Dave Rutherford, the king of Calgary talk radio, will quit his long-running show when his contract expires in July 2013. The 64-year-old broadcaster had been thinking about this for some time. His decision became final when the station, AM 770 CHQR, said it was looking for chatty on-air talent to provide “smart, stimulating and respectful conversation on a diverse range of topics.”
“I think the broadcast news industry, for lack of a better term, is dumbing down,” Rutherford told the Calgary Herald. “I don’t think there’s the desire to ask the next question, maybe to ask any questions.”
So what else is new? Rutherford knows better than anyone that, for the longest time, commercial morning radio in Calgary was about pandering to the lowest common denominator of public taste and intelligence. That was before he became the self-styled godfather of redneck broadcasting in the early 1990s.
Listeners didn’t want lumpy cereal for breakfast when Rutherford first hit the Calgary airwaves. They wanted instant junk food, pre-cooked and easy to swallow. Morning radio had to be banal. It couldn’t be otherwise. The alternative to banal was nobody’s listening.
In 1990, Rutherford was co-host of a top-rated breakfast program on QR77 that dispensed a lightweight combination of elevator music and vacuous commentary on stories ripped from the tabloid headlines. He characterized the format as “somewhat informational, somewhat humorous and warm, like a morning chat over coffee.” While sober CBC Radio gave its listeners tax tips and investment advice, Rutherford and his jolly sidekick, Jim Jeffries, talked about beauty pageants and pumpkin-growing contests. “Everyday information,” Rutherford called it. “Some of it entertainment, some of it trivia. You have to shake off some of the ivory-tower aspects of journalism when you do this kind of programming.”
Within two years, however, Rutherford had decided to trade triviality for substance. In February 1992, QR77 switched to an all-news format with a sharp focus on politics and current affairs. CFCN television news anchor Darrel Janz first accepted and then rejected a job hosting the QR morning show. Rutherford put away his beauty queen jokes and moved into the slot offered to Janz. Initially, he was paired with former CBC Radio announcer Sharon Edwards. But that combination didn’t work and Edwards was gone by July 1992. Rutherford was left to fly solo and The Rutherford Show was born.
At its height, the show was heard across Western Canada and simulcast on television. Rutherford became widely known for his rightwing views on topics such as welfare, justice reform and pay equity, and his ability to roast politicians and business leaders in the hot seat. His followers were proud to identify themselves as rednecks. When Rutherford asked them to define what they meant by redneck, one replied: “A politically incorrect Westerner stumbling around in the wilderness after being robbed by the people in the East.”
Now, it appears, the station that provided a pulpit for Rutherford’s right-wing rants over the past 21 years wants to return to something resembling the happy-talk format that worked successfully for it in the 1980s. No more depressing talk about carbon taxes, “radical environmentalists” and what the station calls “an undying commitment to keep listeners up to date on the latest crime stats.” Instead, opportunity knocks for a radio host in tune with the zeitgeist of the times; someone who can identify with those diverse segments of the population who voted for Naheed Nenshi.
If AM 770 wants to grow its audience in the future, it has to change direction and look beyond the rednecks who want tougher penalties for violent criminals, fewer immigrants allowed into Canada, and a radical reduction in welfare spending. It cannot do otherwise. The alternative to change is nobody’s listening.