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Reilly claims a role in flap over talk radio

Civil rights unit asksfor meeting with WEEI

Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly has stepped into the debate over the racially charged remarks of two WEEI talk show hosts, calling for a meeting with the station's owners to press for new internal policies.

Reilly's civil rights division requested the meeting in a letter to the owners, after receiving complaints from two parents of students enrolled in Metco, a voluntary desegregation program that buses Boston students to suburban schools. WEEI morning hosts John Dennis and Gerry Callahan had likened an escaped zoo gorilla to a Metco student during their talk show Oct. 6, igniting controversy.

It isn't clear what legal jurisdiction Reilly's office has in the matter, and aides said yesterday the attorney general is unlikely to take legal action. But they said the WEEI episode comes as Reilly's office is dealing with incidents of racial strife in schools. Some involve students in the Metco program. Officials did not provide details of those cases.

"We have a history of being actively involved," said Alice Moore, chief of Reilly's public protection bureau, which oversees the civil rights division. "We not only defuse the racial tensions like this, but we want people to understand the culture that helps create the problems and to learn how to fix it."

Part of that effort involves working with companies to address the conduct of employees in issues of race, sexual preference, and gender and helping firms develop policies and procedures to deal with the tensions, Moore said.

Reilly's civil rights division has in the past taken out restraining orders against those accused of committing hate crimes. But members of Reilly's senior staff said they are reluctant to label the radio hosts' on-air remarks as hate language that would be subject to legal action. Radio commentators would probably cite their free-speech rights under the First Amendment, the aides said.

"That would be a challenge to any legal action and it is not our preference," a senior official in Reilly's office said of the free speech issue.

David Brudnoy, a WBZ Radio talk show host, said Reilly's move is "chilling" because of the attorney general's perceived powers and is clearly unusual. He said that Reilly has no standing in the matter legally and that the Federal Communications Commission is the only agency with jurisdiction.

"Those were stupid remarks . . . bombastic silliness," Brudnoy said. "But the state government has got to get its fingers out of our lives." He said language on black-owned radio stations is often racially charged as well, but no action is taken in those cases.

"The attorney general is not empowered to tell the media what to do," he said.

Ann Donlon, Reilly's spokeswoman, downplayed any potential legal action and praised WEEI for cooperating.

"We are seeking assurances from the management of Entercom Communications that this type of conduct will not happen again," she said in a statement. "To its credit, the company responded immediately and has been cooperative."

Reilly's office refused to release the letter it sent to the principals of WEEI and its Pennsylvania-based parent company. Donlon said the attorney general had never intended to publicize the letter or the meeting and responded publicly only to an inquiry from the Globe.

Reilly's intervention into the controversy is the first official state response to the remarks on WEEI, which opened up new racial wounds and prompted two major advertisers to withdraw ads.

Under criticism, the station suspended Callahan and Dennis for two weeks without pay. Two sponsors, Blue Cross/Blue Shield and Dunkin' Donuts, whose ad uses the voices of the two co-hosts, pulled their advertising support from one of the top-rated shows in Boston.

Metco and WEEI officials also met last week to deal with the fallout and discuss efforts to respond, such as providing diversity training for the radio staff.

Among the issues Reilly's civil rights division plans to raise with the station owners are what his senior staff called frequent antigay remarks on the Dennis and Callahan show.

Jeremy Crockford, a spokesman for Entercom, confirmed yesterday that the company received the letter Wednesday and said his office immediately contacted the attorney general's office to set up a meeting.

"We view this as something that will be very helpful to the radio station," Crockford said.

"Entercom officials have had productive, constructive meetings with Metco officials, board members, and parents over the last two weeks," Crockford said.

"This constructive relationship will continue and we look forward to a similar productive meeting with the attorney general's office."

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