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The Dean Blundell affair: Maybe shock jockery simply isn’t the Canadian way

Dean Blundell attends the Joe Carter Classic at the Shangri-La Hotel in Toronto.

Ernesto Distefano/George Pimentel Photography

The barbarian was at the gates.

In August, 1997, Toronto radio station Q107 and Montreal's CHOM-FM announced that they were importing U.S. shock jock Howard Stern into Canada, and that they expected his proudly offensive humour to grab the No. 1 spots in their respective markets. Listeners reacted with – well, shock. "We have enjoyed tuning in to Q107 over the years. No more," sniffed a Globe and Mail reader. "My ears and those of my child will not tune in to Mr. Stern's trash." Rose Dyson, chair of a group called Canadians Concerned About Violence in Entertainment, said, "There's very little doubt that Howard Stern's entry into Canada has meant that the envelope on our hate laws is really being pushed." Some feared local hosts would try to match Stern's foul mouth.

From the moment he hit the air, the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council had its hands full weighing listener complaints. The following month, the industry-run body noted in a ruling that, in Stern's first week alone, he "targeted Japanese, gays, Poles, Sikhs, blacks and Arabs among others. For example … he referred to Sikhs by saying 'smack the guy on the back of his turban' and, on the following day, he mocked the Arabs."

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Within a year, CHOM had had enough of Stern; Q107 limped along with him for four years, airing his show on a seven-minute delay, before dumping him amid slumping ratings.

Homegrown shock jocks who grew up listening to Stern on U.S. border stations rushed to fill the void. The most notorious was Dean Blundell, the morning man at Corus Radio's 102.1 The Edge in Toronto, who was hired in 2001 and quickly became a favourite among listeners in the 18-to-34 male demographic. But on Monday, Corus pulled the plug on Blundell, saying it wanted to take the station in "a new direction."

His departure highlights one of the sharp distinctions between the Canadian and American radio landscapes. Shock jockery remains big business south of the border: Airing on the satellite-based subscription service SiriusXM, which is beyond the reach of the Federal Communications Commission, Stern is in the fourth year of a contract estimated to pay him about $80-million (U.S.) annually. Others such as Bubba the Love Sponge and the duo Opie & Anthony, who once goaded a couple to have simulated sex in St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York, during a mass, have loyal followings. But the genre has been an uncomfortable fit for Canadian broadcasters and audiences.

To those who have followed Blundell's career, the end likely came as a surprise. For years, he and his co-hosts had indulged in scurrilous segments that shocked and appalled those who happened to stumble across the broadcasts: Of the 14 CBSC decisions handed down against radio stations in 2012 and 2013, six sanctioned the Blundell show – far more than Stern ever racked up.

While CBSC rulings may be seen by the public as mere slaps on the wrist, they are taken seriously within the executive suites of the council's almost 800 privately owned member stations. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission refers all listener complaints to the council, and closely watches its decisions when considering whether to renew a broadcasting licence.

But the final straw for Blundell didn't even involve the CBSC, instead coming to the attention of Corus executives last month after the Toronto Star reported that Blundell's producer and co-host Derek Welsman had made a series of homophobic jokes in September about serving as the jury foreman during a trial in which a man was found guilty of sexually assaulting three men he had met at a Toronto bathhouse. The guilty man's lawyer had complained that Welsman's comments should have prompted a mistrial. (The trial judge disagreed.)

Still, on-air talent in Canada seems to be getting even more cautious. After Justin (Drex) Wilcomes asked B.C. Premier Christy Clark during a December, 2012, interview, "What it's like being a MILF?" (to which she replied, "I take that as a compliment … better a MILF than a cougar"), he was let go by Comox radio station Jet FM. In an account of his firing published on Huffington Post, Wilcomes explained, "There's a fine line in radio, and if you cross it, all hell can break loose. I crossed that line – well, that company's version of the line, anyway."

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And in late 2012, when a nurse at the London hospital treating the Duchess of Cambridge reportedly killed herself after falling for a prank phone call by a pair of Australian jocks, two Vancouver hosts pledged to stop making similar calls. Tara Jean Stevens, who with her co-host, Kiah Tucker, had been slapped down by the CBSC a few months earlier for a prank call to a local dentist's office, cited "a lot of negative feelings about [the calls]" in an interview with radio station News1130. "We will be stopping prank calls indefinitely on our show."

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About the Author
Senior Media Writer

Simon Houpt is the Globe and Mail's senior media writer, charged with covering the industry's transformation. He began his career with The Globe in 1999 as the paper's New York arts correspondent, covering the cultural life of that city through Canadian eyes. More

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