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 Gazette
- La Presse
- Rue Frontenac
- Les Affaires
- Presse Canadienne
- Agence QMI
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.