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Critics, WEEI hosts take mike

Goal: sensitivityon racial issues

With radio hosts John Dennis and Gerry Callahan back on the air yesterday after two-week suspensions, the Anti-Defamation League and about 20 other community groups called on WEEI radio to develop "safeguards" against a repeat of the hosts' racially charged comments.

Groups including the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts and the Black Ministerial Alliance joined ADL in saying WEEI should "seize this current controversy" and change the station's entire culture. They recommended WEEI develop a set of racially sensitive broadcast guidelines and send its staff to diversity training. A community panel should be appointed to advise the station as it moves forward, the groups said.

"There's a race to the gutter going on right now," said Rob Leikind, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League. "They didn't just make a mistake. They did it in an environment that encouraged this kind of thing."

A spokesman for WEEI declined to say whether the station would adopt the suggestions but said it has already begun some diversity training in response to uproar over the cohosts' on-air comparison of an escaped gorilla to a student enrolled in Metco, a desegregation busing program.

In a statement, WEEI officials said that "management appreciates the comments and advice offered today by leaders from the minority and civil rights community. Our managers have met repeatedly with leaders of Metco, with responsible civil rights activists and with credible diversity experts."

Resuming their show for the first time since being taken off the air, Dennis and Callahan each apologized again yesterday. Dennis insisted his remarks had not been intended to have racial overtones.

"There is my least favorite item of all -- that is, the constant and inaccurate repeating of the phrase that John Dennis compared black schoolchildren to a gorilla," Dennis said during yesterday's show. "I did no such thing. That reference makes me sick to my stomach . . . .

"It was a shoot-from-the-hip wisecrack about a gorilla, not about Metco, but my failure to realize that those two words, used together, would hurt people and open wounds has and should label me as thoughtless, naive, and certainly out of touch with what African-Americans feel and deal with on a daily basis . . . . I never made a racist connection in my mind."

Callahan said, "Well, I, too, would like to apologize. If I offended anyone, I assure you it was not my intention and I, too, am very sorry. Well, now we're going to make things right, and we're going to move on."

The controversy erupted after Dennis and Callahan said on the air that Little Joe, a gorilla who had escaped from the Franklin Park Zoo and briefly rested at a bus stop, was "a Metco gorilla." The remarks attracted a storm of criticism from community groups, much of it directed at the station. On Monday, civil rights lawyers from Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly's office met with station officials to discuss changes at WEEI. Reilly spokeswoman Ann Donlan said the attorney general does not intend to pursue legal action.

"This is clearly speech that's protected under the First Amendment," she said. "We did feel it was important to convey directly to them the concern that was expressed to our office . . ."

David Field, CEO of WEEI's parent company, Entercom Communications Corp., told the Globe's Editorial Board yesterday that the talk show hosts' remarks were "indefensible."

"What they said is not what we are about, and it's not who we are," he said.

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