This week, 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. Today, I'm looking at CKGM's application to change the frequency of TSN Radio Montreal (formerly The Team 990) from 990 to 690.
Unlike the other applicants for stations on 690 and 940, the one from CKGM is to move an already existing station. It's a perfectly legitimate request, but it makes writing articles about this hearing difficult. You can't refer to "five new radio stations", because one already exists. Oh well, that's my problem.
The biggest strength of this application is that it's an established station with an existing audience. It's been on the air forever, but more significantly it has had just over a decade of experience as an all-sports station.
So why change frequencies? Coverage:
This is only an issue at night, when skywave propagation carries signals in the AM band farther. During the day, it can broadcast 50,000 watts and cover most of the region (the red line in the map above). But when the sun goes down, CKGM has to alter its signal, making it highly directional, essentially pointing it due north-northeast toward downtown (the black line). This is the problem.
Two things make this problem even worse: The nighttime pattern is awful for the West Island and areas west of Montreal, where a lot of anglos live. And the biggest new feature of the station - Canadiens games - air at night.
These lines aren't absolute, of course, The signals don't disappear when you cross them. But they're an indication of relative strength of the stations. The station estimates it loses 30% of its potential audience as a result of the change to a nighttime pattern.
Because 690 (blue) and 940 (purple) are clear channels, they don't require nighttime pattern changes.
Bell Media, which owns CKGM, is so convinced that this change is necessary that it painted a doomsday scenario if the application fails.
"CKGM has been unprofitable for more than a decade, and Bell expects that the station – if it remains at its current operating frequency – has little probability of being profitable for the foreseeable future," it writes in its application (it specified at the hearing that it has lost $4.9 million since 2007). "We are confident that the better signal quality will make CKGM financially viable for the long term, while having no material impact on the other stations in the market."
The application talks about how they've tried to cut costs to make themselves profitable - they're down to 14 full-time and four part-time employees. It also talks about investments to increase its audience, notably the acquisition of Canadiens broadcast rights.
The station says it tried to also acquire Alouettes rights, but was turned down specifically because of its signal:
... several years ago when the broadcast rights for the Montréal Alouettes were up for renewal, CKGM was not invited to bid for the rights. The station was explicitly told by Alouettes management that to be considered, the station would need a stronger signal.
All told, CKGM predicts that if given the 690 frequency it would be profitable in five years. At the hearing, it said the frequency change would mean about $200,000 a year in additional ad revenue.
To bolster its case, Bell Media brought in audio recordings taken of a radio tuned to the station from just off Highway 40 in Vaudreuil-Dorion, during the day (4:45pm) and at night (10:50pm). It's a cherry-picked spot, for sure, but it showed the situation pretty clearly. The day recording was clear as a bell. The night recording sounded like it was taken from the bottom of the sea.
It didn't stop there. The station also encouraged listeners to write to the CRTC directly, resulting in dozens of interventions directly from the public. Four intervenors - all businesspeople - appeared at the hearing to support the application.
Harvey filed interventions against the applications from Cogeco for an all-traffic station and from Dufferin Communications for a gay-themed station. He also filed interventions in favour of the applications for news-talk stations from Tietolman-Tétrault-Pancholy, saying clear channels should be reserved for such stations.
Harvey didn't file an intervention for or against the application from CKGM. But at the hearing, he did mention something about the station that seemed to surprise the commissioners:
I have monitoring reports from listening colleagues west of Montreal and far beyond which appear to indicate that the station may not, in fact, be currently switching power or patterns at night.
Harvey produced a handful of reports from near and far that suggests "more than regularly" the station seems to fail to adjust its signal at night.
Wayne Bews, the station's manager, said he had no information to suggest the claim was true, saying he would have gotten phone calls if this was the case. But he said he couldn't be absolutely certain that the night adjustments are being made. He referred me to Bell Media's Dave Simon (no relation to Ringside Report host Dave Simon). I emailed Simon to ask him about whether CKGM was making the required changes. I didn't get a response.
Bell's argument in favour of the CKGM frequency change is mainly a simple question of getting more West Island listeners, translating them into higher ad revenue and maybe becoming profitable.
To sweeten the deal, Bell is promising more local programming at the station. They say their goal is to have it be all local from 6am to midnight or 1am, seven days a week. They also want to expand their Canadiens postgame show from two to four hours.
Otherwise, the biggest selling point for CKGM is the station itself. It doesn't need to project what its programming will be, it's already there.
What's more, a change in frequency would free up 990 for another station, and Bell Media said if they got 690 they could host a 990 station at their transmitter site using the same antenna.
Another radio station?
It was mentioned in passing, and Bell didn't get specific, but they hinted that they want to "expand our radio presence" here:
We want to contribute more to radio broadcasting in Quebec, but first we must stabilize TSN Radio Montreal and put it on a strong financial footing. Once done, we can look to expand our radio presence in Montreal, and indeed Quebec.
The most obvious option for them would be a French-language all-sports station. Bell owns RDS, so it has plenty of talented sports analysts. The only issue is that Bell would need to acquire the rights to Canadiens, Alouettes and other sports matches (and, of course, they'd need a radio broadcasting license).
Though the applications aren't directly competitive - one was for 690 and the other for 940 - much of the back and forth was between Cogeco and Bell. Bell suggested that Cogeco be assigned 990 when it moved to 690, arguing the all-traffic station would do fine with the 990 pattern, particularly since traffic is a daytime thing.
But Cogeco called Bell on its argument. Bell said specifically that its morning and and afternoon shows were affected by its nighttime signal reduction, because some of the morning show was before sunrise and some of the afternoon show after sunset. As Cogeco points out, these are also prime traffic hours, and if it's unacceptable for Bell it should be unacceptable for Cogeco as well.
Bell responded that it didn't really care who got 940, and that it was just offering 990 as an option for another broadcaster. It even agreed that it would submit to binding arbitration if negotiation for use of its site didn't produce an agreement in a reasonable timeframe.
One thing brought up by independent intervenors though not much during the hearing is that 690 was a French-language frequency for decades. Of the three applications for 690 being heard here, the two others are French-language stations. Both applications for 940 are English-language. (Though the CRTC has suggested it could give people frequencies they didn't apply for.) It has been suggested that the CRTC awarding both channels to English-language stations might anger francophones in Quebec, who will then see three (or even four) English AM stations and only one French one.
Like the other applicants, Bell was asked about alternative frequencies. Bell said it could take 940, but that would exclude the possibility of having another station on 990 at the same site (the two frequencies are too close to make the necessary filtering practical). It also said it could take 940 from Cogeco's site, if Cogeco will let them.
It also looked at 600 AM, but concluded the frequency would require building a whole new set of towers, at a prohibitive cost of $2 million. Otherwise, it's already on 990, so other frequencies are moot.
Bell said it tried to negotiate a deal for the former CINW and CINF transmitters in Kahnawake, but Corus (and later Cogeco) wouldn't speak to them. It says it can reconfigure its current site southeast of Mercier to function on 690 or 940. For 600, the only site capable of using that frequency is the Cogeco site.
The bottom line
Bell Media makes a strong case for CKGM being clear-channel worthy. Because it covers sports, its audience extends across the region. People in Sherbrooke and Quebec City won't be interested in Champlain Bridge traffic, but they will be interested in listening to Canadiens games.
Its financial projections are a bit suspect. It feels like Bell Media is exaggerating how bleak the prospects are without the change and how good they are with it. It's hard to see an improved pattern, even as significant as this one, is going to make such a huge difference in profitability.
The commissioners seemed swayed by Bell's argument, but whether the application is approved will probably depend more on the other applications, particularly Tietolman-Tétrault-Pancholy. If the CRTC decides the big-budget news-talk stations are worthy of the channels, The Team might get stuck where they are now. If not, it has a good chance of getting the frequency.
I rate this application's chances good.
Bell Media says the frequency change could happen in as little as three months after approval if 690 is awarded to them. For 940, they would expect double, about six months.