The Late Jay Severin and the Elusive World of Political Talk Radio
When I was writing about radio for the New York Daily News, I always looked forward to talking with Jay Severin.
He was engaging, enthusiastic and great with one-liners. While he had worked for years as a Republican political consultant, he didn’t discuss politics with a spin. He’d tell you, on the nuts and bolts level, who was doing it right and who was screwing it up.
At the time, the early- to mid-1990s, he was moving from consulting into a radio career, and after all those years banging his head against the media and trying to work the media, he had a pretty good sense of the dynamics there as well.
He also loved dogs, specifically Newfoundlands, of which he had several. For some of us, that’s always a big shaggy marker in the got-it-right column.
Jay Severin died Tuesday after a fight with cancer, age 69, and to the end he was putting markers in several columns.
I always thought he’d be a perfect party guest, for all those aforementioned reasons: engaging, enthusiastic, aware of the world, analytic, quick with one-liners.
Where that skillset got a little dicier for Severin was the same place it got dicier for a few million other people in the century since radio launched the electronic media age where you aren’t actually engaged with a person, you’re just seeing or hearing words.
All the qualities that you love in conversation at a party, from body language to the unexpected line that draws a figurative gasp, can have a much different effect when encountered over the radio or, today, on social media.
When you go over the line in a face-to-face conversation and someone replies “That’s awful,” you can explain or at least discuss. On the radio, or in a tweet, there’s no further explanation, no sense of tone or context. Just the words.
So you don’t know if they were the product of careful thought or if it was more like the parent who mutters, “If I trip over that kid’s sneakers in the doorway one more time, I’m gonna kill him.”
I don’t know if there was any more nuance on April 30, 2009, when Jay Severin described Mexican immigrants thusly on Boston’s WTKK: “It’s millions of leeches from a primitive country come here to leech off you and, with it, they are ruining the schools, the hospitals, and a lot of life in America.”
I don’t know the context of the discussion on WTKK in 2011 when he said, “I slept with virtually every young college girl I hired to be an intern or an employee for my firm.”
I don’t know whether he was just exasperated this June 11, when he tweeted over the Seattle encampment that President Trump should give the occupiers one warning and then “go Kent State on they — — — .”
Kent State being, of course, the college where the National Guard shot and killed four students during an anti-war demonstration in 1970.
I don’t know. Once he left New York radio, we had little reason to talk, so all I could do was note from a distance that the guy who described himself as a libertarian seemed to be sounding more like a hard-line conservative.
I couldn’t tell if he had dialed back the wry streak of “they’re all crazy” humor he’d always had. That would be the humor that made him a semi-regular guest for years with the late Don Imus, and got him gigs both with MSNBC and Tucker Carlson on Fox News.
One of our last conversations came on April 27, 1996, a day after WOR radio in New York hired talk host Bob Grant, who had been fired by rival WABC a few weeks earlier for an appalling one-liner about the late Commerce Secretary Ron Brown.
WOR, long the second-place talk station in New York, could hardly believe it could now grab the city’s most popular local political talk host, and put him in the same afternoon drive slot he had held on WABC.
That did mean removing WOR’s current afternoon drive talk host, who was Jay Severin. WOR moved Severin to a separate talk show that would be carried on the national WOR network, but not heard in New York.
Severin knew this was not a lateral move. “New York,” he said, “is the Big Leagues.”
He also said, “This is a smart move for WOR. This is like Mark Messier coming to the [New York] Rangers [the hockey team Messier had recently helped boost to its first Stanley Cup in 54 years]. He brings the biggest local audience in the city. He’s a marquee player who will make everyone better. The move makes perfect sense.
“It’s a bad break only for me.
“But I was raised to believe that any time a player gets traded, his first question is, ‘Who did they get for me?’ In my case, that was Bob Grant. There’s no shame in being replaced by Willie Mays.”
As Severin predicted, WOR went on to score big with Grant. For his own part, he soon began what turned out to be a long run on WRKO and WTKK in Boston, where he made the Talkers Magazine list of the most influential 100 hosts on radio.
When he finally got fired in Boston — he survived the Mexican comments, but the intern remark was too much — he moved to the Internet and podcasts. Right to the end he remained a serial tweeter, exchanging thousands of spirited, sometimes wry, sometimes sarcastic and occasionally profane messages with people who agreed or disagreed with him.
Despite the widespread feeling that political talk hosts are as uniform as Canada Geese, they aren’t. Jay Severin wasn’t — and not just because of the Newfoundlands, though they alone would have been enough.