CKRB-FM re Prends ça cool … and Deux gars le midi

quebec regional Panel
(CBSC Decision 08/09-0689 & -1228)
D. Meloul (Chair), G. Moisan (Vice-Chair), Y. Bombardier, R. Cohen (ad hoc), M. Ille, J. Pennefather (ad hoc)

THE FACTS

Prends ça cool … was CKRB-FM (Cool FM 103.5, St-Georges-de-Beauce, Quebec)’s morning show.  It aired weekdays from 6:00 to 9:00 am and was hosted by Patrice Moore, Louis Poulin and Anne-Marie Doyon.  Deux gars le midi aired weekdays from 11:00 am to noon and the two hosts were Patrice Moore and Louis Poulin.  Both programs featured news, traffic and weather updates, and discussions among the hosts about politics, current events and other topics of interest.

The CBSC received complaints from a listener regarding the hosts’ use of coarse language.  The complainant provided various dates and examples from the two aforementioned programs (the full text of his complaints and all other correspondence can be found in Appendix B, available in French only).  The complainant argued that the on-air hosts knew full well that they were not supposed to swear on air and that station management should make a greater effort to control its employees in this respect.

For example, on January 12, 2009, in the course of a discussion on social housing by the hosts of Prends ça cool …,the following exchange took place (note that fuller transcripts of the relevant segments can be found in Appendix A, available in French only):

[translation]

Poulin:  That pain in the neck FRAPRU keeps coming back to disparage housing conditions in, um, Montreal.  We don’t give a sh –

Moore:  Very well.

Poulin:  – t. Thank you very much. [“chr–sse” in the original French]

Moore:  Hey.

Poulin:  I’ve said it.

Moore:  Complaint, complaint, complaint!

Then, on January 22, the hosts of the same program talked about spam e-mail and e-mail chain letters.  Poulin recounted the following anecdote:

[translation]

Poulin: But before that.  I was so happy yesterday when I received two e-mails one right after the other.  The first one was damned crap, a piece of crap chain letter, O.K., that uses names in your data banks or the data banks of, of people you know.  And the sender puts in the name of the person and in parenthesis, um, “Life.Killer@hotmail.com”.  O.K., he’ s sending me damned crap.  And send that along to ten people you know.

Doyon: Otherwise something bad will happen to you, right?

Poulin:  Three minutes later, I get an e-mail saying “Stop sending me fucking crap chain letters, goddammit!” [laughs] [“Arrêtez de m’envoyer des tabarnac’ de chaînes de lettre à marde, maudit calice!” in the original French]

During the April 23 episode of Deux gars le midi, a caller even challenged the two hosts on-air about their use of coarse language:

[translation]

Caller:   And I have a bone to pick with you two.

Poulin:  You do?

Caller:   Last evening, afternoon, not after you finished the program.  You were against women in grocery stores.

Moore:  Who said that?  Yes, it’s true.  Louis said that at the end, yeah.

Caller:   Yes, yes, plus he said “sacrament”.

Poulin:  Yeah.

Caller:   You’re not supposed to swear on the radio.

Poulin:  Isn’t that better than “calice”?

Caller:   Um, no.  You know, um, you should be called on that.

Another example occurred on May 1 on Prends ça cool ….  The hosts were discussing changes that the Quebec Government had made to the accounting practices for school boards:

[translation]

Poulin:  You go borrow the money and we will give the bank a loan guarantee.

Moore:  Totally stupid.  Those who are administering properly are being penalised.

Poulin:  It doesn’t –

Moore:  That’s what they decided to do.

Poulin:  Excuse me.  I’m going to read it because that’s what I think.  It makes no fucking sense. [“Ç’a pas de chrisse de bon sens” in original French]

Again, on July 16, Poulin and Moore had the following exchange:

[translation]

Poulin:  Yeah.  And you know Statistics Canada.  It’s the law; you have to answer a damned survey on your private life every I don’t know how many years.

Moore:  Ah!  Yes, every four years.

Poulin:  You’re required to do it.

Moore:  Yeah.

Poulin:  The others, throw that in the garbage.

Moore:  Mm hm.  That’s right.  I haven’t replied yet.  I’m waiting, I’m waiting.  I might reply.  I don’t know.  I’ll see.  Um, maybe add a question.  Question eleven, do you want a train and would you have used it?  And I want an answer.  I think that’s what I’ll do.

Poulin:  And the third question: leave me the fuck alone. [“crissez-moi la paix” in original French]

Moore:  That might not be so bad.  Complaint!  Good.  [laughter]

The station responded to the complainant, in part, with the following letter:

[translation]

We produce a news and public affairs radio program dealing with current events at the local and regional levels or any topic that might interest listeners in Beauce and Chaudière-Appalaches.

We pursue credible and serious information objectives that respect the people who hear us and who talk to us.

However, a radio program has its share of the unexpected and leaves room for improvisation on the part of the hosts.  A radio program, like a television program, is a form of entertainment and the hosts confront opinions, incite emotions and provoke discussions or debates on ideas.

At times, the language used by certain contributors proves to be less than desirable, but a certain level of tolerance must also intervene.  Making a program interesting requires the ability to handle the tone, the expression and the emotional aspect.  The format and colour of a program are the elements that make it interesting and that draw the attention of listeners.  But, as in everything, caution and good taste must be exercised.

  • In the example you cite concerning the program of January 12, Mr. Poulin expressed his personal opinion in terms that might be said to be questionable but that are widely used in other electronic media.
  • With respect to the excerpt from January 22, if you listen carefully, Mr. Poulin is reading an e-mail he had received.  The terms used are not his, even though he could have omitted them.

We have never received a complaint in the past concerning the treatment of information or the level of language used by our hosts.  We ask our hosts and contributors to avoid any offensive or violent language.  Although we expect our hosts to avoid swear words, some do slip in at times, as is the case everywhere else in radio.

Following your complaint, we held work meetings that enabled us to tighten our communications criteria.  We also apologized to you for any comments that may have displeased or offended you.  You replied that you are maintaining your complaint and we respect your choice.

The complainant was dissatisfied with that response.  He submitted his Ruling Request along with the following additional comments:

[translation]

I draw your attention to the complaint of January 12, 2009.  [The CKRB-FM Director of Operations] is not qualified to take a definite position and he is attempting to justify his position by comparing himself with other electronic media.

Mr. Louis Poulin takes a position, but his filthy language is extremely questionable whatever form it may take, i.e. UNPROFESSIONAL.  He discriminates against a community organisation and the people who work there, namely FRAPRU, an organisation that helps low-income people find decent housing.  He is discrediting an organisation on the public airwaves that has proven itself time and time again.

With respect to the complaint of January 22, 2009, [the Director of Operations] is not qualified to take a position as to what Mr. Poulin should or should not say.  Mr. Poulin always adopts a position with the same filthy language whether the words reported are by fax or any other means such as e-mail.  The person at the microphone must take on the ultimate responsibility of delivering the full version of the news or not.

[The Director of Operations] says, and I quote, “However, a radio program has its share of the unexpected and leaves room for improvisation on the part of the hosts.  A radio program, like a television program, is a form of entertainment and the hosts confront opinions, incite emotions and provoke discussions or debates on ideas.”

I would say to him that while that is true, anyone given a microphone on the public airwaves is obligated to respect his or her audience, including the radio station regardless of its public or private status.  These individuals must be coached and managed according to a professional code of the highest standards of journalistic ETHICS.

[The Director of Operations] says, and I quote, “ At times, the language used by certain contributors proves to be less than desirable, but a certain level of tolerance must also intervene.  Making a program interesting requires the ability to handle the tone, the expression and the emotional aspect.  The format and colour of a program are the elements that make it interesting and that draw the attention of listeners.  But, as in everything, caution and good taste must be exercised.”

My reply to that is ZERO TOLERANCE when it comes to SWEARING on the public airwaves with audiences comprised of adults and children and ZERO TOLERANCE for any form of verbal violence.

I say to him that if a host is not capable of controlling what he says, it is in his interest and in the interest of the audience that he abandon the microphone.  Of course, should that individual demonstrate a willingness to improve, that is a different story.  While there might be repeated incidents, he must express regret and apologise on the spot to his audience.

[The Director of Operations] says, and I quote, “We have never received a complaint in the past concerning the treatment of information or the level of language used by our hosts.”

I would tell him not to wait for a complaint before acting and that he must aim at preventing complaints before they occur; that is called “journalistic professionalism”.  I say to him that he must use increased vigilance where the treatment of information is concerned and also concerning the level of filthy language of a certain journalist HOST.  [The Director of Operations] goes on to say “We ask our hosts and contributors to avoid any offensive or violent language.  Although we expect our hosts to avoid swear words, some do slip in at times, as is the case everywhere else in radio.”

I say he must cease making comparisons with other electronic media.  Any comparison he may wish to make should be with a media having extremely high standards.  That type of comparison would certainly lead to improvement rather than stagnation.

I say that is also excellent, but for a repeat offender he must have solid in-house coaching in order to avoid recurring complaints, along with dissuasive disciplinary measures in the interest of all concerned.

THE DECISION

The Quebec Regional Panel examined the complaint under Clauses 6 and 9 of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ (CAB) Code of Ethics which read as follows:

Clause 6 – Full, Fair and Proper Presentation

It is recognized that the full, fair and proper presentation of news, opinion, comment and editorial is the prime and fundamental responsibility of each broadcaster.  This principle shall apply to all radio and television programming, whether it relates to news, public affairs, magazine, talk, call-in, interview or other broadcasting formats in which news, opinion, comment or editorial may be expressed by broadcaster employees, their invited guests or callers.

Clause 9 – Radio Broadcasting

Recognizing that radio is a local medium and, consequently, reflective of local community standards, programming broadcast on a local radio station shall take into consideration the generally recognized access to programming content available in the market, the demographic composition of the station’s audience, and the station’s format.  Within this context, particular care shall be taken by radio broadcasters to ensure that programming on their stations does not contain:

[…]

c)         Unduly coarse and offensive language.

The Quebec Regional Panel Adjudicators read all of the correspondence and listened to recordings of the challenged segments.  For very particular reasons noted below, the Panel concludes that the broadcast of January 12 did not violate Clause 9(c) of the Code, but it does find that the broadcasts of January 22, April 23, May 1 and July 16 did violate that Clause.  The Panel finds no breach of Clause 6 of the Code.

A Preliminary Point of Clarification

There were some points raised in the letter of February 5 from the Director of Operations to the complainant that require some clarification, in the opinion of the Panel.  In the series of comments in question, there is a kind of theme, namely, that [translations] “a radio program has its share of the unexpected”, that a radio program “is a form of entertainment”, in which the hosts can be expected to confront opinions, incite emotions, and provoke discussion and debate.  Those words of the CKRB-FM executive are indeed consistent with the idea inherent in the verb “animer”, the root of the French word for host.  This very point was discussed in a decision of the Ontario Regional Panel in CKTB-AM re the John Michael Show (Middle East Commentary) (CBSC Decision 01/02-0651, June 7, 2002).  As that Panel explained on that occasion, when dealing with another issue not germane to the matter at hand, namely, the distinction between the traditional hosting approaches of the public and private sectors of the Canadian broadcasting system,

private radio’s talk shows are intended to be livelier and more provocative.  […]  The verb which is the root of the French word for host, “animer”, gives a far better sense of the role of such a talk radio host.  It is to breathe life into, to communicate ardour, energy, enthusiasm, excitement, passion, to lead, to inspire.  Passions invite countervailing passions.  Emotion begets emotion.  Disagreement and unpleasantness are not strangers to the electronic forum.

There is, in other words, a permissible range of animation, provocation and even showboating that goes with radio entertainment.  This does not, however, mean that there are no limits to what may be said in the pursuit of audience attention.  While it is acceptable to use [translations] “terms that might be said to be questionable”, the fact that they may be “widely used in other electronic media” will not constitute an acceptable defence.  Nor is the fact that one of the co-hosts may have been reading [translations] “terms [that] are not his” amount to any protection for the host’s having read offending words.  That CKRB-FM may wish “[that] our hosts […] avoid swear words”, and may even take steps to avoid the broadcast of such language, the fact that the words aired are not those of an employee will not protect the station against a breach of the Code.  The responsibility for the broadcast of inappropriate language is the broadcaster’s, whether the offending words are or are not those of their employees.  Nor is it a defence to acknowledge that there may be an inadvertent slip or that such “accidents” happen all over the place on radio, in the words of the letter, [translation] “some do slip in at times, as is the case everywhere else in radio.”  As the complainant himself correctly noted, the broadcaster [translation] “is attempting to justify his position by comparing himself with other electronic media”.

The bottom line is that there is indeed room for the broadcast of enthusiastic, provocative, boisterous language, but not language which per se crosses the line.  To again refer to the John Michael decision by analogy, and paraphrasing slightly, particular “care must be exercised by the host.”  The power that the holder of the microphone has “must not be exercised irresponsibly.”  And there is no justification or defence in the broadcaster’s assertion that other broadcasters may be doing the same thing.  It is with those constraints in mind that the Quebec Panel will review the language used in the challenged broadcasts.

Coarse Language

Although there is some literal cross-over of coarse words in French and English, there are not surprisingly some differences to be expected between words or expressions deemed coarse in the two languages.  The challenged words in the matter at hand are limited to liturgical or religious references, about which this Panel has taken a consistent position when faced with their use at times of the day when children could be expected to be listening.  Thus, for example, in CJMF-FM re a commentary on Bouchard en parle (CBSC Decision 05/06-0326, February 3, 2006), the host used the word “tabernac’” in the course of comments he was making on the subject of the political left.  This Panel concluded that

the use of the language was gratuitous.  Not only was it unnecessary, it was irrelevant to the phrases it adorned. […] It is obvious that not all swear words will be problematic, even during times of the day when children could be listening.  It is the view of the Panel that “tabernac’” and certain other words of the genre (which the Panel is not called upon to list in the circumstances under consideration) is one word which does fall on the list of words generally to be avoided in Francophone broadcasting.

Similar terminology was used in CKAC-AM re an episode of Doc Mailloux (Money) (CBSC Decision 05/06-1379, December 11, 2006) and CKAC-AM re Doc Mailloux (six episodes) (CBSC Decision 06/07-0168 & -0266, August 23, 2007) and, in both cases, the broadcaster was found in breach of Clause 9(c) of the CAB Code of Ethics by this Panel.  The Panel finds no reason to conclude differently here.  It concludes that the broadcasts of the words “tabarnac’”, “calice”, “chrisse” and “crissez-moi” during the shows of January 22, May 1 and July 16 (on Prends ça cool …), and April 23 (on Deux gars le midi) were equally in breach of Clause 9(c).

The Panel does not, however, find the broadcast of January 12 in breach because the word, which would likely have been “chrisse”, had it not been split by a co-host’s intervention, was not a clear use of the word.  It was partly muted and never fully enunciated.  It is, in some respects, like an otherwise offending word that has been bleeped.  The listener may be quite sure what it was meant to be, but it never was broadcast.  In such a case, the Panel does not consider that it is entitled to assume what was intended.  It is the broadcast, not the intention, that is required to constitute a breach of Clause 9(c).

Criticism of FRAPRU

One of the concerns raised by the complainant was that one of the hosts criticized the organization called FRAPRU (Front d’action populaire en réaménagement urbain) inappropriately.  He wrote:

[translation]

Mr. Louis Poulin takes a position, but his filthy language is extremely questionable whatever form it may take, i.e. UNPROFESSIONAL.  He discriminates against a community organisation and the people who work there, namely FRAPRU, an organisation that helps low-income people find decent housing.  He is discrediting an organisation on the public airwaves that has proven itself time and time again.

What the host said was [translation] “That pain in the neck FRAPRU keeps coming back to disparage housing conditions in, um, Montreal.  We don’t give a sh–t. Thank you very much.  I’ve said it.”  Based on its considerable experience in dealing with critical comments in a morning show environment, it is the view of the Quebec Panel that the comments are not particularly harsh.  Second, though, there is considerable leeway in making comments about organizations, bodies, agencies, institutions of various kinds, the Government and so on.  In CKAC-AM re an episode of Doc Mailloux (Childless by Choice) (CBSC Decision 05/06-1671, December 11, 2006), the then host of that open-line radio program criticized the CRTC for a decision he thought (in error) that the CRTC had rendered about him.  In reality, the decision had been rendered by the Quebec Regional Panel of the CBSC, and not by the federal broadcast regulator.  The former radio host’s language was particularly harsh and in bad taste.  Notwithstanding that, this Panel concluded that it was not in breach of the Code.

The CBSC has said in previous decisions that broadcasters are free to criticize decisions of the CRTC, the Government, the courts and other such institutions that are in the business of developing policy and reaching conclusions about the rights of persons.  The appreciation of such questions falls squarely within the anticipated limits of the freedom of expression of all citizens.  This does not, however, mean that those who criticize are entitled to expect terminological shelter when their comments exceed the bounds of other codified standards.

In the matter at hand, it is certainly acceptable for the host to have been in total disagreement with the CBSC’s above-cited decision; however, what is regrettable is that this host apparently did not have the ability to express his disagreement in substantive or even literate terms.  The visceral reaction, [translations] “It was major damned bullshit” is hardly on the level of the explanation of the broadcaster’s breach in the first place.  And it was followed by an out-of-control reaction to the decision in the following language:  “So I say to the CRTC, my eye and up your anus.  Is that clear?”  Audiences deserve more.  On-air hosts have an obligation to manifest a certain level of aptitude before the powerful microphone that it is their privilege to employ.  While the foregoing comment is not equal to the responsibility of the host, the Panel concludes that it is inept and in the worst of taste but not sufficiently over the edge to be in breach of Clause 6 of the CAB Code of Ethics.

While FRAPRU is not a governmental institution, the above-cited paragraph is not necessarily limited in its application to such bodies.  Moreover, FRAPRU in any case operates in corresponding policy domains and the Panel is of the view that critical opinions can be expressed about such bodies without necessarily breaching Clause 6 of the CAB Code of Ethics.  And the Quebec Regional Panel concludes that the comments made in the matter at hand about FRAPRU are far from being in breach of that codified standard.

Broadcaster Responsiveness

In addition to assessing the relevance of the Codes to the complaint, the CBSC always assesses the responsiveness of the broadcaster to the substance of the complaint.  In the matter at hand, the Panel finds the letter of the Director of Operations to be a thorough, thoughtful and contextual reply to the complainant.  The fact that the Panel clarified a couple of the points made in that letter does not in any way diminish its appreciation of the judicious perspective provided by the broadcaster on the nature and realities of the medium.  Nothing more could be expected of the broadcaster.  CKRB-FM has amply fulfilled its obligation of membership in the CBSC on this occasion.

ANNOUNCEMENT OF THE DECISION

CKRB-FM is required to:  1) announce the decision, in the following terms, once during peak listening hours within three days following the release of this decision and once more within seven days following the release of this decision during the time period in which Prends ça cool … was broadcast, but not on the same day as the first mandated announcement; 2) once during peak listening hours within three days following the release of this decision and once more within seven days following the release of this decision during the time period in which Deux gars le midi was broadcast, but not on the same day as the first mandated announcement;  3) within the fourteen days following the broadcasts of the announcements, to provide written confirmation of the airing of the statements to the complainant who filed the Ruling Request; and 4) at that time, to provide the CBSC with a copy of that written confirmation and with air check copies of the broadcasts of the four announcements which must be made by CKRB-FM.

The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council has found that CKRB-FM, Cool FM 103.5, violated the Clause of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ Code of Ethics that prohibits the broadcast of coarse or offensive language.  During episodes of the program Prends ça cool … broadcast on January 22, May 1, and July 16, 2009 and during the episode of the program Deux gars le midi broadcast on April 23, 2009, CKRB-FM broadcast swear words at a time of day when children could be listening, contrary to Clause 9(c) of the Code.

This decision is a public document upon its release by the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council.