The CRTC's decision on Montreal AM radio stations came out this morning. Here's the skinny:
- 690 AM goes to TSN Radio (CKGM), which will change frequency to improve its signal
- 940 AM goes to Tietolman-Tétrault-Pancholy (7954689 Canada Inc.), which will use it for a French-language news-talk station
- 990 AM, vacated by TSN Radio, will go to Dufferin Communications, which will setup Radio Fierté, a music and talk station aimed at the LGBT community
The two other applications, TTP's English-language news-talk station and Cogeco's English all-traffic station, are denied, not because the CRTC feels they are without merit, but because the other applicants made better cases for the two clear-channel frequencies and neither would accept 990 as a backup. The CRTC hints that the two might be approved if they reapplied for other vacant AM frequencies (like 600 or 850), but that these applications would have to be reconsidered on their own merits.
Also Monday, the CRTC denied four applications for low-powered AM radio stations in Montreal, three of which would target ethnic communities and the fourth a religious station. The CRTC felt they would negatively impact the five existing ethnic stations, notably CKIN-FM 106.3 (Mike FM's sister station), which has programming targeting the South Asian and Latin American communities, and religious station Radio Ville-Marie (CIRA-FM 91.3).
The second decision has an impact on the first, in that one of the stations had applied to use 600 kHz. The denial of that application means the frequency is available to the big commercial players. Tietolman-Tétrault-Pancholy has hinted that it might be interested in that frequency, provided it can use a tower or get space for one to build themselves. The only one capable of doing that frequency right now is Cogeco's towers, which will continue to go unused, but Paul Tietolman says he has no intention of asking Cogeco for them.
You can read a summary of what's going on in this article I wrote for Tuesday's Gazette. Below, I go into a bit more analysis.
Reading the decision, it becomes clear how the CRTC judged the applications based on hierarchy:
- CKGM's frequency change clearly made the strongest case, because it was an already-existing station and because moving it would offer another frequency for another applicant. (The CRTC likes to make as many people happy as possible.) Its content - sports - is also better suited to a signal that carries farther into the regions. So CKGM wins the biggest prize, 690 kHz.
- Tietolman-Tétrault-Pancholy's application was taken seriously, and the CRTC believes enough in its business plan that it is willing to give them a chance. But it wasn't going to give the one applicant both clear-channel frequencies. So TTP gets 940. And since they said they would not accept 990, one application has to be denied. The French market is stronger in Montreal and its surrounding regions, and there isn't as much direct competition for a French news-talk station as their is in English with CJAD, so the French station gets approved.
- Cogeco's application for an English all-traffic station couldn't convince the CRTC that it required a signal so powerful that it can reach into Gaspé. They made a valiant effort, saying that they need to be heard across the Ontario border for people who commute from that far, and that their application should be approved because otherwise the existence of the French all-traffic station would create an imbalance in services to different languages. But the CRTC remained unconvinced. And since Cogeco wouldn't accept anything but 690 and 940, that application had to be denied.
- Dufferin's Radio Fierté gets 990 more by process of elimination than anything else. Two applications were approved for clear channels, and the other two wouldn't accept 990, so Dufferin gets it. That isn't to say the CRTC wasn't excited about their application and eager to increase the diversity of the radio industry in Montreal. But it seems pretty clear that if TTP would have accepted 990 for its English station, it probably would have gotten it.
Calling their bluff
One thing I like about the CRTC decision is that it calls a lot of bluffs from the applicants.
Cogeco went all in, saying it's 690, 940 or nothing. I find it hard to believe they're just going to walk away from $1.5 million a year, and their deal with the Quebec government was already modified once when they decided to make CKAC an all-traffic station. Because that $1.5 million is based on costs instead of audience (otherwise it would be more for the French station), there's no reason to believe they couldn't reach a deal for another frequency like 600 or 850. Cogeco's Mark Dickie told me before the decision that there is no Plan B. If that's true, they either have to come up with one or walk away from this project.
The latter option would be particularly embarrassing because both parties have been acting as if this was a done deal. The government has been advertising a coming English traffic station, and Cogeco has even asked for applications for potential traffic hosts, with only a footnote at the bottom pointing out that these jobs might not actually ever exist.
Is Cogeco willing to walk away from $1.5 million a year? Is the Transport Ministry willing to walk away from their promise of all-traffic radio in English? We'll see.
The CRTC also called the bluff of Tietolman-Tétrault-Pancholy, which originally said it wanted both clear channels or nothing, then softened that stance suggesting the English station could find another alternative frequency. They continue to insist that they need both stations for the business plan to be viable, but say the English station might not need to be a clear channel if they can get adequate coverage in Montreal and the West Island. So far 600 kHz seems to be the only one able to do this, but that would require either expanding the site they were planning to use or using Cogeco's CINW/CINF site in Kahnawake. The latter option is very distasteful to Tietolman and his partners.
When I finally reached Tietolman on Monday, he said he wouldn't comment (other than to point out that TSN said it would be fine with 940, which I guess means TTP felt the CRTC should have given 690 to them and given 940 to TSN). Tietolman said he and his partners are going to study the decision carefully and decide where to go from there.
Though nobody's pointing this out, the CRTC decision combined with TTP's position should mean that the group will decline the license. I highly doubt that will happen, but if TTP doesn't get a decent frequency for its proposed English station, or if the application takes too long, they might face the choice of going with just the French station or going home.
Six months to a year
The big question for the winning applicants is when they're going to be on the air. Bell Media says it'll be "within six months" for CKGM, which would mean by the end of May (maybe just before the playoffs start, or just after the Canadiens are eliminated). It's unclear at this point whether it will operate for any length of time on both frequencies, though that has been the practice in the past.
Evanov/Dufferin hopes to have its station up within a year, but has to wait for CKGM to vacate its frequency first. The decision gives the group a second choice in terms of transmission site. It already had a letter showing it could enter into negotiations for use of the CJAD site, but as part of the hearing Bell Media committed to negotiating use of the CKGM site for another station on 990, and even said it would submit to binding arbitration concerning a transmitter sharing deal. Evanov tells me they will look at both possibilities.