Defeated at city council, underwater in the polls, and beaten up daily in some quarters of the Toronto media, Mayor Rob Ford is adopting a new communications strategy and taking his message directly to the people. On Sunday, he and his brother Doug, a local councillor who often acts as the mayor's attack dog, will make their debut as talk radio hosts on the city's Newstalk 1010.
The approach echoes that of some U.S. politicians, like the plain-spoken former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, who blames "the lamestream media" for her troubles even as she enjoys a comfortable perch as a pundit on the friendly cable outlet Fox News.
On Thursday morning, Doug Ford made it clear he believed the media are to blame for his brother's problems. "You're going to get the straight goods from Rob and I," Mr. Ford promised Newstalk 1010 listeners during an interview with host Jerry Agar. "You aren't going to have the media twisting it around like they've been twisting it around for the last year and a half."
Rob Ford has famously built his success from one-on-one connections with voters, returning constituents' phone calls late into the night even after becoming mayor in December, 2010. But the approach has its limitations, and with some members of council smelling blood, and antagonistic media outlets such as the Toronto Star celebrating each recent stumble, his administration believes disenchanted voters' support will be rekindled if only they can hear from him directly.
On Thursday, an op-ed piece under the mayor's byline in The Globe and Mail reaffirmed Mr. Ford's belief in the primacy of subways.
Newstalk, meanwhile, has regularly provided the mayor with a friendly platform. It is often where he floats policy trial balloons – such as his idea of privatizing social housing – and makes more personal announcements, such as his pledge last month to lose weight.
The City, airing 1-3 p.m. on Sundays, will allow the Fords a chance to accentuate the positive. Mike Bendixen, the program director of Newstalk 1010, said he developed the show last year "because I and a lot of our listeners were fed up with just hearing about all the screaming and yelling and nonsense that was happening at city hall." The show, he said, is "focused on the positive things that are happening in the city."
Some would suggest it is Mayor Ford who is responsible for much of that screaming and yelling at city hall.
"It's showing a move in Canadian radio toward that American tradition of very angry shows, because there will be a lot of angry people phoning in: Angry at either Doug and Rob, or at their opponents," suggested Suanne Kelman, the associate chair of Ryerson University's school of journalism. "So there'll be a lot of yelling. I'm sure it'll be good for business."
Mr. Bendixen begged to differ: "Bickering is not good content."
Until last weekend, centre-left councillor Josh Matlow was host of The City. Mr. Bendixen said he made the change after the mayor's camp approached him in the middle of January. The station will take stock of the show in six months and decide whether to continue.
By that time, the mayor may have realized that a direct route to voters isn't necessarily always good. During his seven years hosting a Friday morning show on AM radio, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani's pugilistic lack of tact frequently left listeners breathless. When a caller noted that a friend of Mr. Giuliani's had been linked to ethical wrongdoing, the mayor replied: "You should go to a hospital. You should see a psychiatrist." Some callers would pester him on a regular basis, getting under his skin. In one infamous instance, he told a woman whose son had been gunned down by the police: "Maybe you should ask yourself some questions about the way he was brought up."
Still, in his 2002 book Leadership, he wrote that his radio program allowed him a rare platform. "I didn't have to be a slave to press coverage," he said. "I was deliberately going beyond the newspapers, communicating directly to the people."
With files from Elizabeth Church