A local radio host who was taken off the air after making offensive comments about transgender people two years ago has been announced as the new host of a popular morning show.
Dave Wheeler was fired in July 2018 by Rogers Media from 92.1 CITI-FM, where he worked as a morning show DJ, after comparing transgender people to actors who pretend to be "different things". He later defended those comments on social media, where he compared being trans to a human pretending to be a dog.
He will now be a morning radio host at Energy 106, replacing Sarah Nick.
Energy 106 program director Adam West called the situation "complicated" and said the hiring decision was meant to "disrupt the Winnipeg market a little bit."
"We need a boost in our ratings, we need to grow our audience, so changes had to be made," he said.
"(Wheeler) is a huge name in local radio, and he’s immensely talented and can bring that talent to Energy 106. He loves Winnipeg and he still has a loyal audience."
"You have to give people the chance to grow, to learn, and everyone deserves a second chance." –Adam West
Wheeler, who was being paid $335,000 per year over a five-year contract before his dismissal, has been the source of controversy several times over the years – he received a suspension from Rogers Media in 2016 after the station posted animated videos to two songs which made references some called sexist and racist, including defining women from the North End as wanting to "stab you and steal your bike," for which Wheeler later apologized.
He filed a $1.4-million lawsuit against Rogers in September 2018, disputing his dismissal, saying Rogers had encouraged him to be "controversial," which Rogers denied. The lawsuit has not moved forward since November 2018.
In the years since, he has produced an independent podcast and ran as an independent candidate in the 2019 provincial election.
"I'm excited after a two-year absence from terrestrial radio to be making a return. This is why I went to school, this is what I trained to do, this is what my life passion is. I'm excited to be back on the air and to do what I truly believe I was born to do, which is get behind a microphone and entertain people," Wheeler told the Free Press.
West said while he didn’t excuse mistakes made in Wheeler’s past, he had not known him to act offensively in his day-to-day life in the 15 years they have known each other.
"I know that what he’s being accused of being is not really him, that’s why I’m not worried … Don’t get me wrong, I’m not defending anything, but I also believe two years in radio jail for comments that were made should be enough," he said.
Nick released a video statement through Twitter, where she said she had received thousands of messages after the public learned of her dismissal from the station and that there were "no hard feelings."
"For me, losing my job is losing my life," Nick said. "This is a big thing to me because it’s something I’m not only passionate about, I’ve worked, I’ve grown. Four years in Winnipeg is a long time to be here, and it’s been the best time."
West said certain aspects of Wheeler’s "on-air persona" that may have been acceptable at his previous position were "not going to happen" at Energy 106, referring to the station’s long-standing support for the LGBTTQ+ community in a way that was not "performative."
"It’s an ongoing process. You have to give people the chance to grow, to learn, and everyone deserves a second chance," he said.
Trevor Alexander has been a local radio host for eight years – he currently hosts a hockey-themed radio show on 101.5 UMFM – and said he was concerned when he heard Wheeler was making it back to Winnipeg airwaves.
"We’re talking about a guy now who legitimately offended a number of people in the city, and he’s allowed to come back to radio and grab a usually well-paid morning show job at another station, which to me is surprising," he said.
"I have put all of that in the ‘rear–view.'" –Dave Wheeler
Winnipeg radio has a "recycling the same talent" problem, Alexander said, and suggested Wheeler’s hiring despite public pushback was a consequence of this.
"I think having a lack of diversity on Winnipeg radio stations is problem number one. We have very few females who host their own shows, or are one of the main contributors to a morning show, and we don’t have very many people of colour on the radio at all," he said.
"So adding a guy who has very much isolated and certainly offended those groups might not be the best solution in this specific situation."
— with files from Melissa Martin
Malak Abas is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.