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.”