It’s starting to look like the baptism/murder scene from “The Godfather” at Greater Media Inc.
In December the company terminated outspoken, highly-visible WBT-AM/Charlotte afternoon drive host Jeff Katz for undisclosed reasons. This past Thursday, Greater Media hit WTKK-FM/Boston afternoon driver Jay Severin with an unpaid, open-ended suspension for anti-Hispanic remarks – including recent comments tying the spread of Swine Flu to illegal immigrants from Mexico. A suspension without pay is often a kiss on the cheek on the way to termination. If Severin does return to the job, it can’t possibly be the same anything-goes show.
Are these moves somehow connected – perhaps as part of a new operating philosophy or new reality at Greater Media? Both Katz and Severin are strong, edgy personalities. Severin, for example, referred to Barack Obama throughout the Presidential campaign as a “Half-rican American.” WBT General Manager Rick Jackson’s only attempt to explain Katz’s ouster was a cryptic,” “People want facts rather than someone spouting an opinion…” Katz was replaced by WBT late night host Tara Servatius, a former newspaper reporter who does a very tame show often focused on the inner workings of local government.
So, maybe Greater Media is trying to tone-down it’s talk programming. The owners of the privately-held company could be uncomfortable with the image and heartburn that comes with such acerbic personalities. Or they might concerned about drawing the attention of liberal Democrats, who now control the White House, Congress and the FCC. Both scenarios have recent precedents. WSB-AM/Atlanta’s decision to hire talker Herman Cain for evenings is reliably said to have come from parent company Cox Enterprises’ HQ, where there was discomfort with their flagship’s (winning and lucrative) all-white-guy line-up. As for warding off the feds, see Clear Channel Radio’s recent move to self-impose some of the “localism” rules currently pending at the Commission.
Budget considerations could provide a connection. Severin reportedly makes more than $1 million per year. That’s justifiable for a top-rated host, but the former political consultant has plummeted in Boston’s early PPM reports, recently finishing 14th in 25-54. Firing Severin for cause could save WTKK a ton of dough, and give it a chance to kick-start PM Drive. No word on Katz’s salary, but as a veteran talker with a record of success at WBT he certainly made more than Servatius will get for the same shift. Severin and Katz’s reputations as sometimes difficult, uncooperative co-workers might be factors as well.
Or maybe it’s just a coincidence. After all, we’re talking about two hosts getting fired five months apart, and WBT GM Rick Jackson does have a history of jettisoning hosts that make him personally uncomfortable – WTKK personality Michael Graham and Sirius talker Mike Church met Katz-like fates at WBT. (Disclosure: I was the PD at WBT when Graham and Church got blown out.) Still, there is enough weirdness here to fuel justified speculation. Why didn’t WBT offer Katz’s fans an explanation for his dismissal? And why did Greater Media decide to discipline Severin now, when he’s been making offensive comments for weeks/months/years? Indeed, WTKK routinely used those comments in promos right up until the day Severin was suspended.
The Katz and Severin dramas are most probably connected by a mix of the above. These are turbulent, stressful times for station owners. Katz and Severin got caught in a powerful riptide of anxiety about ratings, revenue and regulation that might have been survivable a couple years ago. But not today.