.” Scheinthal also said he was personally unaware of any Chart House employee named Dominic.

According to “On Point,” the incident was the second time in the last two weeks that they’ve had a caller make unexpectedly offensive remarks on air.

Sam Fleming, WBUR’s managing director of news and programming, told Boston.com that the public radio station, which is owned and operated by Boston University, is “looking into technology that can enhance our screening capabilities, and will continue to remain as vigilant as we can to prevent future incidents.”

“One of the tenets of On Point is taking listener calls, and it’s something that makes the conversations that happen special, but there’s certainly this risk,” Fleming said in a statement. “Fortunately it’s rare that a caller has malicious intent but this [is] one [of] the vulnerabilities of live radio. There are occasional callers who misrepresent themselves to the call screeners, but in 17 years on the air, it’s been few and far between.”

Fleming added that the “strength of On Point may be a vulnerability at times but callers are a hallmark component of the show.”

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Later during Thursday’s show, Chakrabarti said she was “shocked” and “flustered” by the caller’s expression of “overt racism” and pivoted the interview to a discussion about race and food.

“A lot of people have accused us of making things up, and thankfully there’s proof right there that there is a lot to talk about, and we’re not making a big deal out of nothing,” Ho said, adding that a restaurant’s attitude toward of people of color can actually contribute or detract from its “ambience.”

Following the hoax caller, another listener called into the show and described experiencing subtle acts of racism as a black restaurant patron, such as waiters not being responsive to their table.

“If you feel like you’re being treated differently, or if you observe people being treated differently, because of their race or gender presentation or sexuality, that matters, too, to the experience, right?” Ho said. “Those are the people I’m writing for as well. They have been sort of shut out of these conversations because their experience didn’t matter for a long time.”