Rudy is on line 3 with a complaint. “Metrolinx is bloated,” he says sourly. “They got guys promoting stuff that’s not even sustainable.”
This is radio, but you can practically hear Doug Ford, the Etobicoke city councillor and sworn arch-enemy of governmental bloat, nodding angrily at the waste of taxpayer funds. “Was that Presto card $700-million?” Doug asks rhetorically. “Oh,” his brother Rob interjects, “it’s close to a billion dollars.”
Now Elizabeth is on line 1, upset about a “beautiful, expensive structure” for bikes that was recently installed next to the High Park subway station. “The thing must have cost a bundle,” she says. Rob listens intensely, then makes a promise: “If you wanna call my office, I’d be more than happy to come out, see where these bikes are situated,” he says. “I’ll get you answers on who made that decision and how much it cost – the whole nine yards.”
For the past 15 months, the brothers Ford have spent two hours on Sunday afternoons moonlighting as comically pugnacious AM radio talk jocks, jawing about key issues – fiscal restraint, lazy politicians, the primacy of subways – and shining a light on important community causes.
As they are targeted by aggressive local media, especially in the past two weeks as allegations of drug involvement swirled about them and the mayor’s office suffered some key departures, their Newstalk 1010 show, The City, has proven a comfortable bunker where they can shut out their naysayers and regroup.
And while they may infuriate critics by using the show’s bully pulpit to beat up opponents, the station’s management intends to keep them on the air for as long as it can without running afoul of Canadian election law. If they delay registering their candidacies for the 2014 election, it may be difficult to remove them until late in the race. (Mayor Ford has said he will be registering “the first day I can possibly register” in early January next year.)
Newstalk 1010 hatched The City in the fall of 2011, with centrist councillor Josh Matlow as host because, according to the station’s program director Mike Bendixen, “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.” Six months later, after an overture by someone on the mayor’s staff, Mr. Bendixen handed the show over to the Fords.
Critics instantly howled, but many of them have helped give the show a wider resonance than it might otherwise have. Twitter traffic during the shows overflows with mockery of the Fords, an apparent love-to-hate phenomenon. What are deemed as outrageous comments are dutifully reported, echoing out across social media.
That may be in part because sitting mayors hosting radio shows are rare in Canada. They are far more common in the U.S. One of the most high-profile examples was New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, who regularly antagonized enemies and common folk alike who dared call in during his Friday morning radio show.
Andrew Barrington, a 32-year-old political blogger living in Scarborough who voted for Rob Ford, listens to the Newstalk show just about every week, “out of support for him and Doug,” and to stay on top of civic issues.
“I think the Fords, especially Rob, do better when they interact directly with the public,” he explained in an email exchange. “It’s no secret that there are some outlets that favour them and some that don’t, and I always find any politician is best served when they don’t have butt-kissers and s**t-disturbers fogging up the situation.”
He added that he finds the show’s chemistry appealing.“In terms of the interaction between them, it truly sounds like brothers laughing and joking with each other instead of two politicians who happen to be relatives.”
Others get exasperated when they listen. One of the most popular weekly features on the website Torontoist is a recap of the show by journalist David Hains, who peppers his accounts with snarky asides and corrections of facts that he believes have been misstated or mischaracterized by the Fords.
Over the past 15 months, he says, “my tone has grown to be more frustrated in my articles, partially because it’s kind of like nagging a child: You want to correct their behaviour, you want them to learn and so on, but after awhile you just grow so frustrated with that child that they don’t want to learn.”
“You just want to throw up your arms.”
Noting that Doug Ford invokes religious imagery in his sign-off – saying “God bless Ford Nation” – Mr. Hains says his recap is for “the non-believers.”
The show’s political guest list heavily favours those on the right, and the Fords frequently attack perceived enemies. Last month, Doug Ford called councillor Karen Stintz, a one-time ally who had led a revolt against their transit plan, “nothing but a liar.” During last weekend’s show, he called out the councillors who had opposed a casino, and declared that he couldn’t wait for them to meet their fate in the next election.
The Fords could not immediately be reached for comment on this story.
Mr. Bendixen said antagonizing audiences is the nature of the beast. “We’re a live radio station that spends a lot of time talking, so at any given point during the course of the day, people say things that upset people and that’s the nature of running a talk radio station.”
Ratings for the show are fine but not exceptional, especially for a time slot with notoriously low audiences. The City pulled a 3.7 share during the winter 2013 rating period: on average, 3.7 per cent of all radios on in the Toronto area were tuned to Newstalk 1010. But, said Mr. Bendixen, “I’m interested in keeping the show on the air as long as they’re interested in doing the show.”
The law will likely intrude first. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission says that political candidates in the midst of a campaign must not be given a privileged platform such as a radio show. Once the Fords file their paperwork to run, which they have vowed to do next January for the election in Oct. 2014, they will need to step away from the mic. But if they postpone their registration until the last possible moment, in September, there may be little that opponents can do.
Mr. Bendixen promises to monitor the situation closely. “We all know there’s an election coming, so once that forces us to remove the show – or when we feel it’s getting to a level that’s uncomfortable or crossing the line – we’ll make a change.”