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Radio racism

RUSH LIMBAUGH, the prominent radio commentator, was forced to resign Wednesday as an ESPN sports analyst because of a racially demeaning remark. Yet in Boston, John Dennis of WEEI sports radio got off far too lightly after uttering a racial insult this week. A two-day suspension for an incendiary racial remark in a town struggling to overcome lingering racial strains undervalues the seriousness of the situation. And the station should do much more for the Metco program -- an object of Dennis's slur -- than merely provide it with public service announcements.

Limbaugh said he was indulging in media criticism when he said sports analysts and reporters were too kind to Donovan McNabb, the quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles, because they wanted a black quarterback to be successful. What Limbaugh was really saying was that some black players were getting preferential treatment in the National Football League. Sports fans know that on the playing field, the NFL is a brutally meritocratic business.

Dennis was far more blunt. After looking at a photo of Little Joe, the gorilla that escaped from the Franklin Park Zoo and lurked near a bus stop, Dennis said the animal was "probably a Metco gorilla waiting for a bus to take him to Lexington." That statement is offensive to the Metco program, under which more than 8,000 minority youngsters from Boston and Springfield have attended suburban schools over the past 37 years.

Moreover, it demeans all black people by repeating an age-old racist canard. WHAM-AM in Rochester, N.Y., fired its talk show host Bob Lonsberry after he said an orangutan that escaped from a zoo was running for county executive. Rochester's Mayor William Johnson Jr., a black man and a frequent Lonsberry target, is seeking the county job.

Lonsberry's dismissal came after he compounded his slur by attacking his critics in a Web column. Dennis, however, apologized on air after a Metco parent brought the gorilla remark to the attention of the station. And Kahris White-McLaughlin, chairwoman of Metco, said yesterday: "If somebody apologizes, we are willing to accept it. By no means do we think it's acceptable." But, she added, "there are other ways to use this situation to let people grow."

She has in mind something more than the public service announcement initially on offer from WEEI -- perhaps a scholarship for a Metco student or a corporate sponsorship of a Metco fund-raiser.

Radio chatter has become increasingly shrill and offensive as radio conglomerates seek to attract listeners. Broadcasters, however, ought to put some commentary out of bounds, and that should include anything that smacks of racial insults. WEEI needs to take stronger action.

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