Earlier this week a scandal broke out on Winnipeg radio. 92 CITI FM host (or former host) Dave Wheeler took part in a discussion about actor Scarlett Johansson backing out of a movie role playing a trans character. Initially it was Johansson who felt the backlash but once Wheeler added his two cents, he was under the bus… and out of a job.
To sum it up briefly, Wheeler made comments on air that trans people are like actors: pretending to be something they’re not. I’m paraphrasing but that was ultimately what he said. Wheeler continued the discussion with a radio listener on social media direct messages. Well, as anybody in the public eye knows, screen shots are easily shared… and shared… and shared. The rest is history.
So, on Monday when this story broke in my hometown, my phone lit up with text messages and emails with the same question: “Did you hear what Wheeler said?” Admittedly, I hadn’t. Quite honestly, I didn’t even remember who the guy was but it didn’t take me long to find the story.
People wanted to know my thoughts for a few reasons. One, I’m from Winnipeg. Two, I’m in broadcasting. Three, I’m gay. The third one does make me a little uneasy. I’ll explain why before you call me a transphobic gay guy.
Nowadays the word “community” is tossed around quite easily. We hear about the black community, the gay community, the Hispanic community. Whether or not those are offensive terms isn’t my point. But I don’t subscribe to being dropped into a community of traits. I’m a white Ukrainian male but I don’t identify as being part of the white community or the Ukrainian community. Those are just two parts of who I am. Do they define me? I guess if you choose to look at it that way. I don’t.
To that end, I’m not part of the gay community in the sense that people suggest. I’m not part of any clubs or associations. I don’t go to Pride events. I don’t have any rainbow products in my house. It might be cliché but I’m just a guy who happens to be attracted to guys. But instantly I’m grouped with others and dropped into a community because I am like them (in this case, with gay guys since I’m attracted to the same gender as myself).
That’s my first issue: People wanted to know my opinion on Wheeler’s comments because I’m a gay guy. I’m not trans and I don’t understand the correlation between a gay man and someone who is transitioning to the other gender. We’re not the same. Am I offended by the comparison? No, I just feel I need to make the distinction for clarity. First and foremost I have an opinion because I am a human being, not because I might be one thing or another.
When I read the comments on news stories and social media posts, I saw the outrage people had that someone could get suspended and ultimately fired because they expressed their opinion. Do I agree with that? Yes and no. I agree that people are entitled to have their own thoughts no matter how against the norm they are. I also agree that people should be able to express those thoughts. I also agree that a workplace can punish you if you use their infrastructure to voice an offensive opinion or something that goes against company policy.
It could be argued that Wheeler was trying to make a point and just missed the mark. It could be argued that he was trying to strike up a conversation to get people to engage in the dialogue. It could be argued that he’s a hateful bigot who deserves everything that’s coming to him. Any or all of these could be true.
Many listeners of the local radio station took to social media to express their disagreement with CITI’s decision to fire Wheeler. Fans of his morning show vowed to change stations and/or follow him wherever he goes. (It’s unlikely he’ll get a job in Canadian broadcasting any time soon but you never know. Lay low for a year or two and you might make a comeback, Wheeler.)
People were disappointed that the overly sensitive snowflakes (their words, not mine) could cause such an uproar that the radio station had no choice but to fire the morning show host. Avid listeners said people can tune into another station if they don’t want to listen to Wheeler’s show anymore. Unfortunately, again, it’s not that simple.
Advertisers started to bow out and Rogers Media, the station’s parent company, likely felt the pressure and needed to make a quick decision about Wheeler’s fate. History has taught us (thanks, Roseanne, Kathy Griffin, Paula Deen and countless others) that when shit hits the fan and your star is wrapped up in controversy, the best decision to appease the masses is cut loose the scandal creator. Is that right or wrong? Both. It’s ultimately a business decision corporations face these days.
I’m not easily offended so I can’t say that Wheeler was in the wrong. I can, however, agree with people that see his remarks as offensive and hurtful. I’ve never felt comfortable suggesting someone’s feelings are wrong. Who am I to determine that? Everybody’s different.
People are easily offended in today’s world. It’s a fact of life. As much as we can groan and tell people to lighten up, it’s not going to happen overnight. I don’t know what will make it change. I know that in the 12 years I’ve been in broadcasting, there has been a shift in what people can and can’t say. (The exception being someone like Howard Stern who’s made a fortune being racy and risqué for decades.)
I have a new book coming out this summer called Multiple Sarcasm. It was written last year before all these equality and humanity protests started. The purpose of the book is to make you laugh. Are there offensive (read that as derogatory, sexiest, classless, etc.) remarks in it? I guess if you view them that way. If you pick up the book with the understanding that its purpose is to make you laugh, then you’ll be fine with it. If you read it and use its passages as a way to say I’m closed-minded or hateful, then you don’t appreciate the reason it was written.
The book’s description opens with: “In a world so full of hate, bigotry, violence, discrimination – the list goes on and on – it’s about time to switch off the depressing news and log out of social media to enjoy a good laugh.” It closes with: “If you are easily offended and can’t take a joke, you should remove the stick from your rear and dive deep into these pages. This book is intended to make you laugh and it will do just that – if you appreciate sarcasm.”
Am I worried about feeling the backlash or getting dropped by radio stations and newspapers because I put out a humour book? No. Am I fearful that people will name call me and raise hell when they think I hate women or gay people or old people or anyone else mentioned in the book? Honestly, a little.
But I won’t walk on egg shells. I think I’ve been around long enough to know what I can and can’t say when I’m on someone else’s airwaves. I am entitled to write whatever I want on my own platforms. Would I use the crass language from the book on the radio? Of course not because I know the limits of broadcasting nowadays.
I’m not here saying that off-colour jokes are bad and that you should be fired if you don’t subscribe to neutral opinions that won’t offend the mob – mainly because I’d have been fired a hundred times over if that were the case. You have to use your better judgement when you speak, whether you’re on a broadcast platform or not. It’s no different than someone going on a Facebook rant and then feeling the heat at work because they’re a representation of their company.
Maybe this is a hard lesson for Wheeler to learn, though I should note he had another controversial moment a couple of years ago when he offended several classes of people with a video post about Winnipeg communities. Assuming he wanted to go viral, and he did, it blew up in his face. For that he was also suspended but later returned to his program.
As for Wheeler’s firing, I understand why the company did it. I agree that they made the right decision based on the pressure they were feeling and the heat they were taking. It doesn’t worry me that censorship is taking over the broadcast industry. I don’t think it is. I think there’s a time and place to have certain discussions and opinions. I have plenty of thoughts that aren’t politically correct and make jokes that people would say are hugely insensitive. I know when and where to express them.
As for society’s sensitivities, I can’t make the blanket statement, “Lighten up, people.” What I can say is that you need to look at the person’s intent. I’ve interviewed many comedians on my syndicated radio shows over the years and several of them have said, “My job is to make you laugh. I’m not there to offend you. It’s comedy.” Their intent isn’t to hurt. And while that’s true, not everybody finds every style of comedy funny. (Also, I’m not suggesting Wheeler was attempting to be funny with his remarks.)
So, Dave Wheeler won’t be the last person to lose his job in broadcasting for something that he said. It’s unfortunate that his long career in radio and TV is likely done. As harsh as it might sound, and I don’t mean it to be like that (always with a disclaimer!), at least he has time to reflect and think about what he did. Maybe he can become a better person from this. Maybe he can use this as a learning experience and strive to be a powerful force and lead the change in society.