What’s happening to Montreal radio?

Aaron Rand

In the wake of Ted Bird’s departure from CHOM, I got an unsolicited email from Aaron Rand, one of the few remaining veterans of commercial radio in Montreal. It was actually a belated response to comments I made about him after he lost two co-hosts at CFQR. But he included some thoughts about the radio industry that he asked I share with you:

As someone who has been in the radio business for more than 25 years, the latest round of cuts, changes, format shifts – call it what you will – seem to have hit home particularly hard in Montreal.

Morning shows, especially teams, have been among the hardest hit. But while we all mourn the on-air losses of people like Tasso, Terry DiMonte, Suzanne Desautels, and now Ted Bird, I felt it important to point out that these changes, drastic and disturbing as they may be, are not unique to Montreal or even Toronto.  A bit of research suggests a much different and industry wide story. Plain and simple, the business is changing. The audience profile is morphing, and the worst economic downturn seen in a generation is forcing the hands of those who run the ship. It’s just happening sooner and more dramatically than anyone had a reasonable right to expect it to.

In markets from San Diego to Detroit, to Chicago to St. Louis, Vancouver, Calgary, New York, L.A. (remember Rick Dees?) morning shows are being blown up one after another. So the question isn’t why, the question is what’s going to work in the future, and how can you adapt and be part of that future.

When I read about Ted Bird (who I know only in passing) and his reasons for leaving, I was struck by one central theme. Not the fact that big corporations now control the business (it’s been that way for awhile), not that they seek to, as he said, take the craft out of the hands of the craftsmen (which naively maybe I choose not to believe) but by the fact that it stopped being fun for him. And in a business where translating that fun you feel into fun an audience can share, once you’ve lost that feeling, it’s time to move on, I respect Ted for that.

I still get up every morning (at 4 not 3) and look forward to going to work. Yes, I miss seeing the faces and hearing the voices of the friends I shared that studio with for what seems like forever, but I’m a realist. You can’t help but see and feel the business changing, and the choice is to either embrace that change, or be left behind by it.

Is it the right thing to do, am I still being true to myself as a performer by staying? Honestly, I don’t know, but I’m willing to at least give it a shot and then make that decision with a bit of perspective to reflect on. The truth is, I still have fun doing what I do on the radio every morning. The only difference is now I’m working with other talentedpeople who offer new perspectives, a different outlook, and maybe, a glimpse into what the future of this business will become.

It’s not better, it’s not worse, it’s just different, But it’s still fun. The day it no longer is, I’ll walk away too.

Aaron Rand

On a similarly philosophical note, local radio enthusiast Sheldon Harvey remarked about the state of radio in a post to the Radio in Montreal discussion group:

In a management seminar I attended in my early 20s, the instructor told us that, at some point in our lives, we would realize that money in life is not a motivator. At a young age, I think all of us think that the more money we have, the happier we will be. Eventually most of us realize that life is not long enough to spend it doing things that we really don’t enjoy and don’t believe in, regardless of what we are getting paid.

Rand is right that the economy is putting pressure on radio station owners to cut back, and one of the biggest expenses is those high-priced morning show veterans. And, like newspapers, even the best ones are suffering in this economic climate and changing media landscape.

My problem with commercial music radio, as I expressed when talking about Rand in October, is that they seem to have given up. With respect to all the professionals working at CHOM, CJFM and CFQR, I find most of their names and voices interchangeable. They seem to lack personality that sets them apart from the rest, because they’re not allowed to develop one on the air. It’s why some of them, like Kelly Alexander, are starting on their own with podcasts where they can actually connect on a human level with listeners.

Maybe listeners don’t want to connect with their DJs, maybe they just want the music. It’s a fair stance to take, and studies show that people want music – not talk – from their music stations. But then the music suffers from this same lack of personality. It’s all from the same tiny playlist. And while limiting variety concentrates hits and increases the likelihood that someone turning the dial will stop on your station to hear a familiar song, it also decreases the likelihood that someone will discover something new. And if they’re just listening to a bunch of songs they already know (some of which they like and some they don’t), what competition can that offer to iPods and other recorded media, which are programmed by the user?

Personality and discovery are the advantages that live broadcast radio have over iPods. And yet music radio stations seem to be reluctant to exploit them.

And they wonder why ratings are slowly going down.

UPDATE (Jan. 10): Mitch Joel has some thoughts on local radio from a marketing perspective.

9 thoughts on “What’s happening to Montreal radio?

  1. wkh

    As someone who really loathes talk radio, let me share my thoughts.

    I don’t think the competition is iPods and such as much as Satellite radio. But that may be a misperception on my part. I have nothing other than gut to back that up.

    I dislike listening to people yak on the radio. I’m one of those people who will almost always change during commercials or during long “blah blah blah aren’t I funny and interesting and woo hoo aren’t we having a great morning?” chat times. I am surly when in a good mood. Mornings are vile and listening to cheery folks makes me stabby. I want soothing music. If I want chat I will tune into NPR. (I don’t know if they even have NPR in Canada, that’s how much I loathe talking). Part of it is an auditory thing. When people talk to me when I’m driving I’m one of those “huh wha?” types. Listening to a bunch of yammering is effing annoying. I want to listen to MUSIC.

    I specifically choose not to listen to cds or ipods etc in the car. I have not gotten a satellite radio because I drive a 94 carolla and I’m just not gonna invest in it for that car. I very likely will the next one. I listen to radio because I want to give myself a chance to hear new music. Yes, hits are nice, but good music is even better. I have to admit, I don’t like hearing Treble Charger or whatever new-ish band I heard the other day where the DJ actually said “that’s the first time we’ve played X on CHOM.” Last I heard, CHOM was a classic rock station. I don’t tune into CHOM to hear new stuff, unless Clapton puts out a new album of non-wussed out sober 50 year old music (wake me up if that happens). I tune into CHOM to listen to old classic familiar hits. Sing along music. I tune into Virgin 96 to listen to what’s popular right now. Although their variety has gone noticeably down since the change. Not as much obscure-ish but new stuff. And they feel extremely not local. Worse, they feel like someone not local who just moved here and is trying to act like they are Totally In The Scene. It’s weird.

    But that’s not all I listen to. I also switch over to 96.9 and they are much more interesting than Virgin. I generally only change it because they start doing these stupid annoying medleys sometimes. Or maybe that’s 94.3 which I also listen to and enjoy. Besides, it expands my aural palate to listen to French music too, although they play surprisingly little. Also, one of them has the sole and ONLY talk radio I actually like around 430pm where they have a listener call someone they know and just fuck with them. Convincing their parents they became Raelians and such. It’s usually extremely awesome and I usually end up laughing until I am in tears. I have no idea why I love that so much but find any and all morning shows to be awful. That said, I hated the Stern experiment more than any other Montrealer (I am convinced of this, and most people I know are kind of shocked I don’t like Stern, and never have. Silly’s, I’m a Dan Savage girl! I like some sophistication about my fart jokes, thanks).

    I really doubt I am the only one who would just rather listen to some music with thoughtful interesting info and intros from DJs. Please no monotone college radio voice. But I just really don’t care to listen to a one way conversation while stuck in traffic. It’s effing annoying. I want music.

  2. Mitch Joel - Twist Image

    Wow, Fagstein is quickly becoming the Jay Rosen of local radio… I love it :)

    In all seriousness, you hit it on the head: “I find most of their names and voices interchangeable. They seem to lack personality that sets them apart from the rest, because they’re not allowed to develop one on the air.”

    I would add that people’s perspective of radio may have changed as well (the habits and the care of it). In a world of so much media exposure, it is possible that radio is becoming less important to the masses.

    That all being said, I love local radio and I’ll miss it when it’s gone. Tragically, the stations keep taking more of the “local” out of it anyways (by making the voices and content so generic) and all that’s doing is getting the masses used to not having anything special/local.

    In essence, they’re doing it to themselves. Sad.

  3. melissa

    I think that Aaron Rand said it correctly when he said that change is inevitable; the question is do you embrace it and move ahead wth it or jump off the boat. My father, Sid Margles, was a broadcaster for 25 years and while he was a pioneer in his field of news delivery, the trick was always staying one step ahead of the next guy. If he hadn’t, he would have found himself looking for work, even back then.
    I think the nature of music and the wide availibilty of its delivery is in jeopardy. But when you talk of news talk, news delivery and local news, these are things you can’t get from sattelite radio; local radio will continue to exist; the question is in what format.

  4. princess iveylocks

    I must say, local radio disappointed me when I bought my Zune. The player supports RBDS, which visually broadcasts song titles and other information encoded in the FM signal.

    For some reason, few stations in Ottawa (not even the CBC) use this broadcast format. Once the station was identified, the player would blank out sadly and leave me in the dark as great unnamed songs played anonymously.

    It’s not necessarily that I prefer to listen to pre-recorded music, I just like knowing what I’m listening to, and periodic chat breaks from announcers that may or may not provide song names don’t cut it in the digital era.

    Now I have an iPhone with no local radio, just online streaming apps. I miss hearing the news and banter about regional news/events, but not enough to tune back in. wkh is completely right – satellite, with its infinite musical variety, is too compelling. The human element (remember Paul Harvey and… “the Rest of the Story”?) is local radio’s best hope.

    And someone in corporate really needs to rethink the standard morning-show concept. I get that some people want gags and laffs at 6 in the morning, but others prefer a more sedate tone. I listen to the CBC morning show precisely because it lacks sex jokes and laugh tracks, although God knows how long that will last.

  5. Boupierre

    Princess Iveylock: You can listen to local radio with your iPhone. Both CBC and Radio-Canada have apps that provide you with a bunch of content, including live streams. Corus has an application as well (just for streaming). Further, there are apps that aggregate as well such as WunderRadio, Radioshift and Tuner.

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  7. Bobby

    speaking of Montreal radio, I would like to know why cbc local station puts their podcasts in horrid real audio RAM file format and not mp3. Real audio requires a special real audio player, which is unreliable and won’t even install on my or my wife’s vista machine, my workplace won’t let me install software (not that any intelligent person would willingly install Real Audio player!) nor will RAM files play on my ipod.

    MP3 will play on anything, anywhere.

    Isn’t the purpose of the public broadcaster to reach as many people as possible? Just askin’.

    1. Fagstein Post author

      CBC’s podcasts are all in MP3 format and always have been. You can listen to Daybreak’s podcast from their website or through iTunes.

      They used to put clips of interviews in RealAudio format, but they just finished scrubbing that and now deal exclusively in MP3.

  8. Pingback: Aaron Rand leaving CFQR’s Q Mornings – Fagstein

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