They say that people get the politicians they deserve. Lately, I've been wondering if it's the same with morning radio.
A couple of months ago, I returned to Toronto after more than a decade away in New York. Down there, I'd all but stopped listening to the radio, turned off at first by the relentless ads and numbing repetition of the musical choices, and then, as my young children got a little older, by a growing concern that a DJ would say something I'd have trouble explaining to the kids.
But when I moved home, someone told me that radio audiences were growing. Perhaps I was missing out on something? A tasting menu was in order: If any one station proved irresistible, I resolved to return to the radio fold.
The experiment began inauspiciously. One morning last month, I woke up, flipped on CHFI-FM, and almost fell right back to sleep. Its formula was decades old: genial co-hosts, inoffensive jokes, and a generous helping of semi-classic pop from a decades-old playlist. The most recent ratings showed the station in solid possession of the No. 2 spot. I was flummoxed. What did it mean about Toronto that my fellow citizens had so passionately embraced the unremarkable charms of Erin Davis and Mike Cooper?
True, CBC Radio One didn't jump-start the heart, either. But Andy Barrie and his co-workers are the only ones on the dial these days interested in providing listeners with useful information. Politicians and advocates view the studio as a vital stop. On the first day of school, Mr. Barrie talked to a home-schooling advocate, the principal of Toronto's first Afrocentric School, and Ontario's Minister of Education. I'll admit, I sometimes braced myself, fearing a force-feeding of fibre for the spirit. But I'd push through and invariably ended up feeling enlightened, or at least more connected to the community.
Enlightenment isn't the goal over at Virgin Radio. The dominant tone of The Breakfast Show is a blend of snark and caffeine, with a claustrophobic overlay that comes from the hosts, Mad Dog and Billie, leaning too close to the microphone as they talk over each other. Still, there's life in the broadcast, even if Mad Dog is too often trying to make sexual jokes that are far too obvious to be funny. (When Dr. Oz told him during an interview that H1N1 was "a very promiscuous virus," Mad Dog quipped, "I knew it was slutty.")
At least their humour had a whiff of nuance. When Gayle King, a close friend of Oprah Winfrey whose sexuality is sometimes questioned by gossipers, visited TIFF, John Derringer on Q107 joked that she had "spent the weekend buried in the red carpet." But if he's an unreconstructed man, more often than not he's being schooled by his sidekick Maureen Holloway. The other day, Mr. Derringer expressed sympathy for all the men whose desire to watch a particular football game had been stymied by their wives or girlfriends. "We should have a common area in a neighbourhood where a guy can go to watch TV," he said. "We do," snapped Ms. Holloway. "It's called a bar."
The secret is to go all the way, to ignore societal restraints. Which is what brought me to the Dean Blundell Show , the No. 1 morning drive-time broadcast with men aged 18-49.
I'd heard of Mr. Blundell, but I'd never listened to him until last month, when I tuned to 102.1 and was confronted with a rambling segment featuring Qi Min Sheng, the show's "Asian correspondent," mispronouncing words - "misery" for "Missouri," "Canadia" for "Canada" - while protesting that he spoke, "perfect Eng-wish." Suddenly, Dean and his sidekicks launched into a mincing imitation of gay men, apropos of nothing.
But then, that's the morning crew's special genius. They have the attention span of fleas: They'll begin a news report and then a belch from one will send them careening off into a reverie that ranges from salmon to - well, to sex, because that's where most of their reveries end up. A discussion with their resident sex expert about intercourse among fat people quickly deteriorated into jokes about using Tenderflake as lubricant and pepperonis for tassels. It's reprehensible, sure, but at some point it exercises a kind of hypnotic effect, and you willingly switch off your brain. I found myself admiring their almost surreal sensibility, and wondering if Salvador Dali might have been a fan.
Then, a couple of weeks ago, Dean and the boys reported on a double drowning accident at Florida's Lake Okeechobee. Explaining that William Reed, 67, and his 38-year-old son John were pulled from the water during a fishing tournament, the DJs giggled that the two men represented "the biggest catch of the derby."
Something in my brain clicked. Two men had died in a terrifying fashion, and Dean and his friends thought it hilarious. I was angry at them, and angry at myself for having believed they'd just been up to some harmless fun. I smashed the "off" button and let the silence wash over me for a few minutes. Then I stepped outside and left the radio behind.