Analysis

With Jeff Fillion and André Arthur gone, is this the end of radio poubelle?

Quebec City talk radio stations have, for years, drawn listeners by saying the unsayable. Branded radio poubelle — the Quebecois equivalent of "trash radio" — their hosts reveled in the controversial, the outrageous, the offensive. But over the past two weeks, two giants of the radio poubelle genre have fallen on the microphones.

But in an age of media conglomerates, station owners may be less willing to stand behind their hosts

Popular Quebec City radio host André Arthur announced his retirement last week. (Radio-Canada)

Live by the tongue, die by the tongue. 

Quebec City talk radio stations have, for years, drawn listeners by saying the unsayable. Branded radio poubelle — the Quebecois equivalent of "trash radio" — their hosts reveled in the controversial, the outrageous, the offensive. 

But over the past two weeks, two giants of the radio poubelle genre have fallen on the microphones. 

First, Jeff Fillion was unceremoniously fired from Énergie 98.9 FM, a Bell Media affiliate, after he ridiculed a father whose son committed suicide. 

​Then André Arthur — known as King Arthur to his fans — suddenly announced his retirement from CHOI 98.1 Radio X. Sources told Radio-Canada, however, that his employers decided to pull the plug over Arthur's comments following Jean Lapierre's death.

Lapierre, a popular political commentator and a former federal cabinet minister, was killed in March with several members of his family in a plane crash.

The following day, Arthur told his listeners: "Why don't you stop crying?" He then mounted a tirade that included jabs against the pilot's training and the media's emotional coverage.   

Jeff Fillion was fired last month for ridiculing a father whose son committed suicide. (Tobin Grimshaw/Canadian Press)

The heyday of radio poubelle

Arthur is arguably the godfather of radio poubelle, having first taken the airwaves in 1970. He translated his popularity into a surprising electoral victory in the 2006 federal election, becoming an independent MP.

He stood out on Parliament Hill, and not only for his love of bowties. Arthur supplemented his six-figure income by spending one weekend a month driving a tour bus. 

With Fillion, Arthur shot to fame in the 1990s and early 2000s hosting shows on CHOI-FM that appealed to populist sentiments. They were conservative and libertarian contrarians in a province that likes to think of itself as progressive.

Arthur once described African students at Laval University as the children of dictators and cannibals. Before joining CHOI-FM, he complained of not being able to understand taxi drivers in Montreal because he couldn't speak "n--ger."  

Fillion, for his part, often struck a misogynist tone in his attacks.

He was forced to pay $340,000 in damages for his on-air descriptions of a local weather presenter's anatomy.   

During these years, perhaps the hey day of radio poubelle, Fillion also described cerebral palsy patient Tracy Latimer as a "trash can." He called a psychiatric patient a "burden on society" and called for him to be taken off life support. He routinely broadcast the email addresses of those who ran afoul of his opinions. 

Together, their comments prompted the CRTC to revoke CHOI-FM's broadcast license in 2004. 

All of this did little to hurt their popularity. Arthur's show was drawing 27,000 listeners per 15 minutes when he stepped down, ahead of his main rival in his time slot. 

Have the times changed?

But in an age of conglomerates and social media, the raunchy words of shock jocks like Fillion and Arthur have become more liability than asset to their holding companies. 

"Companies are wary of their brand, not only in Quebec City but around Quebec as well," said Daniel Giroux, a communications professor at Université Laval.

"What is said on radio in Quebec City will circulate around the province and could hurt their image and those of other shows." 

Does this mark the end of radio poubelle? 

There are certainly no shortage of pundits and talk-show hosts willing to challenge the perceived status quo. But the departures of Arthur and Fillion signal that station owners may no longer be willing to stand behind their hosts, come what may. 

In a career filled with its share of bangs, Arthur's ended with little more than a whimper. 

"When the station managers informed me of their intention to put an end to my participation, I grumbled a bit, I begged a bit and then I admitted they were perfectly within their rights," Arthur said as he signed off last time.

"It's not the first time I've lost a job in radio, but it's the last time."