Cogeco’s self-serving plan for Quebec radio

Three months after announcing a deal to buy Corus Quebec’s radio stations (with the exception of CKRS in Saguenay, which has been sold to an independent group including Guy Carbonneau), Cogeco and the CRTC yesterday both released Cogeco’s proposal for how it will run those stations.

Among the highlights:

Cogeco News

In addition to the above, Cogeco is talking big about creating a “news agency” that would serve all its stations (I guess they mean something bigger than Corus Nouvelles). Here’s what they say in their press release:

The news agency that COGECO proposes to set up will play a key role in enriching local information and will provide a complement to the other information sources available in Quebec. All of the stations of the COGECO group as well as independent stations in the regions and community stations will be asked to contribute to the content available through the agency. In return, they will be able to select the most relevant news for their respective listening audiences and produce their own news bulletins locally.

Pooling resources through the news agency, which will be coordinated by FM 98.5, will create a full information source available 24/7 – because news happens nights and weekends, too.

Furthermore, sharing information resources will allow regional stations CHLN-FM Trois-Rivieres, CHLT-FM Sherbrooke and CJRC-FM Gatineau, which will remain predominantly spoken-word radio services but will now primarily target men between the ages of 25 and 54, to devote their resources to producing local shows. Most significantly, this means the return of local public affairs programming in the morning and at noon, as well as locally produced news bulletins.

Finally, a night-time show and a weekend morning public affairs show will be produced and offered to all stations of the group. Community stations and independent stations in the regions will also have the benefit of these new resources and information content.

“We want to put information radio in Quebec back on top,” commented Mr. Lachance. “Since COGECO is a business that is close to its people, it is a natural fit for us to make local information and local interest content the heart of our strategy. The decision to include independent stations in the regions and community stations in the agency aligns with that, and we think this is great news for radio in Quebec.”

Unless I’ve misunderstood, this sounds a lot like what the TV networks have done to local television stations. They still produce local newscasts locally (well, except Global), but many of the stories they produce are prepackaged by the national network. Without the resources and staff to put together a full newscast, the local stations are forced to use these prepackaged reports, even if they’re local stories from local newscast hundreds of kilometres away that have little interest to their communities.

And Cogeco is trying to sell this as a good thing for local radio.

Of course, if the alternative is no news at all, or a straight rebroadcast of a Montreal signal, I guess it is good news.

Let us cheat, but only where we get rich

Cogeco doesn’t try to hide the fact that its request to keep its stations in Montreal is all about money. Rythme FM is the No. 1 station in Montreal, 98.5 has the most popular morning show, and CKOI also does very well here.

Their excuse for wanting to keep all these money-generating stations? They’re throwing out a bunch:

98.5 is special: “The proposed exception affects only FM 98.5 in Montreal’s French-language radio market and would allow COGECO to operate three French-language FM radio stations, each in its own niche.”

Are Rythme FM and CKOI so different that they qualify as their “own niches”? And the exception applies equally to them. Nothing stops Cogeco from keeping 98.5 and selling Rythme FM or CKOI. It’s selling both stations from those networks in Quebec City and shutting down CKOI’s sister station in Sherbrooke.

It saves the French language: “The distinctiveness of the bilingual Montreal market and the importance of keeping talk radio like FM 98.5 strong in order to ensure the sustainability of French-language spoken-word radio in Quebec justify our request for an exception”

I have no idea what bilingualism has to do with this, nor how “the distinctiveness of the bilingual Montreal market” somehow means it makes sense to concentrate ownership. I don’t know whether 98.5 is profitable. If it is, they can sell it to someone who will keep the talk radio format. If it isn’t, there’s no guarantee Cogeco won’t change the format and make it a music station or something else that’s cheaper to produce.

It helps the regions financially: “Without that exception, it will be next to impossible for COGECO to indefinitely support regional spoken-word radio stations that have been running heavy deficits for many years.”

That’s an argument for converting CKOY in Sherbrooke from a station to a retransmitter, but what does it have to do with Montreal? Does Cogeco expect us to believe that if we give them an exception to media concentration rules that they’ll subsidize money-losing regional stations indefinitely?

It helps the regions with programming: “The limited exception sought by COGECO would breathe new life into stations in the regions by providing them links to strong programming sources – to FM 98.5 primarily, for information and public affairs, and to CKAC-AM for sports and CKOI-FM for its expertise and music content.”

Again with the distraction. CKAC has nothing to do with the exception, since it’s an AM station. And as for CKOI, you just said you’re selling its sister station in Quebec City and shutting down its sister station in Sherbrooke. If Montreal-based programming would save these stations, why do you insist on getting rid of them?

We should include anglo stations too: “… a very high number of francophone listeners tune in to English-language music stations.”

Sure. CHOM and CJFM get a lot of francophones listening to them. But so does CFQR, which you’ll recall is one of the stations you’re buying. Add in the anglo stations, and Cogeco wants to own five of the 13 commercial radio stations in the city, and four of the eight commercial FM (mainstream) music stations. This doesn’t support their argument very well.

Straight-up bullshit: “Our plan is without a doubt the best opportunity to increase diversity of voices across Quebec that the broadcasting system has seen in many years.”

You’re buying a former competitor. Don’t pretend it’s the opposite of what it is.

Ooh, money!

Oh, and that last part they mentioned about “an exceptional contribution of 9% of the total transaction value, an amount of $7.2 million, to various organizations and initiatives to support the radio system”? Sounds kind of generous, doesn’t it?

It’s CRTC policy that when a broadcaster is sold, the buyer proposes a “tangible benefits” package of 10% of the purchase price to contribute positively to the development of the broadcasting system. The money doesn’t go to the CRTC, but to organizations that support independent productions and other good things.

You math majors might notice that their 9% proposal is less than the 10% CRTC policy. In other words, it’s another exception they’re asking for, one that they’re selling to the public as a generous donation on their part.

What the CRTC should do

Cogeco hasn’t made anywhere near a solid case for keeping three FM stations in the Montreal market. It’s selling or shutting down Rythme FM and CKOI-branded stations elsewhere in Quebec, and freely admits its only motivation for wanting to keep these stations here is money. The CRTC should order Cogeco to sell one of the FM stations in Montreal, and let someone who isn’t Cogeco or Astral Media take a shot at making money from commercial francophone radio in Montreal.

Cogeco’s point about the unprofitability of regional stations is a good one, but giving the company what it wants in Montreal won’t suddenly make those stations profitable (even with all the big talk about a news agency they promise). It will at best simply delay their eventual decision to either sell or shut down those regional stations.

In Quebec City, Cogeco’s plan to sell two stations would put it in compliance with CRTC guidelines. No problem there.

In Sherbrooke, Cogeco is presenting its plan as a “win-win-win”, proving it doesn’t give a crap about local radio. The CRTC should order Cogeco to find a buyer for CKOY. Corus found a buyer for CKRS in Saguenay, and those Quebec City stations are going to someone. I’m willing to bet there’s interest in CKOY if it’s on the block for cheap. If Cogeco is interested in having a CKAC retransmitter in Sherbrooke, it can apply for a new license on a vacant frequency.

The CRTC will hold a hearing on Sept. 28 at 9am at Le Nouvel Hotel (1740 René-Lévesque W., corner Saint-Mathieu) to consider the application.

UPDATE (Aug. 6): Cogeco VP Richard Lachance does interviews with Infopresse and Paul Arcand explaining the plan, saying the new news service will create about a dozen jobs (including reporters in the federal and provincial legislatures), and there’s no Plan B if the CRTC decides it doesn’t like Cogeco’s plan.

Trente, meanwhile, takes another look at the plan, referencing this blog post.

10 thoughts on “Cogeco’s self-serving plan for Quebec radio

    1. Shawn

      yeah, this is great stuff. The Gaz is nuts IMO for not giving you column space for things like this. I hope you’re exploring things with the Globe or Macleans. There’s got to be a paid platform for stuff like this. (Speaking of which, John Moore, ex of Montreal, is writing FABulous columns for the Nat Post’s Full Comment space.) You should be getting paid for this stuff, Steve.

      Reply
  1. ATSC

    Yes, very good article.

    Too much power in too few hands can only lead to trouble. Cogeco should be forced to sell stations. And no repeater stations are to be placed in other markets. Those repeaters help kill the local markets.

    We need new players to own stations. Not the same old gangs that get licenses to operate radio and TV stations.

    Even the sole english station in the group should be sold off.
    Two stations per market for any company is too much to begin with.

    Reply
  2. AlexH

    Cogeco should be forced to sell CKOI and the other two stations (Sherbrooke and Quebec) that rebroadcast it. Keeping that network together for a future owner would be in the best interest for all of the markets concerned.

    The CRTC needs only to look at the mess Corus has made of the Quebec market with rebroadcasts, shared content, and the like to realize that the idea of “Cogeco Nouvelles” is a horrible backwards step for the Quebec market. It may be an efficient sounding business move, but it is very likely to turn all of the stations into format constrained clones of each other. When Corus moved to the 5 minute “network” news at the top of the hour, they pretty much had to destroy the format of almost every station, and really pretty much killed off Info690 by making it remarkably redundant.

    Network programming is the kiss of death.

    Cogeco could should be required to divest down to 2 FM stations in the Montreal market (and this is a standard that should be applied in every market for every company). We already face the sad issue in the English market that one single company controls what the vast majority of Anglo radio listeners tune into each day (Hello Astral!). It would be incredibly bad for the english marketplace if The “Q” was part of a larger french radio media group, becoming potentially the redheaded step child of the organization. With Q as the only real competition left in the Montreal Anglo marketplace, anything that would diminish it would be a free pass for the Astral-bots. More Ryan Doyle, anyone? Extracting the CKOI rebroadcasters in Sherbrooke and Quebec would go a long way to fulfilling this “only 2 in the market” concept.

    I could go on about talk radio on the FM dial, but safe to say that there is plenty of space on the AM dial now (at least one clear channel) that sits idle.

    Reply
  3. Steve Kowch

    Guess this means 940 on the AM dial remains silent. Such a clear channel up for grabs and no one seems to want it! Too bad!

    Reply
    1. Jordan Tietolman

      Hi Steve,

      with or without the exemption approved, both 690 AM and 940 AM will not be left dark…we have plans to relaunch both frequencies with quality talk, information, we would move 98.5 FM programming to 690 AM and relaunch 940 AM to compete with CJAD, we also have plans to relaunch 98.5 FM with a brand new french language music format to compete with CITE-FM and CFGL-FM. We are not looking to run franchise radio but rather innovative, creative and diverse platforms.

      Reply
  4. Jordan Tietolman

    How can anyone trust the company who completely shut down the CKO NEWS NETWORK because all they wanted was the cable properties, also the layoffs and failure of TQS, these guys are cable guys, not broadcasters.

    Reply
  5. Jacques from laprairie

    Well, COGECO may have a self serving plan but it has a little respect for its audience than CORUS had.

    Jacques Fabbi is back on 98.5 with the old talkshow he had till 2 years ago. Overnight Montreal has gotten some of its voice back.

    CJAD should get the hint. Till then I assume that ASTRAL has no use for the english Montreal community. Without a real voice Overnight, English Montreal does not exist.

    Jacques

    Reply

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