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The State of Talk Radio in New England

Monday, December 16, 2013


A talk radio host in New England is once again under scrutiny for comments made on air, this time facing political backlash in Rhode Island, and now opposition to that response as well.

With recent attention and scrutiny paid to the fate of beleaguered Rhode Island radio talk show host John DePetro, the scenario unfolding raises a question as to not only the fate of the local radio host, but as to the current state of talk radio in New England.

"Doing conservative talk radio in New England is like being an American tourist in North Korea. You're surrounded by people who have no interest in free speech, no desire for diverse opinions and who will scrutinize every statement you make for a chance to shut you down," said conservative talk show host Michael Graham with the New England Talk Network.  

DePetro, who had been fired from 2006 from WRKO for comments made about Massachusetts Rainbow Party gubernatorial candidate Grace Ross, faced mounting pressure last week in Rhode Island as a growing number of elected officials, candidates, and even the RI GOP stepped forth to say they would boycott DePetro and WPRO over his comments made on air about female union activists.

While DePetro's remarks prompted the formation of the "For Our Daughters" campaign asking sponsor Alex and Ani to stop advertising on the show -- and DePetro offered an apology -- the opposition has grown in numbers and in scope.  

"The rule of thumb in these cases is as follows: Usually when a talk show host gets in trouble, the degree of support they get from their company is in ratio to the value they have for the company," said Michael Harrison, editor and publisher of Talkers Magazine, the self-proclaimed "bible of talk radio and new talk media," summed up his thoughts on the the ultimate outcome of the DePetro trial-by-fire.

While the saga is the latest in a number of controversies for DePetro, it is hardly the first in the realm of local and national controversies in talk radio, which has seen drastic changes -- and according to Harrison, major challenges regionally.

See Infamous Talk Radio Controversies BELOW

The notion of freedom of speech -- vs. "combatting misogyny" is at the core of the current talk radio controversy in New England

Harrison acknowledged that political pressures -- and a changing media landscape and demographics -- are changing the talk radio environment.

"The recent decline in the number of talk stations and local talk hosts in New England - particularly Boston which was once considered to be one of the nation's leading talk radio markets - is disturbing. Talk radio faces a number of challenges - the most daunting being what we are discussing, political pressure on advertisers to deny support to controversial political talk. The others are basically the same problems facing all of radio, not to mention a range of 20th century based advertising media... and that is, competition from exotic new digital-era media and huge generational divides that make it difficult to attract younger audiences," said Harrison.

While Harrison addressed the nature of the boycott taking place currently in Rhode island, the issue of talk show hosts coming under fired for comments made is hardly a new issue in New England. In 2006, Jay Severin was released by Greater Media while a host at WTKK for comments he'd made regarding sleeping with female employees; WEEI's Dennis and Callahan came under fire in 2003 for racially-charged comments made about an escaped zoo guerilla being a "Metco" guerilla, referencing a program that bused inner-city students.  

Earlier this year, WTKK changed from its rare FM all-talk format to music programming, which Graham addressed as being a major game-changer.

"It's no surprise that, when WTKK flipped from talk to hip-hop, the only hosts approached by government radio (NPR) were the two liberal ones. New England liberals trumpet the value of diversity, but they have no interest in practicing it," quipped Graham.

Graham continued, "John DePetro has given liberal politicians the excuse they want to avoid the tough questions they'll get from hosts and callers on talk radio. Why appear on a talk radio forum where you're going to be asked difficult questions when you can just show up on public radio and have a liberal host tell you how terrific you are?"

"In Boston, the end of WTKK meant one of the biggest markets in America went from three full-time talk stations to one. The fact that there is no FM talk (other than liberal, government radio) is an barometer of the power of political pressure to silence dissent," said Graham.

A Change.org petition has been formed by a group, RI Citizens for Free Speech, stating DePetro is "under attack by a paid organized union smear campaign designed to silence his vocal criticism."  It writes, "Do not allow politicians and unions to suppress free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment! We will not tolerate the censorship of the callers or the host of The John DePetro Show."

Boycotts, Free Speech, and Radio

What does the future of talk radio hold for New England listeners?

Talkers' Harrison addressed what he saw as the unique circumstances in DePetro's case.  

"The difference between the DePetro case and earlier high-profile ones involving national hosts is DePetro is actually being attacked by elected officials (as opposed to "just" political action groups). Any elected official who aggressively tries to shut down a media commentator as opposed to simply reacting by expressing disagreement is, in my opinion, more dangerous than the host, regardless of how nasty or disgusting the host might be. The reason - the First Amendment is the most important principle we have in America that makes us a free country," said Harrison.  

"There can be no freedom without free speech - meaning speech uncensored by government repression, control, influence or edict. Elected officials should not use their power or influence to put an opposing or disagreeable voice out of business. That is a terrible thing and should be repudiated by anyone who understands the Constitution and the importance of the First Amendment. I do not know what the outcome will be."

The For our Daughters campaign which was formed following DePetro's latest remarks bills itself as a "grassroots advocacy organization committed to promoting gender equity and combating misogyny in public speech and debate."

"John DePetro's reputation as an abrasive misogynist is widely known, but his latest attack on women can't go unanswered. His recent labeling of women protesters outside at a political event as "whores" is offensive, unacceptable and un-American," writes the group on its homepage.

Graham acknowledged that DePetro's remarks gave put a target on his back. "I'm offended by DePetro calling women union activists "hags" and "whores." I'm offended because, in addition to being rude and insulting, it's incredibly stupid," said Graham, of the position DePetro now finds himself. 

Predictions for the Fate of Talk Radio?  

"New England has some of the best sports talk radio in America. There are two reasons: One, it has one of the most dedicated, passionate and loyal fan bases in the nation; and two, it now has two very good broadcasting companies competing in an all out radio "war" - CBS and Entercom - which ultimately is great for the listener as well as advertisers," said Talkers' Harrison.  

Harrison continued, "The Boston Herald has recently launched an internet radio station - "Boston Herald Radio" - which should be watched closely. The idea of a talk radio station emanating from the platform of a major daily big city newspaper has extraordinary potential to be a future powerhouse with the tremendous resources of a large news organization, something the average radio station no longer can afford -- and THAT brings up another problem being faced by radio these day: smothering debt accrued during the consolidation run up of the past 15 years. Most radio stations owned by major corporations and financed by venture capital and answerable to Wall Street cannot afford to "do radio" properly."


Related Slideshow: Infamous Talk Radio Controversies

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Arbitron Ratings Scandal

In 2008, radio host John DePetro found himself in the midst of a ratings controversy.  The Boston Herald reported,

The briefly stellar ratings of controversy-dogged-talkmeister John DePetro’s Providence radio show tanked yesterday after a whiff of scandal forced Arbitron to reissue its spring survey of listener-dial habits.

In the 6 to 10 a.m. weekday slot occupied by the self-proclaimed “Independent Man” on WPRO-AM (630), “the reissue ranked WPRO at number nine” among valued 25- to 54-year-old listeners, “down from the number four rank in the original release,” program manager Paul Giammarco and station market manager Barbara Haynes announced in a joint statement.

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Sexual Harassment Claim

In 2012, DePetro was sued by a WPRO colleague for sexual harassment.  

Producer Dee DeQuatro said DePetro invited her to lunch before driving to a house and making sexual advances.

DePetro denied the allegations.  

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Candidate Name-Calling

DePetro was fired from Boston radio station WRKO in 2006 for calling then-gubernatorial Rainbow Party candidate Grace Ross a "fat lesbian."  

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Office Scuffle

The Providence Journal's Mike Stanton reported on an altercation in 2009 between DePetro and radio host Ron St. Pierre.

DePetro said he was hit -- and scratched -- in the eye with a balled up paper with a staple thrown at him by St. Pierre.  

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Buddy's Return - to Radio

After five years in prison for racketeering conspiracy from 2002 to 2007, former Mayor of Providence Buddy Cianci returned to the public eye with a radio show on WPRO.  

While controversial, Cianci's continued popularity has people wondering if Buddy might just make another run for Mayor in 2014.  

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Chafee's Talk Radio Ban

Upon taking office in 2011, Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee announced that he would not appear on talk radio shows and barred state employees in agencies and departments that report to him from doing the same during work hours.  

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Dennis and Callahan

WEEI sports radio hosts John Dennis and Gerry Callahan were suspended in 2003 when they referred to an escaped gorilla as a "Metco gorilla" waiting for a bus to Lexington -- with Metco being bus program that buses inner-city students to suburban schools.

Boston's WCVB reported that advertisers Dunkin' Donuts and Blue Cross pulled back station support in light of the incident.  

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Severin Suspended

WTKK's Jay Severin was fired for making comments about sleeping with female employees over the years.  

Radio Ink reported on Greater Media's reaction to the incident.  

"Greater Media today ended its relationship with Jay Severin. Our company has always encouraged a free and open dialogue on a variety of issues and topics, and we will continue to be guided by that principle. But we also demand that our on-air talent maintain an appropriate level of civility, and adhere to a standard that respects our listeners and the public at large.

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Imus' Racial Remarks

in 2007, nationally syndicated talk show host Don Imus called Rutgers women's basketball players "nappy-headed hos."  Imus was suspended -- then fired -- by CBS Radio.  

Five years later, Imus was back on the national radio circuit, as reported by New Jersey.com

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Rush Limbaugh

Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh is no stranger to controversy; his latest remarks prompted the Democratic National Committee to call on Republican leaders to boycott the Daily Caller, which defended Limbaugh's remarks in an article entitled, "Liberals want to stop men from checking out women." 


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Edward Saucier

Those poor little nimrods, aka conservative talk show hosts, think they are untouchable. Well employers can fire employees for just about anything they want, almost. So unless they have unions to get their chestnuts out of the fire they may be cooked. So join a union is my suggestion to those bozo's. Oh yeah, they can't, they're anti-union.

Christopher Pinto

Look no further than Worcester to understand that the misbehaving on the left is the elected officials.


Talk radio is for entertainment and yes a radio personality or two has gone too far and they are dealt with swiftly.

But just look at how long it took to get rid of Martin Bashir when he suggested that Sarah Palin be used as a __________. 19 Days! Imus was gone in two. Severin was gone in one.

But the left who claims that it is the right that is waging a war on women waits 19 days to get rid of Martin Bashir and they worship the serial rapist, Slick Willy. Not to mention their love affair with Islam, which treats women as if they are someone's property.

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