Posted in Montreal, Radio

Clear Channel Cagematch: Cogeco’s all-traffic station

Over the coming days, I’m taking a closer look at the applications for Montreal’s AM clear-channel frequencies 690 and 940 kHz that were presented at CRTC hearings in October. We’ll start with the first one: Metromedia (Cogeco), which applied for an English-language all-traffic station on 940.

Mark Dickie, General Manager of The Beat 92.5 and part of the organizing committee for Cogeco's English all-traffic station

“We didn’t expect this,” Mark Dickie said. “Where was everybody in February or March of 2010? Nobody was really interested in those frequencies then.”

It’s a perfectly reasonable argument from the group that first applied to reactivate 690 and 940 AM. The frequencies have been unused since January 2010, when CINW 940 and CINF 690 were shut down. The licenses for those two stations were officially revoked on June 8, 2010. For almost a year, anyone could have applied for those frequencies, but nobody did.

So when Cogeco, which acquired Metromedia from Corus on Feb. 1, struck a deal with the Quebec government to setup two all-traffic stations on those unused (and seemingly unwanted) frequencies, there was no reason to think the regulatory step was anything more than a formality. The CRTC originally scheduled the applications to be heard along with a bunch of others in a rubber-stamp hearing (it ended up lasting 15 minutes, with no presentations or questions).

But then everyone decided they wanted in, too. Interventions were filed by competitors Astral Media and Bell Media, and would-be competitor Tietolman-Tétrault Media. They demanded that there be an open call for applications, questioned giving clear channels to local all-traffic stations, and in the latter two cases said they would apply for one or both of those frequencies instead. They also pointed out how Cogeco asked for – and received – an exception to the CRTC’s ownership concentration rules by having a third French-language FM station in Montreal, and that another French-language radio station would give them a total of five in this market.

The CRTC responded by pulling the two applications from that hearing and issuing an open call for applications for those two frequencies with an Oct. 17 hearing date in Montreal. The call prompted four other applications.

Cogeco, whose deal with the Quebec government initially had an Oct. 31 deadline for the stations to go on the air, decided it couldn’t wait for the full process to complete itself, and transformed CKAC Sports 730 into a French all-traffic station on Sept. 6.

It subsequently withdrew its application for a French all-traffic station on 690.

I asked Dickie why, if Cogeco considered the CKAC shutdown regrettable, Cogeco didn’t maintain its application and either switch the all-traffic station to 690 or put sports on it. He said they felt, in light of the interventions and the concern about how many stations Cogeco owns, that it was unlikely such an application would be successful.

The proposal

It isn’t too difficult to imagine what an English-language all-traffic station would sound like. Just tune into 730 AM and translate.

The plan for the English-language station would be virtually identical to the French-language one, except for the language. You can get a sense of what the French station is like in this blog post.

Essentially, it would be all-traffic, live from 4:30am to 1am on weekdays and 6am to 1am on weekends and holidays. Two people work at a time, one acting as on-air announcer and the other taking phone calls from listeners reporting traffic problems, and they periodically switch to give the other a break. Traffic reports come about every five minutes, some shorter, with weather, some longer. The reports are much more thorough than what you hear on other radio stations, particularly in terms of giving traffic information for areas outside of downtown or the highways toward it.

The controversy

The most controversial part of this proposal isn’t Cogeco’s radio empire in Montreal continuing to grow. It’s not even that another clear channel would be used for traffic reports. It’s that this station, like CKAC, would be funded mainly by the provincial government, which would hand over $1.5 million per station per year to Cogeco to run the stations. In exchange, the government gets 25 minutes of advertising a day, which works out to about $164 a minute for advertising. I’m told this is high even for commercial radio stations during high listening hours (though not necessarily outrageously so).

By contrast, commercial ad revenue isn’t expected to reach even half of what they get from the government. This is, essentially, a government-funded radio station. But Cogeco talked about the agreement during the hearing as if this was just an advertising contract.

The Quebec Transport Ministry is engaged in a public relations battle, trying to keep motorists happy while the department is under fire for everything from corruption in the construction industry to crumbling overpasses and bridges. The upcoming rebuilding of the Turcot Interchange is going to make traffic hell, and this is part of their solution to it.

(Whether drivers knowing about traffic problems will help solve them is a good question.)

It seems outrageous (and I certainly thought so), but what the Quebec government decides to do with its money is no concern of the CRTC, which is a federal body. Its concern is whether this would be the best use of these airwaves, and whether their content would be Canadian enough and local enough.

The commissioners did express a concern that programming changes would have to be approved by the Quebec government, making it a de facto controller of the station. The agreement between the two specifically states that this is not the case, but it’s really a semantic argument. The agreement sets very specific criteria for what’s on the station (from the operating hours to the length of its commercials), and Cogeco said clearly that the station would not be feasible if it wasn’t for the government money.

Cogeco's team at the CRTC hearing. From left: Melanie Begnoche, Director, Marketing Research; Yves Mayrand, Vice-President, Corporate Affairs; Richard Lachance, Senior Vice-President, Radio; Mark Dickie, General Manager, The Beat; Michel Lorrain, Assistant General Manager, 98.5 and Traffic Radio.

The sell

Cogeco’s argument in favour of an all-traffic station is simple: Traffic affects hundreds of thousands of drivers every day, and they need traffic information. They have polling data showing a vast majority of radio listeners would listen to an all-traffic station at least on occasion. It points to a similar station in Vancouver, AM730, which the format is based on.

Though at first it may seem as though an all-traffic station is redundant to just about every other radio station (even the CBC does traffic reports during rush hour), Cogeco argues that the depth of traffic information would be far higher than you could get in a 30-second report, and that information on traffic issues needs to be available faster than every 10-15 minutes, and more often than just during rush hour.

As proof, they point out that their French all-traffic station receives about 500 calls a day from motorists and has 440,000 listeners (!)

Asked why they need a clear channel for all this, Cogeco points out the poor reception of other channels like 990 in the West Island and western off-island areas, which are rich in anglophones. It says a wide coverage area is needed because of long commutes of some people. It specifically says it needs to cover eastern Ontario, because some people commute from that far into the city every day.

Finally, Cogeco plays the language card, saying that it would be unfair – and against the CRTC’s mandate – for a French all-traffic station to operate on a clear channel but an English station be denied.

The opposition

Astral Media, which expressed concerns about Cogeco’s application the first time, didn’t submit an intervention after the open call for applications and didn’t appear at the CRTC hearing. But Bell Media and Tietolman-Tétrault, which had applications at the hearing, echoed their arguments against the idea. Radio listener, CIDX Club president and Radio in Montreal moderator Sheldon Harvey did as well in opposing the application.

Opponents said the service is a niche one, that people would listen to for short periods if at all, and that it’s local to Montreal and doesn’t need to be heard from as far away as the Gaspé or Val d’Or with a good antenna.

They also added some common-sense technical arguments for having this station be awarded another frequency. They said most traffic information is acquired during daylight hours (except when the days are really short), so a traffic station could deal better with a reduced signal at night.

They also pointed out that car radios tend to have better reception than tabletop ones because they’re built better and have better antennas. And since people who want traffic information tend to drive cars, having a strong signal becomes less important.

Alternatives

The CRTC commissioners asked all the applicants to consider alternate frequencies. There are plenty available: 600, 850, and 990 if CKGM changes frequency. All are Class B, which requires a reduction in coverage area at night. The commission even gave everyone a week to think about it.

For Cogeco, this was a non-starter. None of the alternative frequencies would be adequate. Only 690 and 940 would do, both because they already have the equipment to begin operating on those frequencies, and because their coverage area would include the West Island and southwestern Quebec.

The letter sent a week later was unequivocal: “…we cannot and will not accept a licence that is not based on the use of either  940 kHz, for which we have applied, or 690 kHz”

Bottom line

The usefulness of an all-traffic station is clear, and though there are concerns about the contract with the government, like how much control Cogeco really has (it says it has enough) and whether the station would continue if the contract wasn’t renewed (Cogeco says it would, albeit with significantly less means), neither is likely to be a dealbreaker for the CRTC.

The bigger question is over having a clear channel. Cogeco is absolute, which is a bit puzzling. Their agreement with the government says the station has to cover the metropolitan area, but it doesn’t define what that means exactly. I see no reason to believe the government wouldn’t let give them their $1.5 million a year if the station was on 600, 850 or 990.

Refusing to consider alternatives is, I think, more of a strategic move to try to force the commission’s hand. (Tietolman-Tétrault-Pancholy tried something similar, saying they wanted two stations or none.)

The bilingualism argument – that the English station must be approved because the French station is running – might work with the CBC but is unlikely to sway the commissioners, I think.

Chances

Since Cogeco has refused alternative frequencies, the commission will have to either judge it superior to (at most all but one of) the others, or just say no. The technical arguments about car radio reception being better and traffic being more useful during the day than at night are good ones. But whether this application gets approved will probably depend more on how the CRTC feels about the competing applications, particularly Tietolman-Tétrault-Pancholy.

I rate this application’s chances fair.

Start date

The revised contract with the Quebec government says the station must be operational within 60 days of approval by the CRTC (the CRTC says a decision should come “by Christmas”), and no later than Feb. 29, 2012.

12 thoughts on “Clear Channel Cagematch: Cogeco’s all-traffic station

  1. Sheldon Harvey

    As I said at the hearings, I still think they should create a bilingual station, much like they have for Weather Radio and the Trudeau Airport info station. You’ll remember that there was not a single comment made by any of the commissioners in response to my bilingual suggestion. At lease as far as CRTC is concerned, the two solitudes continue to exist, at least as far as English and French are concerned.

    Reply
    1. AlexH

      Sheldon, a bilingual station sounds like a good idea in theory, but in practice it is just not functional.

      You have to compare the existing traffic report services on English and French radio, which run generally every 15 minutes, and because of companies using the same traffic reporter on multiple stations, the effect time between traffic reports is about half of that, or 7 minutes net between the end of one report and the start of the next, and that is only on one chain. Add in any other chain, and you can get that down well under 5 minutes between traffic reports.

      Compare that to a bilingual station, with 5 minute blocks in each language, and you are looking at little in the way of improvement. Moreover, if you happen to come in near the end of your preferred language, say for the last minute, you end up waiting 6 minutes, listening to another language that you may not understand or care to listen to.

      It would also create a problem of “tune out”. If you missed part of your report, you might not stay listening long enough to hear it restart 5 or 6 minutes later. Someone listening to the end of the report in their language would also likely tune out immediately, not listening to the commercial messages. That would make it significantly harder to sell ads, if the consumers are just not listening.

      It isn’t a question of “two solitudes” (nice try to make it political), it is truly a question of practicality and a functional business model. A bilingual station has neither of those going for it, and as a result is a non-starter for everyone involved.

      Reply
      1. Sheldon

        If the good majority of people living in this city aren’t capable of interpreting the simplistic terminology involved in bilingual traffic reports at this point in their lives, then they probably shouldn’t be living in Montreal. I think it does really come down to politics, unfortunately.

        If you’ve listened to Daybreak on CBC Radio lately, Radio-Canada has already arbitrarily chosen to feature almost exclusively French TV shows, movies, books, plays, music in their arts and culture reports every morning. They are apparently assuming that English listeners tuning in to their English service will have no problem consuming arts and culture fare in French. If that’s the case, then we should be able to survive with a French only traffic station. That will put $1.5 million from Transport Quebec per year for three years destined for Cogeco’s pockets back into the system to perhaps repair potholes, perhaps only in the English sections of the city though!

        Reply
        1. AlexH

          Sheldon, I just cannot agree with you here. Most people are happier to be served in their own (native) language, and are less likely to stay tuned into a station that changes languages back and both in 5 minute intervals. Without people staying tuned through the end of the report and into the next one, there is little potential for commercial sales, and thus little chance of the station ever being economically viable.

          Further, your objections to how the TQ money is spent is really a political issue, and not one that is relevant to language issues.

          Reply
          1. Fagstein Post author

            Most people are happier to be served in their own (native) language, and are less likely to stay tuned into a station that changes languages back and both in 5 minute intervals. Without people staying tuned through the end of the report and into the next one, there is little potential for commercial sales, and thus little chance of the station ever being economically viable.

            The argument is kind of moot anyway. The CRTC doesn’t like licensing bilingual radio stations, and Cogeco is never going to go for it (for that matter, neither is the government).

            Reply
          2. Jimmy Jack

            Economically viable? It’s underwritten by the taxpayer. It’s already viable.

            I support the bilingual traffic station. I can wait five minutes for the traffic in my not so official language.

            Hey if Sears Canada can advertise in French on the BUZZ 99.9 for staff… anything is possible.

            Reply
          3. Sheldon

            In my opinion, there would be no potential for commercial sales, and no chance of the station ever being economically viable, English, French or any other language, unless the money was coming Cogeco’s way from TQ. I don’t think there’s a person out there who thinks that Cogeco, or any other company, would have considered putting an all-traffic station(s) on the air here unless they were getting money to do it. There’s probably someone in the Radio Circulation traffic centre, monitirng the cameras, ready to map out the quickest and most direct route from Quebec City to Place Bonaventure to deliver their next $1.5 million cheque should the CRTC approve their application.

            Reply
    2. ATSC

      Good idea Sheldon. But it won’t happen in this town. It would happen on WYUL-FM 94.7 with it’s ability to offer info in both languages. But not with the Montreal stations.

      Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      What about CHDO-FM

      CHDO has a very specific purpose, providing information for airport visitors. It doesn’t concern itself with the city as a whole. The CRTC has also made it clear that there is no more room for large (or even medium-size) FM stations in Montreal. There might be some room for lower-power regional stations on its peripheries (like CKKI-FM in Kahnawake), but for the city itself the FM band is saturated.

      Reply
  2. Jordan

    CKOI 96.9 FM COGECO
    CHMP 98.5 FM COGECO
    CKAC 730 AM COGECO
    CFQR 92.5 FM COGECO
    CFGL 105.7 FM COGECO

    CITE FM ASTRAL
    CJFM FM ASTRAL
    CJAD AM ASTRAL
    CKMF FM ASTRAL
    CHOM FM ASTRAL

    CKGM AM BELL

    HEY WHY NOT GRANT COGECO ANOTHER STATION, ITS LIKE A CONCENTRATION OF MEDIA RACE

    Reply
    1. Michael D

      All the more reason to grant the 690 and 940 to the Teitolman group and strong news/talk programming, and and give ‘ AD a run for thier bucks, and stop their omplacency..

      Reply

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