Dean Blundell can see the future. From where he sits, looking north out the window of an ad hoc recording studio a few metres from Lake Ontario, the skyline of downtown Toronto is all construction cranes and yawning possibility.
He can also see his past: Across a watery channel to the northwest, the modernist glass headquarters of Corus Entertainment shimmers in the sun like a teasing mirage. With a market capitalization of more than $2-billion, Corus owns dozens of TV and radio properties, including 102.1 The Edge, once better known by its call letters, CFNY. That's where Blundell made his long-time professional home until he and producer Derek Welsman cracked some jokes about a sex-assault trial last summer that were deemed homophobic; by January, the men had lost their jobs.
At the moment, Blundell is poised between that anguished past and a future he is scrapping to build for himself. To find him here, on this chilly spring morning, you'll drive to the tip of a quiet road in Toronto's postindustrial Port Lands, past a windswept go-kart park and a cement-transfer station. A handful of Canada geese graze in a nearby parkette, their honking clatter lending the scene an off-season air of desolation.
Blundell is holed up on the second floor of Sound Academy, a cavernous music hall that on this Monday smells of bleach and beer and regret. Since early April, his buddies from the old days have been stopping by to show their support and sit down for a recorded chat: a handful of local advertisers and a rogue's gallery of ribald standup comics who helped make his morning show on The Edge the No. 1 draw for 18-to-49-year-old men in Toronto.
For 13 years, Blundell was Canada's shockiest jock, a crass trafficker of crude misanthropy, gay panic and drive-by racial insensitivity. Even as programming consultants and regulators scrubbed most of the distinguishing features from the broadcast landscape, he remained a radical warrior testing the front lines of this country's tolerance for intolerance. Then came exile.
Now, like a foul-mouthed Napoleon building his army on Elba, Blundell is constructing his comeback, positioning himself as an aspiring new-media impresario. He's starting with the occasional podcast, but he has visions of a real-time streaming audio service: radio, really, minus the high capital costs and regulatory restrictions.
Over the past few years, a number of American media figures, from journalists Andrew Sullivan, Glenn Greenwald and Matt Taibbi to standup comic Louis C.K., have ventured from the safety of their homes in legacy media organizations to develop new online businesses based on their individual brands. Liberated from the lumbering mother ships that often typify mainstream media, they have built passionate communities of followers devoted to the notion of freer expression and deeper engagement in specific subjects. As Blundell joins the wave, he could be among the first Canadians to leverage a personal brand born of old media into an online-only venture.
The timing may be on his side. Commercial radio stations in Canada continue to be money spinners. In 2012, the last year for which full data are available, the industry's profit margin before interest and taxation (PBIT) was 19.9 per cent; in Toronto, that reached 41.1 per cent. But in the U.S., conventional radio is beginning to lose listeners to streaming music services (which last year accounted for 7 per cent of radio listening there). There are hints that radio in Canada is also dropping off; certainly, it does not dominate the cultural agenda. And no one of Blundell's stature in this country is currently producing a regular standalone podcast.
"We live in a day and age now where a publicly traded entity can't say, 'You can't talk to anybody any more,'" says Blundell, perched on a stool next to a table dotted with microphones. "There's no way anyone can prevent me from talking to people I have a relationship with." At 41, he sports a goatee that's more silver than blond. He is dressed in an oversized cable-knit sweater, jeans, and flip-flops picked up at Marshalls.
Still, he is an unlikely advocate of the online revolution. Asked if he listens to many podcasts, he pauses and yelps, "Ahh! I've started to?" Then he adds quickly, "I never listened to the radio, either. Never, never, never.
"Here's some things about me that no one knows: I never listen to the radio. I'm almost never on the Internet. I rarely watch television; if I do, it's sports."
After he and Corus parted ways, Zeke Myers, a business partner who had produced a number of events headlined by Blundell (The Edge's Sausagefest), suggested they build DeanBlundell.com, which wasn't much of anything, into a meaningful hub.
It was something to do, at least. After he lost his job, Blundell admits, "It took a while to not wake up at 3:30, 4 in the morning. Sometimes I'd have a shower and go right back to bed, thinking, 'What am I doing?'"
A few weeks ago, he began posting podcasts to the site: interviews with standup comics Craig Gass, Barry Taylor, Darcy Michael and others. One edition features venerable clothier Saul Korman and Hyundai dealer Greg Carrasco, both long-time advertisers on Blundell's old Edge show. In another, Blundell probes his recording engineer, Mike "The A.V. Pimp," over a complicated sexual history and an ex-wife characterized as having mental-health issues. On Wednesday, he interviewed city Councillor (and Rob Ford stalwart) Giorgio Mammoliti.
As on some of his old radio shows, especially the ones around the time he and his wife divorced a few years ago, the podcasts are a jumble of talk therapy and corrosive frat-boy humour. He insists he's not bitter about his breakup with Corus – "I don't have an issue with the company at all. I think that they did what they felt they had to do," he says – though he's still clearly processing the experience.
A brief, then, for those who didn't follow that drama: Last summer, Blundell's then-producer Welsman served as the foreman on a jury that convicted Joshua Dowholis of sexually assaulting three men he had met at a bathhouse. During broadcasts in September, Welsman and Blundell joked about some of the more unsavoury aspects of the trial and the fate that awaited Dowholis in prison. "All I know is that you have damned a man to five of the greatest years of his life," quipped Blundell.
When Dowholis's lawyer learned of the broadcast, she asked the court for an inquiry into Welsman's behaviour, arguing he had a pre-existing bias against her client. The Toronto Star reported the story in December, Corus suspended Welsman, and Blundell read a statement on-air apologizing for comments he called "rude, homophobic and inappropriate," as well as "offensive and unacceptable."
Blundell says now he had no choice. "The company hired a crisis-management company and said: We need you to read this on air. I said, I don't want to read it; I didn't write that, that's not from me, and I don't find the comments homophobic. And they said: Read it." Two days later, he was suspended.
Complaints about the incident flooded into the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (though none were valid, since they had been filed more than 28 days after the segment aired). Three weeks later, the show was cancelled.
Blundell says he never got a satisfactory explanation of what he'd done wrong. "I don't necessarily think it was those comments. It was a high-maintenance show," he says. "I think with how far right everybody's gone, specifically in this city – whether it's the moral right, whether it's the gay right, whatever it is – there's a lot of fear." (Requests to Corus for comment on this story were unreturned.) As the radio industry has consolidated recently – BCE Inc.'s Bell Media, for example, now owns 106 radio stations; Rogers Media owns 54; Corus has 39 – Blundell believes they have become skittish about offending regulators.
And it's getting tougher, he says, to avoid trouble. "What we did seven years ago, all of a sudden two years ago became: No way. With no warning, no education – no nothing."
Truth is, Blundell had been controversial from the beginning. Six months after joining The Edge in the spring of 2001, he and then-co-host Todd Shapiro joked about oral sex in a segment that the CBSC ruled was too explicit for a time of day when children could be expected to be listening. He had his knuckles rapped in 2004 when guest David Carradine dropped an expletive; that happened only weeks after the station pre-emptively suspended the show's on-air staff because they had allowed guest Steve-O to urinate as passersby watched through the studio's storefront window.
The CBSC ruled against Blundell's show once each in 2009 and in 2010, but in 2012 and 2013 the panel considered an extraordinary nine separate incidents and wound up censuring the station six times. One of those was over a segment about a gruesome double murder in Mexico in which a young man and woman who had posted anti-drug messages on social media were found disembowelled and hanging from a bridge; nearby, a sign warned others against similar online postings. Blundell joked, "I thought, 'Jesus – someone hates Facebook more than me?'"
The CBSC didn't think that was funny.
Blundell now pleads guilty with an explanation: "The job that I did was to take some pretty dark corners and shine bright lights in 'em. Say, 'Hey, this is the shitty part of life, have a look at it.'"
But sometimes – often? – he and his co-hosts designed and built those dark corners for their own amusement: One 2011 ruling slapped him, Welsman, and Shapiro for a segment that mocked the notion of gender equality and featured an extended riff on women menstruating during combat. The CBSC judged the comments to be "abusive, unduly discriminatory, unduly negatively stereotypical, degrading or otherwise amounting to [an] unduly negative portrayal of women."
Asked now whether he regrets the comments he made that led to his dismissal, Blundell is forthright: "No. Because that would be to say I regret 13 years of what I did. Because we made those comments for 13 years. And our company, they made a lot of money off those comments. But you know, we weren't just the radio station that just made outlandish statements, we were a radio station that told the truth."
Blundell's new podcasts would have the CBSC panel reaching for their smelling salts. Unfettered by restrictions on foul language or guidelines on how to treat sensitive subject matter, the shows are raw and pointed. They will strike most radio listeners as extreme, but Blundell suggests that might be because the competition is so bland. "If you were to ask me what the best radio station is out there right now, it'd probably be [Rogers's sports radio] The Fan. There's personality there, there's opinion there."
Conventional wisdom holds that online outlets do well when they have a distinct voice, and even better when that voice is polarizing. That is the sweet spot of Blundell's podcast project.
For the moment, he is bankrolling the venture himself, but he has a handful of sponsors – he calls them partners – that he expects will eventually contribute to costs. There isn't a workable financial model yet – no rate card, no expectations of how many people will download the shows – but he knows he'll use the podcasts to build excitement for regular live appearances: comedy shows produced by Myers, say, starring one or more of Blundell's friends.
And some of the podcasts will feature "branded placement" in which sponsors are incorporated into a program. "I want the commercials to be the content. I want clients to come in and say, 'Hey, we want to be part of the conversation,'" says Blundell.
No money has yet changed hands, but some of his former sponsors from 102.1 say they'll be happy to support the new venture. "About 30 per cent of all [my] sales were coming in because of the connection I had with Dean," said Greg Carrasco in an interview. (Carrasco is the former president and general manager of Newmarket Infiniti-Nissan; last month he became the general manager of Hyundai of Oakville.) "When Dean left, I said to The Edge, 'If there is no Dean, there is no Greg.' So I left when they cancelled the show."
Here in the studio, Blundell is sketching out what he would like the project to be. He is building now, in his mind. "My goal is to do not just these daily podcasts," he says. "It would be: You have an app, you can click on an app, plug it into your car, get a real-time morning show from 6 to 9. That's my goal, to add people as we go: a midday person – someone fun, informative – a news person, whatever.
"No one is doing this right now. No one is saying, 'I'm going to double down on the fact that everyone consumes things on these little phones – and they do it everywhere, all the time.'"
Even if that's not true – large and small media organizations around the world are overhauling themselves to focus on delivering content to mobile devices – Blundell is undaunted. Besides, he misses his audience, misses the support they offered while he was going through his divorce. "I want that back. I want to be able to talk to those people again, and I want to be able to service them properly the way they serviced me. And I know that's a lot of servicing."
He lets the innuendo hang there for a moment, then smirks and says, "But that's the truth."