“What kind of bird-brained business decides to fire the majority of their on-air staff in one day and not expect a massive public backlash?” asks party promoter Matt Sims, one of over a thousand people who’ve signed on to the Facebook page, “Proud FM: The Shame of Toronto.”
The queer-themed radio station abruptly fired on-air hosts Shaun Proulx, Deb Pearce, Mark Wigmore and Patrick Marano on May 5th and now faces an uprising from angry fans who feel the straight-owned station has betrayed the queer community.
One fan on Twitter linked to Proud FM’s sponsor page, pointedly noting, “radio lives and dies by advertisers.”
Lesbian dance performer Nancy Rancourt sent a letter sent to the station, which she also posted online.
“Proud 103.9 FM abruptly fired our Fantastic Four and I strongly feel it is my personal, professional, and social responsibility to take a stand as a person, an artist, and community member.”
Calling her campaign “Loyalties OUTweigh Royalties,” Rancourt has pulled all her present and future singles from the station and urges other musicians to do the same.
As the disapproval at Proud FM’s decision has increased in volume this past week, both the “Fantastic Four” and the Proud FM management have remained relatively silent — the first group consulting with employment lawyers, the second bound by human resources ethical and legal rules — but now, both camps are beginning to speak.
Shaun Proulx issued a statement to Xtra on behalf of the former employees.
“Many of the practices at the station have been a growing concern for us, and we have not been happy with certain requests that were being made as the voices of Proud FM and the lesbian, gay, bi and trans community. As a group, we are very concerned with the direction the station is headed on many levels. After seeking a standard meeting with management about these issues, our employment was unexpectedly terminated with what Proud FM is calling ‘cause.’”
Operations manager Bruce Campbell won’t reveal what was said in that meeting but says the firings “came about as the result of significant differences between management and the affected individuals as to how the business and administration of the station — both on-air and commercially — should be conducted. When it became apparent that these differences could not be resolved and would continue to adversely affect the station — both the on-air product and its administration on a day-to-day basis — we had to make a business decision.”
Campbell is well aware of how controversial that decision has been.
“Oh, I’ve received some email,” he says, “but frankly, I’d be disturbed if I wasn’t getting any email — would mean nobody cared. People are upset and I appreciate why they’re upset. Nobody here, especially me, takes any joy in this. Every chance I got, I repeatedly told these people — all four of them — that I respected their talent and their abilities on air. They connected with our audience, they reflected our community, they were entertaining. This decision was not taken lightly.”
That said, however, Campbell points out that such firings are commonplace in radio.
“There are stations that have changed entire formats, the entire staff, in one day,” he says but, after a heavy sigh, he concedes the point that this is actually the third multiple firing in the station’s history, following dismissals in 2007 that included popular hosts Maggie Casella, Lisa Marshall and Richard Ryder.
“What’s the choice here?” Campbell says, “Let this thing continue to deteriorate completely or move forward? As difficult as it is, Proud FM will continue to move forward and hopefully be better. The people who remain here today are just as talented as the people who just left.”
Richard Ryder is in the unique position of having been fired from Proud FM in 2007 and then rehired about a year later. At the time, he says, “the people who fired me were all the straight people who were certainly giving the impression that Proud FM was not going to remain a gay station for long. They had a straight guy from Woodbridge and a straight guy from Italy who didn’t speak English making the calls. We’re still untying knots from that time.”
Now hosting the mid-day show, Ryder says he’s mystified by what happened, especially given his relationship with the current management.
“I really respect Bruce Campbell and [program director] Bob Willette. They’ve been very good to me and really supportive of my stand-up career but I told them to their faces that they made a huge mistake in firing Shaun and Mark. I think they have.”
Ryder says “certain requests” drove his fellow hosts to confront the management, but it’s a mystery to him, though he thinks their different workloads were the cause.
“‘The Shaun Proulx Show’ and the breakfast show are both live. They have far different concerns than my show and Miss Conception’s show which are pre-taped.” Coming in for only a couple hours a day to tape his show, Ryder says, insulated him from “office bullshit” and he didn’t see the dispute coming. “Shaun and Patrick and I are friends and I was over at their house the Saturday before and they said nothing to me and I later thanked him for it. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to know but this is the environment we work in.”
Pearse Murray also hosts a pre-taped show on the station and, like Ryder, didn’t see the firings coming. After retiring from a real-estate career at 65, Murray became “the world’s oldest intern” at the station, he laughs, and, “Shaun and Deb were extremely helpful to me when I started.”
Whatever concerns Proulx and the others had with management, Murray says, are unknown to him but he hazards a guess.
“I’m not privy to all the information,” says Murray, “but there were a lot of emails back and forth from Deb and Shaun and I’d heard that they wanted more money. Most places these days, not just Proud FM, aren’t giving anyone raises because they’re trying to recover.”
Campbell, again, won’t comment on this but Ryder says of course money is an issue. Currently subbing for Pearce and Marano in the breakfast slot, Ryder says finding a new host will take a while.
“They can’t afford it. Even people without experience in radio hear what they’re offering and say, ‘Are you kidding?’” With his other gigs at OUTtv and hosting a Wednesday night show at Zelda’s, Ryder says, “I make more money outside of Proud FM than I do here.”
Also, Ryder says, “A morning show is a different beast and ours has plagued from the get-go. Mary-Jo Eustace left, then Ken Kostick left, then Deb Pearce came in and they couldn’t keep a producer with her. With Shaun, he’s such a professional and for him to request to meet with people and for them not to, I still have a problem with that and I don’t understand why they wouldn’t.”
As the leader of an artist protest against the station, Nancy Rancourt insists, “If the station had let go of one host, I might buy into the story of professional differences but to fire all of them, without notice? That is cutthroat disrespect. It’s like bullies kicking kids out of the playground and it leaves the masses with no alternative but to say, ‘what the fuck?’”
Proud FM, Rancourt says, has “taken us all out to dinner and left us with the bill.”
But Rancourt’s narrative of a queer community rising up against an evil, corporate, straight-owned station frustrates Murray.
“All these people on Facebook forget that there’s eight or nine other people working at that station who make their livelihood there and only a couple of them are straight,” he says.
“We got comments on that Facebook page about [interim weekday hosts] Sabrina and Bob being straight people but they’ve always been here, hosting on weekends. NOW you have a problem with them?” he laughs, “No one mentions that me and Miss Conception are still employees here because it nullifies this idea that [the station is] gay-bashing,” says Ryder. “No, they’re not!”
“Damage control,” says Rancourt, “The station is realizing it needs to keep massaging that angle, using our community to validate their goal of a stronger signal. Once the station has all its ducks in a row, I totally foresee them abandoning the community.”
Not true, says Campbell.
“This station is vibrant and unique and will continue to be,” he insists, “There’s no change in the orientation of the station, there’s no change in the committment to the community.”
If anything, Campbell says, the firings “allow us to restructure and to allow other tremendously talented people to come forward. I’ve already had inquiries from people wanting to work on the air.”
Reiterating his respect for Proulx, Pearce, Wigmore and Marano, Campbell says, “Each and every one of us is indispensible, it’s true, but none of us are irreplaceable. That’s just a fact of life. So we’re going to move forward.”
In these interviews, both Campbell and Proulx have each said, “When one door closes, another door opens,” but it’s the unemployed man who sounds more relieved.
“There’s a level of sleaze that has been part of the station since we’ve all worked there and it feels really nice to have that gone, even though we obviously loved doing the show,” says Proulx.
“I don’t consider myself to be sleazy,” says Campbell, “I can’t control how they characterize our relationship but I’m pretty transparent. They are no secrets. Everybody here gets to see the sales numbers.”
The station, he says, has been running a deficit for three years now but in 2009, ”we doubled our revenue and this year, in a fairly daunting economy, Proud FM is right on track to achieve a 25 percent revenue increase on top of that. We need to continue that arc towards profitability.”
“I think Bruce has always been very fair and forthcoming,” says Murray,
Ultimately, Ryder says, “I’m willing to maintain the listenership that we worked so hard to get, but I won’t work here forever either. People move on, people change. The anger people are feeling is justified and understandable but it hasn’t changed anything here behind the scenes. We’re still a gay station, we’re still playing the music we’ve been playing, the same people who worked behind the scenes are all still here.”
The firings, he says, were “a horrible thing but I think by Pride, it’ll all be smoothed out and people will be fabulously happy again.
Ryder’s prediction, however, is undercut by the final line of Proulx’s statement, “A lawsuit is imminent and more extensive details will be released in the coming days.”
All Proud FM is concerned with now, Campbell insists, is their rocky present and brighter future.
“We’re in scramble mode here,” he says, noting all the hosting duties Bob Willette has taken on the interim.
“The station on air should certainly reflect the various elements of our community so absolutely, anyone who’s interested in working in broadcasting should apply….this an opportunity for something fresh and new.”