When Quebec City officials announced Monday it was pulling its advertising dollars from Radio X, a popular but controversial radio station that has recently hosted conspiracy theorists and pushed back against some of the government health measures, a firestorm of argument erupted online.
Devout listeners defended the station on Twitter and Facebook. Others celebrated its misfortune. More advertisers followed the city’s lead: Desjardins, Mercedes-Benz and Hydro-Quebec, among others, withdrew their ads.
“The behaviour of the owners of this radio station constitutes a danger to public health and well-being of the citizens of Quebec City, as CHOI (Radio X) is promoting opposition to health measures during this period of a severe pandemic,” reads a press release posted online by Quebec City officials and on Mayor Régis Labeaume’s Facebook page.
The conversation beneath Labeaume’s post grew heated, and on Tuesday, Quebec City police began investigating online threats allegedly made against him.
But what is Radio X, the station at the centre of the controversy?
If you fiddle with the radio dial in Quebec City, you can pick up signals from New England and even New York. Some right-wing, populist stations come through clear enough to make out Democrat-bashing, Trump-loving hosts signalling their displeasure with preventive business shutdowns.
Turn the dial to 98.1, CHOI Radio X, and you’ll hear a similar message: libertarian-leaning hosts with an affinity for populist leaders, including U.S. President Donald Trump, bashing the government and railing against measures designed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Most recently, the station offered its airwaves to conspiracy theorists who insist Bill Gates, and 5G towers, are behind the coronavirus or who subscribe to QAnon, the anonymous online preacher who says Trump is fighting a cabal of satanist pedophiles for control of the United States.
The pandemic subject matter is a slight deviation from its hosts’ usual gripes: they discuss sex, celebrities, politics and often express their yearning for a third link between Quebec City and Lévis. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Labeaume and more recently Quebec’s public health director, Dr. Horacio Arruda, are the frequent targets of their ire and mockery.
A libertarian slant and a propensity for using shock as an entertainment tool has landed Radio X in trouble before and earned the station the title of “trash radio” among critics. It has also been successfully sued on more than one occasion.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Sophie Chiasson, a television personality, took exception to the comments several Radio X hosts were making about her. They spoke lewdly of her looks and promoted theories that she had used sex to secure work.
She sued the station and the hosts who made the comments for defamation and she won. A judge awarded her more than $300,000.
“The comments targeting Ms. Chiasson are sexist, hateful, malicious, unfounded, hurtful and offensive. They violate the dignity, honour and integrity of human beings in general and of Ms. Chiasson in particular,” the judge wrote.
Members of Quebec City’s Islamic community blamed “trash radio,” including Radio X, for their callous portrayal of Muslims and their overemphasis on radical Islam for providing a justification to the man who killed six people and injured 19 others inside a Quebec City mosque in 2017.
The shooter had become interested in the threat of radical Islam and told police he feared “terrorism.”
Five days before the murders, Jeff Fillion, a veteran Radio X host, warned that Muslims posed a potential terrorism threat. Quebec’s press council considered his comments discriminatory.
“I understand that not all of them are bombers,” he said. “But in a context where there is distrust to be had, where their technique is to integrate and live like us and get closer to us, and at an opportune moment to strike.”
Law enforcement released no evidence that suggested a direct link between the shooter’s motivations and comments made on any Quebec City radio station.
Fillion now hosts a lunchtime radio show, which, according to the latest Numeris data from the spring, before the pandemic was the most popular show in the Quebec City region in its time slot.
Radio X’s other shows’ ratings are often second in the region behind WKND 91.9, according to the Numeris data, but they have far more listeners than Radio-Canada.
The station’s hosts were indignant on Tuesday morning in the face of the loss of advertisers. A parade of listeners called in at their urging to declare “I am Radio X” in a show of support.
“We need more diversity in our media. Not less,” says a post on the station’s website. “Radio X won’t change.”
Matthew Lapierre, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Gazette