TORONTO – Former shock-jock radio star Dean Blundell says he can sympathize with the unceremonious downfall of Winnipeg radio host Dave Wheeler, who was fired this week after making offensive comments about transgender people.
Several years after his own ignoble descent from Toronto’s popular 102.1 The Edge, Blundell says he understands times have changed and that on-air jokes about race, gender and sexual orientation are just not acceptable: “It’s another wake-up call for everybody else. As it was for me.”
It would seem there’s just no tolerance today for foul-mouthed blowhards on the radio at a time when inclusivity is top of mind. Listeners and advertisers are increasingly likely to jump on a misstep, and media consolidation has ushered in a more conservative approach to salve an array of stakeholders and business interests.
Neil Mathur, a former music director and assistant program director at Toronto’s 97.3 EZ Rock, sees a multitude of factors shifting the culture behind and around the microphone, also pointing to a new generation of budding broadcasters who are generally more aware of diversity and inclusivity issues.
“It’s the mix of the consolidation, the way advertising is bought and sold, the way you get instantaneous feedback from social media from your audience,” says Mathur, noting that even ’90s shock-jock poster boy Howard Stern has mellowed.
Rogers Media said Wednesday that Wheeler’s departure from 92.1 CITI FM followed “multiple disciplinary incidents.”
“And in spite of numerous conversations, he has continued to offend our audiences. As a result, we have ended our relationship.”
Wheeler was initially suspended from his popular morning show on Tuesday, the day after he compared transgender people to actors who “pretend to be different things.” The comments were followed by backlash on social media, while several advertisers said they would pull their support.
Wheeler didn’t respond to a request for comment. The popular host has long courted controversy.
He drew complaints to the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council in 2016 over two derogatory songs that appeared on his show, “Wheeler in the Morning,” while animated versions showed up on CITI’s social media accounts. Dozens of protesters demanded he be fired over material they called sexist and racist. Wheeler was suspended and later apologized.
Fully grasping the scope of his comments and their impact will require more than just an apology, says Blundell, who admits he’s taken years to accept responsibility for a controversial run on The Edge that branded him one of the country’s most outrageously crass personalities.
Now, Blundell considers himself “a catalyst for change,” and sees that part of his career much differently: “It was wrong.”
“And you know what? I regret it. I absolutely regret it,” he says of his over-the-top comments.
“When you can look at life clearly, you can see where you’re the issue…. Everything that’s happened in my life — negative or positive — was caused by me, I am the author of it, not the victim of it and I think once I realized that I was able to kind of figure, ‘Well, hold it a second. You have some growing up to do.'”
His breakthrough began almost a year ago last August when he says he quit drinking, began therapy and embarked on a generally healthier lifestyle that saw him shed 60 pounds.
Blundell says he’s preparing to return to radio — without the low blows and cheap jabs.
“You can be smart today by providing people really good, edgy irreverent content but you don’t need to be destructive to any particular group or sexual orientation anymore,” says Blundell, who left The Edge in January 2014 after he and his producer made on-air comments about a sex assault trial he acknowledged as “rude, homophobic and inappropriate” in a subsequent apology.
“I think a lot of guys who have been in radio for a long time have had a hard time to adjust to it.”
Mathur, also a radio broadcasting prof at Humber College, says morning hosts in particular face intense pressure to draw listeners. That can sometimes appear to clash with the economic pressures of the radio business that must reflect community standards.
Then there’s the fact most of the country’s private stations are owned by multimedia giants Bell Media, Corus Entertainment and Rogers Media, he adds, making individual stations beholden to stringent corporate policies in addition to broadcast regulation.
Those media giants have a variety of tendrils reaching other distinct markets — including television, online, and print publications, each with their own audiences, and sensibilities.
“If you’re going on the air and your show is contrary to the values of the organization that you work for, that’s going to mean trouble,” he says.
“Companies are much more attuned to these sorts of things.”
Blundell, who ended a two-year stint at Sportsnet 590 The Fan in February 2017, says he’s still fighting his past as he strives to build a digital-based brand that includes live streaming, online interviews and downloadable podcasts.
He says he knows actions — not words — are what really matter, and insists he’s not on “a convincing tour.”
If Wheeler wants to rebound from this week, Blundell advises an honest look at how his actions have affected others.
It took Blundell years to realize that’s what he needed to do, and nearly another year to get him to where he is today.
“I was unnecessarily, unduly mean to certain groups of people for a laugh, and I think when you get to a point in your life where you have to make a change and you have to decide how you want to be viewed and through what lens, that was the last thing I wanted. I wanted to be a good story. I wanted to be a good man,” he says.
“If I’d give Dave any advice it’s to keep your ears open, keep your heart open, and be willing to admit your fault when you’re wrong and be willing to change those behaviours by changing yourself.”