Our reporter tunes in to the bellicose world of talk radio and discovers that there's more than meets the ear
Bill Carroll arrives at the offices of CFRB 1010 in downtown Toronto inhaling a pastry and gulping from a bottle of Five Alive. He’s got half an hour to kill before his show begins. It’s the same morning show – one of Toronto’s top-rated – that he’s been hosting for seven years. As usual, Carroll’s been up for nearly two hours. On the treadmill each morning he watches the morning news and reads the newspapers as he runs. By 7 A.M., he and producer Ryan Doyle have already discussed the day’s news over the phone and started to formulate a plan for the day’s broadcast.
Once in his office, Carroll and Doyle resume their chat. Two likely topics today are the Toronto Police Service job action and reports of criminals being allowed day passes to attend Paramount Canada’s Wonderland. Doyle needles Carroll about his sugar intake. Assuming a manic expression, the veteran news reporter and radio host growls, “But it makes me really peppy.” Given how energetic and bombastic Carroll acts during the course of his almost three-and- a-half hour show, it’s obvious he knows the value of a good sugar rush. Shortly before 8:30 A.M., Carroll’s colleague Ted Woloshyn wraps up his show. “That’s us!” says Carroll. He and Doyle gather up their notes and newspaper clippings and scurry down the hall and into the control room to start the October 19, 2005 edition of The Bill Carroll Show.
The atmosphere in the control room is jovial. During the segment about criminals’ day passes to Wonderland, the callers are mostly critical of the practice until a woman named Mary provides a dissenting view. She defends the criminals, saying maybe they never got the chance to go to an amusement park. Laughter echoes through the control room. Matt, the next caller, lambastes Mary’s opinion and calls her a “moron.” But Carroll defends Mary’s right to her point of view. “She’s maybe a little na?ve,” he says, “but she obviously believes the best in people.”
AM radio owes a great deal to talk radio hosts like Carroll. The band faced extinction in the 1970s as music listeners gravitated to better audio reception on the FM dial. By 1980, AM found its salvation in talk, a format that was started half a century earlier by an American disc jockey named John J. Anthony. CFRB, like many stations, was once all music but switched to a news and talk format by the end of the 1980s. It is now the most listened-to talk station in Canada. The station’s programs follow the format of most talk radio shows in Canada. Steve Kowch, operations manager at CFRB, says it’s “mainly talk sprinkled with interviews and guests.” In the U.S., archconservatives like Rush Limbaugh or “shock jocks” such as Howard Stern define the format. But for a variety of reasons, including Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) restrictions on what can or cannot be said on air, a milder variety of talk prevails in Canada. Still, in order to attract advertising dollars, commercial radio stations need to attract listeners. Usually this means talk radio has to retain a sensationalistic element to boost ratings, even at the cost of bona fide news content.
On December 23, 1900, a Canadian engineer and inventor named Reginald Aubrey Fessenden successfully transmitted his own voice over the first radio system from Cobb Island, near Washington, D.C. Within a few decades, radios provided news, music and entertainment to nearly every household in the country. Today, there are ninety to one hundred million analog radio sets in Canada. They’re a ubiquitous presence in people’s daily lives, playing in kitchens, cars and workplaces. Even many MP3 players are equipped to receive AM and FM.
A Statistics Canada survey from fall 2004 revealed that an average of 10.6 per cent of Canadians listen to talk radio, with the largest audience in Newfoundland at 25.4 per cent. The industry considers talk radio to have a more participatory and engaging nature than music stations, which are often played in the background. Unlike most listeners, talk radio’s audience is encouraged to directly participate in programs. In his book On Air: Radio in Saskatchewan, Wayne Schmalz says listeners call in not only to display their knowledge to the rest of the audience but to interact with a public persona or authority figure about the issues at hand.
With their large personalities, hosts must be entertaining in order to keep listeners engaged, increase audience share and attract advertising revenue. The last ambition is less of a concern to non-commercial stations like those of the CBC, which receives federal funding to help pay operating costs, but they too seek the widest possible listener base. Charles Adler, who’s been on North American radio for over thirty years and currently broadcasts his nationally syndicated show, Adler on Line, from commercial talk-radio station CJOB in Winnipeg, puts it succinctly: “We get ratings results four times a year – if we cannot get ratings, we are out of work.”
Critics of the format say the quest for ratings inevitably trumps all other considerations. Schmalz writes that talk radio’s aim “is to please the greatest number of listeners so that advertisers will continue to buy time and parliamentarians will continue to provide public funds for its operations.” Talk radio’s audience is loyal, so it’s a lucrative group for advertisers. Advertisers are willing to pay twice as much to reach talk audiences versus music audiences because the format encourages “foreground” listening. But that leads to a marketing problem – talk radio is commonly perceived to appeal primarily to retirees. Roy Hennessy, chief operating officer of Aboriginal Voices Radio (AVR) 106.5 FM in Toronto, says the biggest problem with attracting advertisers in Canada is the demographic tends to be older; appealing to listeners under thirty has always been a challenge. MOJO Radio, for example, AM 640’s previous incarnation, was created to appeal to a young male demographic, but failed to attract the necessary audience share and was overhauled.
However, Hennessy, who has had a long career in Canadian radio working at many different stations, including CFRB, says finding the balance between journalism and entertainment is “a double-edged sword.” Talk shows have to provide balance and fairness in how they handle the issues but must also evoke a strong level of listener interest and involvement. “You build entertainment value while you work to accomplish a journalistic point of view,” he says. Patrice Mousseau, the host of Women’s Round Table, which airs on AVR every Friday morning at 11 A.M., says talk radio should ideally function as an entertaining conversation. “Hard journalism?” she wonders. “Perhaps not. But it creates an interest in issues, events and people. If listeners have questions or feel comforted or outraged by topics, this can only be a good thing.”
Rex Murphy, host of CBC Radio’s weekly current affairs program Cross Country Checkup, says there is no need to trade journalistic integrity for entertainment. “A really good guest or a really interesting phone call can be very entertaining,” he says, “and because it is less contrived, it can secure an audience even better than obvious shock.” Every Sunday afternoon, Murphy presides over the two-hour call-in show, which has been broadcast on CBC Radio for forty years. It is Canada’s only live, open-line national radio program and has close to 500,000 listeners weekly.
“Our show is very listener-driven,” says Murphy. “Our callers get to say what they want, more or less, rather than have arguments with the host, which is a signature of one type of call-in show.” On December 4, for example, Frank Graves, founder and president of Ekos Research Associates Inc., was Murphy’s guest. He and Murphy set out to determine the number one election issue in the minds of Canadians. Graves said Canadians were more concerned with social issues than politicians’ ethics. The callers not only offered diverse views but also represented a broad national spectrum, with calls coming in from across the country.
Preparation for Cross Country Checkup varies from week to week. Rex Murphy’s two producers, Charles Shanks and Kate Swoger, spend the preceding week choosing and refining a topic, preparing background information and selecting guests to facilitate the discussion. Murphy keeps up with all major issues himself, then gets ready for any given show topic over the weekend.
Because of the onerous costs involved in producing talk programming, as opposed to all-music formats, few commercial stations are able to employ their own news gathering sources. Some local talk radio stations have reporters for local issues, although for provincial and national stories they rely on other sources. AM 640 in Toronto airs its investigative series on local issues four or five times a year. In October 2005, “The Power and People at City Hall” delved into the inner workings of the city’s political hub. CFRB and CJAD 800 AM in Montreal have newsrooms facilitating coverage of local and some national issues. In fact, CFRB has one of the largest radio newsrooms of any commercial station in the country. And, of course, a national news gathering team supports talk-oriented programs on CBC Radio One.
No matter how rich in resources they are, the best talk radio hosts still have to prepare rigorously for shows. Mike Stafford, host of AM 640’s The Stafford Show and a self-professed “info junkie,” reads all the Toronto dailies, watches the television news and scans the online news sites for The Toronto Star and CNN. Besides being well-versed on a wide range of topics on any given day, Stafford is also a versatile interviewer. During his October 4, 2005 broadcast, he interviewed Toronto Police Association president Dave Wilson about the impending police job action, Liberal MP Dr. Carolyn Bennett about the rise in Canada’s child abuse rate, Dr. Alan Hudak about rising child obesity rates in Ontario and former Toronto city councillor Pam Coburn about her alleged affair with a co-worker. He also found time to grill Toronto Argonauts coach Michael “Pinball” Clemens about his possible mayoral ambitions and talked movies with Reel to Real host and author Richard Crouse.
Stafford’s show airs weekdays 4 to 7 P.M. A balding man wearing dark-rimmed glasses, he sits behind one of the station’s broadcast microphones, tapping his pen to Van Halen’s song “Ain’t Talkin’ ’bout Love.” Taking huge gulps from his cup of diet cola, he looks over his show’s schedule. His style is more aggressive than anything heard on CBC but he still says talk radio is definitely “nicer” here than in the U.S. The call-in segment about childhood obesity on his October 4, 2005 show illustrates his point. He prefaces one of the local calls by announcing that the caller’s son hasn’t been out of the house in ten years because he’s been playing video games. By the time the caller gets to air, however, he apologizes to her, gruffly saying, “I’m just kidding!” She takes his joke in stride and voices her comments.
According to Michael Harrison, the editor of Talkers, an American magazine about the format, Canadian talk radio is less sensational and more journalistic than its U.S. counterpart. Its shows also cater principally to local rather than national audiences. Carroll explains the contrast differently. “In the U.S.,” he says, “it’s not far outside the box. They stick with safe political topics, rally behind the flag. Here the topics are more spread out. You get water cooler type conversation, lifestyle and family issues.”
The style of hosts range from the usually calm, measured tones of Mousseau and Murphy, to the more overbearing yet still informed approach preferred by Stafford and Carroll. All avoid the extreme tactics of American-style shock jocks John Collison and Jeff Fillion, who both learned the hard way that Canadian talk radio is different. Shock radio contravenes the CRTC Radio Regulations and Broadcast Act, which prohibits on-air abusive comment. For example, stations may not air “any abusive comment that, when taken in context, tends to or is likely to expose an individual or a group or class of individuals to hatred or contempt on the basis of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, sexual orientation, age or mental or physical disability.”
Radio stations must adhere to this code or risk losing their broadcasting licences. Collison, a former talk radio host on Winnipeg’s Talk 1290, has described his on-air persona as “Howard Stern-esque.” He was dismissed because many believed he was promoting hatred against gays and lesbians in one of his on-air rants. Referring to a lesbian Winnipeg School Board member, he declared, “You’ve got diesel dykes running the school board.” His contract was terminated because of numerous complaints and Collison admitted it was this comment that probably sealed his fate. Fillion’s on-air rants, meanwhile, lasted over a seven-year period at Quebec City’s CHOI-FM. On air, he made contentious remarks about business rivals, local politicians, gays, feminists, visible minorities and Montreal media and showbiz stars. In July 2004, after receiving a large number of complaints, the CRTC chose not to renew CHOI’s licence because of Fillion’s antics. CHOI contested the revocation, and the case has gone all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. The station is allowed to broadcast until the final decision, expected later this year, is handed down. Fillion resigned in March 2005 over disagreements with management about his on-air conduct and the lawsuits it prompted.
While talk radio has the option of being hurtful and cruel, it can also be an unlikely humanitarian force. In Canada, the fact that the format focuses on the local has been a good thing in times of crisis. Emergencies reinforce radio’s ability to provide a sense of community and security in frightening situations when all the other information sources are down. One such predicament was the northeastern blackout in August 2003, which suddenly left fifty million people without electricity and occurred shortly after Stafford went on air at 4 P.M. Purely by chance, AM 640’s transmitter in Grimsby, Ontario survived the outage. That, coupled with the station’s generators, meant that for thirty minutes it was the only station able to broadcast in Toronto. Stafford realized the extent of the power failure when the news wires subsequently came in. “From that moment on, we basically went commercial-free, just taking calls.” He says the blackout was one of the greatest things that could happen for radio in Toronto: “It hammered home its immediacy.”
An earlier crisis, the ice storm that affected Ontario and Quebec in January 1998, demonstrated radio’s potential importance. Talk radio host Ric Peterson recalls that his station, CJAD 800 AM in Montreal, encountered difficulties during the storm because their transmission towers were knocked out by heavy ice. Peterson described how the station’s management realized the need for talk radio during the crisis and transferred AM news talk programming over to its Top 40 FM station, CJFM: “We were able to get the information out to our listeners.”
Calamities don’t happen often, but just the same, talk radio hosts can still show their mettle as both journalists and entertainers on an everyday basis. On December 9, 2005, The Bill Carroll Show featured a call-in discussion about Michel Thibideau, a man who sued Air Canada after being refused French service during his flight. Many of the callers were critical of Thibideau, who subsequently won $500,000 in the lawsuit, but Carroll defended Thibideau in his usual spirited manner, showing an understanding of Canadian law. He said he doubted the affront was worth $500,000 and that an apology should have sufficed. However, he bluntly told his audience that Thibideau did have a right to service in both our country’s official languages. “You may not like it,” Carroll said to one of his many angry callers, “but it’s the law.”
If Carroll had wanted to be solely entertaining or sensationalistic, he would have gone along with the mood of the callers and raged against Thibideau. But he didn’t resort to these tactics. Canadian talk radio may not offer hard journalism, but it does initiate informed on-air debate and discussion of daily news. Hosts like Carroll are mouthy provocateurs but they tend to act responsibly and with journalistic integrity while working off that sugar rush.