Posted in In the news, Montreal, Opinion, Radio

All-traffic radio: A $9-million waste

Coverage map for CINW 940AM at 50,000 watts, as submitted to CRTC

Last week, news came out that Cogeco and the Quebec government have reached a deal that will see the creation of two new all-traffic AM radio stations in Montreal set to open in the fall. The project will cost taxpayers $9 million over three years.

It’s the most ridiculous use of $9 million I’ve seen in a while.

The history of 690 and 940 AM

Montreal has had two giant holes in its radio spectrum since January 2010. Both frequencies – 690 and 940 kHz – started out as CBC stations. CBM (CBC Montreal) moved to 940 and CBF (Radio-Canada Montreal) moved to 690 in 1941. They were among Canada’s oldest AM radio stations and each had clear-channel status, meaning that they could operate at 50,000 watts and did not have to reduce power overnight to avoid interference.

Clear-channel status is highly sought – or at least it was. There are only about a dozen such stations in Canada (CKAC is the only active one in Montreal), and the clear-channel status means they can be heard from very far away with a good enough antenna.

Despite this seemingly huge advantage, CBC decided in the late 90s to move its AM stations in Montreal to FM – 88.5 and 95.1 MHz – where they remain today as CBC Radio One and Première Chaîne). The argument was that FM provided better quality audio and the signal would be easier to capture in the city. The tradeoff – that the signal would no longer be carried by skywave to neighbouring provinces and territories – didn’t seem to be such a big deal. It was a controversial move at the time, particularly for CBC Radio listeners who had better reception with AM than FM.

In 1999, the decades-old CBC transmitters were shut down and the frequencies vacated. Métromédia (later Corus Quebec), which owned CIQC 600 AM and CKVL 850 AM, wasted no time in snapping the clear channels up, and moved those two stations to the vacated frequencies. They were reborn as all-news stations CINW (940 News) and CINF (Info 690).

We all know how that turned out. The anglo all-news station didn’t work out financially, so they changed it up into a news-talk format in 2005. When that didn’t work either, they fired everyone and started played music in 2008. (Info 690, meanwhile, kept going with their news format). Then, in January 2010, Corus pulled the plug on both stations and gave up. They returned their licenses to the CRTC.

Since then, the frequencies have remained vacant. Clear AM channels that it seems anyone could have had just by asking. But no takers.

In 2010, Corus agreed to sell its Quebec assets to Cogeco. This included the transmitters for CINW and CINF, even though they were inoperative and had no broadcast license. The deal was approved in December, giving Cogeco the equipment (and a lease on the transmitter site in Kahnawake until 2021) but no idea how to use it in a way that could make it profitable.

And here’s where the Quebec government comes in.

Congrats, Cogeco lobbyists

According to documents they submitted to the CRTC (you can download them yourself from here), Cogeco found out about the Quebec transport ministry wanting to improve the way it communicates information about traffic disruptions to the public. With all the construction work expected to come (the Turcot Interchange, for example), they wanted to minimize the pain to drivers by keeping them as well informed as possible.

Cogeco went to them and proposed a … let’s call it a partnership. Cogeco would provide the transmitter, the programming, the staff. The government would provide access to traffic information and lots and lots of money.

The government thought it was a great idea, and on April 14 they published their intention to award a contract to Cogeco. The deal was finally announced last week by the government and Cogeco (PDF) and the CRTC announced it would hold a hearing on the proposal to give the licenses back to CINW and CINF. News coverage was brief, most just regurgitating the press release:

The station, which according to the deal must be operational by Oct. 31 (though the target date is Sept. 1 pending CRTC approval), would broadcast live from 4:30am to 1am weekdays and 6am to 1am weekends and holidays. This information includes:

  • Traffic status on highways and bridges
  • Road conditions
  • Information on road work sites (it’s unclear if this is just those run by the transport ministry or all municipal sites as well)
  • Highway safety tips
  • Weather conditions

In other words, the kind of stuff you’d expect from any traffic information radio station. Missing from this list is an item about providing information on public transit service. It’s unclear why both sides left this out of their press releases, but it’s contained in their CRTC submission and in the contract between the government and Cogeco, and I would imagine the intention is to include such information in their broadcasts.

The deal also includes promotion of the station by Cogeco and 25 minutes a day of airtime for the ministry.

Cogeco says it plans to use CHMJ in Vancouver (owned by Corus) as a template. That’s also an all-traffic radio station, but with one major difference: It’s not funded by the government.

You could also compare it to The Weather Network and MétéoMédia, which provide all-weather programming, funded mainly by subscriber fees that all cable subscribers must pay for the channels.

Why this is a bad idea

I appreciate that the ministry wants to improve communication about traffic and road work. But they’re doing this by getting into the broadcast business. The figure of $3 million a year might not be much, but it represents about three-quarters of the stations’ proposed budgets. Cogeco also predicts that figure will rise if the contract is renewed beyond three years (the CRTC asks for seven-year projections for a station’s finances) to $3.3 million a year for the next three years.

Put simply, this is a solution to a problem that does not exist. I mean, seriously, is the biggest complaint about commercial radio that there aren’t enough traffic reports? Just about every station does traffic reports every 10 minutes during rush hours. CJAD does it all day. All this without any specific funding by the government to do so. Even CBC Radio One does traffic reports, including public transit updates. (The CBC is funded by the federal government, but that funding doesn’t come with a requirement to do traffic updates. CBC Radio does traffic reports because it knows that’s what rush-hour listeners want to hear.)

This isn’t to say an all-traffic radio station wouldn’t make sense. CHMJ is trying that format. And it’s a good idea for AM radio, because most portable music devices these days can’t receive AM radio, but most cars can. But if there’s a demand for it, then it can be done without government funding. And if there isn’t a demand for it, why bother?

Cogeco’s own submission to the CRTC says there are about 1.3 million vehicles travelling in the Montreal area during the afternoon rush hour (less in the morning), which means more than $2 per vehicle per year spent on these stations. They expect their market share will be 1.5% for the anglo station and 1.6% for the francophone station. Based on their estimated total weekly hours of listening, the English station would expect about 1,000 listeners on average (more, obviously, during rush hour) and the French station about 3,000 listeners.

And CRTC submissions are usually pretty optimistic.

Why this is overkill

The other thing that bugs me about this is the choice of channel. Cogeco wants to put both these stations on clear channels, and have both running 50,000 watts day and night. The reach of these stations, as you can see from the map at the top of this post, is not just the greater Montreal area, but as far as Gaspé, Moncton, southern Maine, Kingston, northern Ontario and even Labrador. The vast majority of its listening area couldn’t care less what happens on the Champlain Bridge.

Then again, if nobody else wants the frequency, I guess it’s better to do that than nothing at all. But surely we can find a better use for such a powerful signal than traffic reports for one city.

There are also some strange proposals, like having a roving reporter patrol the city to report from the scenes of major traffic events. Compare this to the private sector that has helicopters flying overhead to report on traffic and other issues. It’s a government employee doing a job that the private sector is already doing better.

What the government should spend its money on

In the grand scheme of things, $9 million isn’t a lot of money. But rather than spend it on duplicating a service the private sector already does for free, how about the transport ministry use it more wisely. Spend it on adding more traffic cameras, providing better real-time information to traffic reporters, better ways of getting information to smartphones and other portable devices, improving the Quebec 511 service. Create a database of road work (both provincial and municipal) that can be integrated into Google Maps and used to suggest better routes to drivers.

Or, you know, they could use it to improve the province’s highways. At least repave the kilometre or two closest to the Ontario border, which will give the most psychological bang for the buck and end those silly anecdotal cross-border comparisons.

The CRTC will be hearing the two applications for all-traffic radio stations on July 18 in Gatineau. Comments and interventions are being accepted until June 20. The contract is contingent on CRTC approval and would be cancelled if CRTC approval doesn’t materialize before Oct. 31.

UPDATE (May 31): A Gazette piece says that there was a call for bids in this deal. That’s not entirely accurate. On April 14, the transport ministry published its intent to give a contract to Cogeco (a document that starts off by saying “this is not a call for bids”), and gave competitors 10 days to indicate that they could provide a competing offer for the deal – something that if accepted would have led to a formal call for bids. After the deadline passed, the ministry gave the deal to Cogeco.

23 thoughts on “All-traffic radio: A $9-million waste

  1. wkh

    I am so surprised ye of no driver’s license thinks this useless LOL.

    I know of several people who cannot wait for this to go up so they can stop listening to craptastic “morning radio” programming and even worse “afternoon drive” and just pop it on between fav songs on their mp3 players. This has a big audience potential.

    Reply
  2. Marc

    I agree the govt shouldn’t have its paws in this, but it already has a broadcasting arm: Société de Télédiffusion, aka. Télé-Québec. So they’re already in the biz. I don’t think CRTC rules allow a govt department to directly operate radio stations.

    And yes, no need to waste clear channels for this. It would have been better to re-activate 600 and 850. But I recall CKVL had issues at night so an 850 signal would have to be better designed than in the past.

    Reply
  3. AlexH

    It still beats the heck out of the government doing it themselves. They would buy all new equipment, build new studios, perhaps install a whole chain of transmitters to cover specific areas, hire 1000 people to run it, and cost us hundreds of millions a year.

    9 million so that the other stations can stop wasting out time with endless traffic reports? priceless!

    Reply
  4. Kevin

    My wife’s preferred radio station, Mix, has stopped doing regular afternoon traffic broadcasts.
    If it costs $9 million to get her to switch stations, then by god it’s worth it!

    In other words — this is a stupid idea.

    Reply
  5. Anonymous

    Even CBC Radio One does traffic reports, including public transit updates. All this without any funding by the government to do so.

    Did you actually write this with a straight face?

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      “Even CBC Radio One does traffic reports, including public transit updates. All this without any funding by the government to do so.” — Did you actually write this with a straight face?

      Ha, yes I did in fact. I meant to say without any specific government funding. I will correct.

      Reply
  6. xxx

    I would rather they spend the money on better traffic delay sensors. Most new GPS units include auto-rerouting based on traffic, taking the info from traffic sensors on major roadways and bridges. There are such sensors in Quebec, but there are much fewer and slower to update than equivalent systems in the US or other provinces.

    Also, Quebec does not provide speed limit data as part of its maps. In the US, your GPS will show the current speed limit on the road, very accurately.

    Or, for $9m they could do a better job of removing traffic cones and lane restrictions on highways which have not seen a construction worker in weeks or months…

    Reply
    1. Pelle Moulante

      those do-nothing traffic cones and lane blockages where you see no one are there for a good reason. Somewhere along the cones there is a bridge or over pass or under-road tunnel that is weaker than it should be. Closing one lane reduces the load on the road and therefore the road is able to safely cross the affected under-road structure.

      Quebec has been doing a lot of great work in the very recent past on it’s safety assessment and rebuilding program for bridges, overpasses and viaducts. (after decades of neglect and some notable disasters and tragedies)

      I travel all over the province and the roads are better than they’ve ever been, spring pothole season not withstanding). Avoiding construction sites is more challenging. Like Fagstein said, put this money to work making the 511 traffic information into google maps and gps systems so we can avoid construction. Radio… in a digital world.

      Closed bridges in particular should be in google maps ferchristsake!!

      Reply
      1. xxx

        not all of them are there for a good reason, some are out on the open highway nowhere near an overpass or underpass

        Reply
  7. ATSC

    It a good and bad idea, here is a list.

    Bad idea:
    1 – Provincial money being wasted on this. Far better use of the money. Use it to speed up road repairs instead, or put more electronic sign boards on the road.
    2 – Do we really need Cogeco to run two more stations in this market?
    3 – Those AM clear channels should be off limits for such use. Or at least arrange with the FCC to remove them from a clear channel status.

    Good idea, somewhat:
    1 – Why not. If people feel that they are not getting good road info form the present radio stations. This will be useful. But, Cogeco also owns plenty of stations in Montreal that they can improve traffic reports on. No need for government money? I guess?

    Alternate idea:
    1 – Use HD Radio. Those two serves can be tagged on as sub-channels on one of Cogeco’s current FM licenses. Thus no need to use the AM clear channels. For those that feel that bad a need for such a service, they can get a HD Radio added to they’re car for about $100-$200, and no subscription fees. Either as a full install or as a added on radio much in the same way SiruisXM radios currently do. This way, the FM band is efficiently used for niche market services such as all traffic. The people who really want such a service will get a HD Radio. Besides, they’ll even discover that VPR is using HD Radio, and providing full Classical and BBC world service in the Montreal area as well on their radio station.

    Reply
    1. Paul Tremblay

      The Canadian authorities will never surrender clear channels because of the IBOC (HD) issue. HD on AM causes interference inside of the groundwave protected contour and the Canadian government has complained with the FCC regarding this. Clear channels are a useful bargaining tool and therefore there is no point in surrendering them. If for some reason 690 and 940 are not re-used in Montreal watch for them being re-used in other Canadian markets.

      As for the HD suggesion, almost no one has an HD receiver in Canada and therefore this can’t be a real solution to any Canadian problem. Even in the U.S. few people have receivers and HD is even being turned off at many stations (especially AM). AM stereo looks like the success of the century in comparison to IBOC/HD…

      Reply
      1. ATSc

        Sorry to differ with you, but HD Radio ownership does exist in Canada. Even though no marketing has been done in Canada. Canadians living next to US markets with HD Radio stations have purchased units. Why would amazon.ca offer units for sale? The numbers may be small. But, this may have more to do with the lack of Canadian HD Radio stations and zero marketing.

        Concerning AM HD Radio, that is pretty much useless. And some US AM stations have shut down their HD Radio service. But, since the FM side works well, ownership groups in many markets have placed their AM stations as sub-channels on their FM stations. So no really loss there.

        Concerning limited interest in HD Radio in the US, this has more to do with the limited power the FCC had allowed it. This has now been lifted, and stations are slowly increasing their power limit. WVPS-FM which is the closest station to Montreal that offers HD Radio is suppose to increase it’s power output within the FCC’s newest regulations.

        One of the major problems that HD Radio has had was the lack of car units. If you check these days, HD Radios are now being offered in greater numbers in new cars. I don’t know how the IBOC people missed this one. People listen to radio in their cars.

        I own a HD Radio. And I do get a lock on WVPS-FM’s HD Radio service here in Montreal. Though I do have a external antenna attached due to that station still operating on limited power. The audio is excellent. And, the increase in channel selection is always appreciated. Three channels on one station. Of course VPR is not for everybody, expect maybe for CBC Radio listeners in Montreal. But, it works, and it sounds excellent. Now since we live next to a small US market, we have a limited choice to HD Radio stations. But, think of the Canadians living next to Buffalo, Detroit, and Seattle. There are certainly more stations available, and those signals are entering into Canadian homes.

        With the various sub-channel formats available with HD Radio, it’s a good alternative to sat radio. Especially for those who are not interested in paying subscription fees.

        The current HD Radio list is available at http://www.hdradio.com

        Reply
        1. AlexH

          I think a better answer here would be to use AM, but to shift them off to non-clear channel frequencies. I am not sure, but there seems to be plenty of empty space around (600? 1470?) that could do the job and avoid having to waste a valuable public resource.

          Reply
  8. Vahan

    I have never understood traffic reports on radio stations. There is always traffic on the same hi-ways at the same time every day. So who is avoiding traffic because of the reports? It is always the same in front of the NFB, the 20 before the ville-marie, Decarie south in the AM north in the PM, Cote de-Liesse, elevated Met. Everyone is always stuck. Most times it is the ones in the most rush causing the most traffic, you know the ones the big cars, phone to the ears, clueless to others around them.

    Reply
  9. Fassero

    Thank you Steve. I have been wondering since day one why it seems nobody sees how much the whole thing stinks.

    It’s a big FAT subsidy for Cogeco for operating something it has neither the guts or the will to run on it’s own. It’s not Quebec City arena deplorable. But pretty comparable. Cogeco wants something to do with the transmitters? How about leasing them out for community-based programming? Provide an opportunity for individuals, ex-radio employees, etc. to come up with innovative shows that they could try out on air. I don’t know all the logistics, or even if it would succeed, but it would at least be different and an interesting experiment without any notable financial risk.

    Reply
  10. Pelle Moulante

    I had never heard of clear channel radio as a technical term, I only knew the US radio megacorp of the same name. Very interesting in the radio history department.

    Reply
  11. gg

    An observer from Vancouver writes…

    I was upset when our AM 730 switched from music to all-traffic a few years ago; it was against the original license application and also was an end to a bit of radio history in Vancouver, since 730 was one of the original rock and roll stations back in the 1950s.

    It also seemed to be a giveaway to Corus, since they would use the same traffic reporters already working for Corus’s CKNW (AM 980), the dominant private news-talk station here, without having to do much of anything in the way of new hires etc.

    I have to admit, though, that I now tune in every couple of days, at least, despite endless traffic reports on every other station. When I want to know about traffic, I want to know RIGHT NOW – is that slow-down up ahead the result of an accident, or just volume? Which bridge should I take? Etc. I still have to wait a few minutes to get the exact info that I want, but it strikes me that it’s faster and more comprehensive than CBC Radio One.

    Your situation in Montreal seems a bit wacky in comparison – the government is actually subsidizing the station?!

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      Your situation in Montreal seems a bit wacky in comparison – the government is actually subsidizing the station?!

      To the tune of $1.5 million a year, which they predict will represent a little under three quarters of its cost.

      Reply
  12. eb

    You can bet that Cogeco will use this to improve their traffic reports on all its stations. So basically, Quebec is funding the traffic report team for RhytmeFM, CKOI and so on.

    Reply
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  16. Justin

    We need HD radio in Canada USA has had it for a while but nothing has been implemented in canada yet and it starting to look like its going to be a dark age for FM radio and AM radio in Canada if there is no change being set. In the states I found the technology pretty cool and I put away my I pod just to figure it out the sound quality was not cd quality as they said it would be witch it gave me the oh well ho really cares about hd radio but then there was stations that had 2 or 3 stations on one channel thats what sold me on it traffic on one music on the other the regular channel that they had and am sounds like satellite radio awesome finely no more boring dull am radio so I bought an hd radio works good here but stopped listening to the radio in Canada cuz there’s no extra channels statice and the same old boring fm and am radio so back to the I pod and no radio.

    Reply

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