Well, this is a shock.
As part of its acquisition of Astral Media, including CJAD, CHOM and CJFM in Montreal's English market, Bell Media has decided that rather than sell one of the four English stations it would own here, it is going to keep all four of them but convert one to French.
As such, Bell announced Tuesday that it has applied to the CRTC to convert CKGM (TSN Radio 990) to a French-language all-sports station named RDS Radio 990. (Actually it would be RDS Radio 690, since the station is moving to that frequency.) Bell expects the switch to happen by Jan. 1, 2013, though that's dependent on how fast the CRTC makes a decision. It says it is prepared to make the change within 120 days of the CRTC's decision.
The CRTC's competition rules require that a common owner control no more than three stations in a market of fewer than eight commercial stations (English Montreal has five), and no more than two AM and two FM stations in a market of more than that (French Montreal has eight). Since neither Astral nor Bell have a French-language AM station in Montreal, converting the station to French would allow them to keep it.
TSN Radio 990, formerly The Team 990, has always struggled as a low-rated station, but there was a feeling over the past few years that it had finally found a niche that worked after various other failed attempts at different formats.
How many jobs will be lost?
This is devastating news for TSN 990's employees, most of whom probably would not work at a French-language sports station. They were told of this at a meeting at 10:30am Tuesday. It's unclear how many of them will lose their jobs, how many will stay on with the French station and how many will get other jobs within the company, at CJAD, TSN television or elsewhere.
"It is difficult to say at this time how many employees will be affected by the converting of TSN Radio," Bell Media's Matthew Garrow tells me. "Staffing decisions will be determined on a case-by-case basis."
Because the Bell purchase of Astral is conditional on CRTC approval, job cuts might not be known until after the CRTC's decision. The Globe and Mail's Steve Ladurantaye tells me he's been told "the vast majority of employees at TSN 990 will land elsewhere within the company."
Canadiens games to move to CJAD
Bell has already announced that Canadiens games will move back to CJAD. When this will happen is unclear, though it appears they will stay on CKGM until that station changes formats.
Alouettes football games and Impact soccer games already air on CJAD. It's unclear what would air on RDS Radio. French radio rights to Canadiens and Alouettes games are currently with Cogeco, which airs them on 98.5FM and other stations in Quebec. To be viable, they'd almost certainly need Canadiens games. The Impact are currently without a French-language radio broadcaster, so would almost certainly quickly find a home on RDS Radio.
Among the things Bell says in its application:
- RDS Radio is not expected to make money in its first seven-year license term.
- CKGM's programming is currently 92% local. Bell says it plans to continue this high level of local programming in French (though it has not proposed a minimum amount of local programming). It plans to rely particularly on RDS personalities and give more opportunities to specialized broadcasters and analysts.
- Audience projections show a market share of 0.5% in its first year, and 3.5% by Year 7. CKGM currently has a 3.3% market share, according to the latest BBM numbers. CKAC Sports had about a 4% market share in the year before it changed from all-sports to all-traffic.
- Financial projections show a budget of between $3.5 million and $4.8 million, climbing slowly through the seven-year license. Revenue, most of which would be local advertising, would climb from $600,000 to $4.4 million. The station is projected to lose money throughout its seven-year license term.
- Bell sees this switch as balancing the language scales in Montreal, in terms of radio stations per listener (by its calculations, Montreal has 370,500 people per francophone commercial station and 168,600 per anglophone commercial station). "As it stands today, Anglophone listeners in Montréal are very well served while Francophone listeners are underserved."
- Bell focuses on CKAC's disappearance as a sports station as evidence of a need, saying franco Montreal is the only one of the top five markets in Canada without a sports radio station. The application makes no mention of sports programming on CHMP 98.5.
- The application hints at what kind of live sports events the station might carry. Besides Canadiens, Alouettes and Impact, it mentions auto racing, boxing, Carabins football, QMHJL Armada and even the Canadian Women's Hockey League's Montreal Stars.
- With Cogeco holding a commanding market share among young men, and Quebecor having an increasing sports broadcasting portfolio, Bell sees this application as increasing diversity.
- RDS Radio would offer its programming to other Quebec stations in other markets, much like Cogeco does with its news-talk programming.
Bell says that if the CRTC denies the application, it will divest itself of one of its four English-language stations to comply with the CRTC's common ownership policy. That would mean selling one of the stations, or if no buyer can be found, shutting one down.
An open call for applications?
Normally, applications for new radio stations are considered as part of an open call for applications. That means that the CRTC, once it decides that a market can support a new radio station, issues a public notice calling for competing applications and then evaluates which proposals best fit the market. That's what it did last year when Cogeco applied to reinstate CINW and CINF to start all-traffic stations. While initially it was going to just judge those applications, objections from competitors prompted the commission to issue an open call and accept competing applications.
The result was five applications (Cogeco withdrew the French all-traffic application, preferring to instead change CKAC into an all-traffic station). The two that were eventually approved for 690 and 940 AM were a news-talk station by independent group Tietolman-Tétrault-Pancholy and a frequency change by CKGM. CKGM's former frequency of 990 is being given to Dufferin Communications for a French-language LGBT music/talk station.
Cogeco, whose applications started the whole process, was left out. It has yet to reapply to the CRTC for an English all-traffic station though it has said it is working on one.
There's some irony in that Bell profited from an open call for applications when someone else applied for new stations but now feels it is unnecessary.
This could be the biggest obstacle to Bell getting CRTC approval, and could rest on a simple semantic question: Is this an application for a new station, or a change to an existing one? If it's the former, competitors like Tietolman and Cogeco could have a case for demanding the CRTC issue an open call, where it would compete with their applications.
Bell says if the CRTC does issue an open call, it might consider withdrawing its application for TSN's language change. That would mean moving to Plan B, which involves selling or shutting down CKGM or one of the English-language Astral stations.
Paul Tietolman, who with his partners have applied for an English news-talk station at 600 kHz, declined to say whether his group would oppose Bell's application or ask for an open call for applications.
As you know by now RDS Radio 690AM takes over whenever it happens Been at Team/TSN since day 1 so proud of what we've done as stand alone AM
— Shaun Starr (@Starr690) July 10, 2012
— Randy Tieman (@SportsStache) July 10, 2012
I'll tell you one thing about this horseshit, I won't be listening to a single goddamn second of RDS Radio 690.
— Will (@HeyMyNameIsWill) July 10, 2012
I'll say my farewells on my way out of that studio when I see that RDS truck pull up.Until then I'm Yogi Berra #tsn990aintover
— Jay Farrar (@JayPubRadio) July 10, 2012
This may be a sad day but if Pierre Gauthier can find a new job, logic states that I can too.
— Conor McKenna (@mckennaconor) July 10, 2012
Listeners Eng & Fr embrace TSN 990. RDS TV has blanket coverage of #Habs, TSN TV not nearly so. 990 radio loss silences important voice
— Dave Stubbs (@Dave_Stubbs) July 10, 2012
The news hurts especially for its listeners. Randy Tieman and Mitch Melnick devoted much of their shows Tuesday to the news and reactions from listeners. Tieman made it clear he disagrees with the decision and blames the CRTC (and to a lesser extent Bell). Melnick said the news was sad, but bit his tongue a bit. "I cannot say what I'd like to say. It wouldn't serve any purpose," he told listeners on air. But a look at his playlist, with songs like Shattered, When The Whip Comes Down, Angry Young Man, Going Nowhere Fast, Wish I Was Drunk, I'm Not Angry, No Banker Left Behind, It's a Shame and Baby Let Me Follow You Down, you can guess at his mood.
On-air comments and comments to the media apparently prompted this email from station manager Wayne Bews, forbidding further discussion of this on air and saying people who don't silence callers wanting to talk about it will be pulled off the air.
Two Facebook groups have already been started (one of which has a corresponding Twitter account) for people who want to "save" the station. There's also an online petition with 138 signatures so far. Comments to the CRTC are much more likely to be successful in blocking the move, though people who argue for saving the station would have to suggest some alternative. If Bell buys Astral, owning four of five stations in English Montreal simply wouldn't fly.
Lots of people are asking questions or speculating on social media, so here's some answers to things I've been asked:
- Why is the CRTC forcing them to do this? It's not. The CRTC's rule says Bell can't own more than three stations in this market, that's all. How Bell chooses to come into compliance with this rule is up to them. It could sell the station (or another one), or shut it down. In this case, it has chosen the latter option so that it can use the same frequency for a French-language station.
- Why did the CRTC deny Bell's request for an exemption from this rule? It didn't. There is no ruling denying such a decision and the CRTC says Bell never asked for one. In any case, it's unlikely they would get this because it would mean owning four of five commercial stations.
- Could CJAD become an all-sports station? It could, but it won't. CJAD has a 25% market share, while CKGM's is about 3.5%. A more likely scenario is a format similar to what exists on Cogeco's 98.5FM in French: news-talk during the day and sports/sports-talk during evenings and weekends.
- Could TSN personalities start their own (online-only) station? Considering that CKGM has never made money, and an online-only station would not have big draws like Canadiens games, it's highly unlikely such a station would be profitable.
- Would TSN personalities move to CJAD? Maybe. But there's no word on this yet. CJAD certainly wouldn't accommodate all of TSN's employees.
- Would the new Tietolman-Tétrault-Pancholy station create sports programs or hire people from CKGM? It's too early to say, Paul Tietolman tells me. Even if there's nothing official, it stands to reason that some people who are let go from one station might be hired to work at the other.
- Who would handle Canadiens play-by-play on CJAD? This is unclear at this point.
- What happens to the 990 frequency? Couldn't TSN stay there? The CRTC awarded it to Dufferin Communications for a French-language music/talk station. CKGM will change frequency, whether or not this change is approved. The frequency change is likely to happen before the format change.
- Why weren't staff given a heads-up? Bell and Astral are publicly-traded companies, and this is a $3.8-billion deal. They don't have the luxury of announcing major deals to staff before announcing them publicly to shareholders.
Bell's application to change CKGM's language (along with its larger acquisition of Astral) requires CRTC approval. A hearing is scheduled for Sept. 10 at the Palais des congrès on both matters.
People wanting to file comments with the CRTC or appear at the hearing can file an intervention here (the application number is 2012-0573-2 - Bell Media Canada Radio Partnership). The deadline is Aug. 9. Note that comments - including names and contact information - are on the public record.
- OpenFile has audio of on-air comments from Randy Tieman explaining his disappointment.
- The Gazette has quotes from Randy Tieman and Mitch Melnick on air, and comments from RDS president Gerry Frappier and TSN host Dave Kaufman. Also:
- Brendan Kelly offers his take, blaming the CRTC. But then he later changes his mind after confirming with the CRTC that Bell did not ask for an exemption to keep four stations
- Hockey Inside/Out story
- Pat Hickey on the station's history and why RDS makes more sense financially, and again a week later on how the CRTC has a responsibility, in his view, to keep the station alive
- Mike Boone on the greatness that is (his friend) Mitch Melnick, and later on how little importance the station has for the giant Bell Media empire, and later still on how the Canadiens have written to the CRTC asking that they find some way to allow Bell to keep TSN 990 running.
- An editorial saying the CRTC should grant an exemption and allow Bell to keep the station
- Some letters to the editor
- The Globe and Mail has comments from Bell as well as competitors who might be interested in buying stations being put up for sale in other markets. It later adds a follow-up story recapping the opposition to the application.
- CTV Montreal interviewed general manger Wayne Bews (who hasn't yet responded to a phone message from me requesting comment). Bews called the news "heartbreaking."
- Global Montreal has a Storify of reaction
- Agence QMI
- La Presse
- Le Journal de Montréal, which points out that Cogeco has the French-language radio rights to Canadiens games for another two seasons.
- Presse Canadienne (on rds.ca)
- Mike Cohen calls it a "terrible shame" and speculates where personalities could end up
- Noah Sidel says he's sad to see TSN 990 leave, but understands the raw economics of the situation
- CBC's Radio Noon interviews ... me!
- The Globe's Bruce Dowbiggin opines on the station's history and has comments from the head of Bell Media Radio. A few things he gets wrong, though:
He calls the station "TSN Team 990", mixing up its former brand with its current one.(since corrected) CHUM Radio no longer exists, having been renamed Bell Media Radio after CTV purchased CHUM and Bell purchased CTV.(since corrected)
- He says CKGM has "a weaker AM transmitter" than CJAD. This isn't true. Both stations operate at 50,000 watts using directional antennas during the day, and CJAD reduces to 10,000 watts at night. CKGM keeps operating at 50,000 watts at night, though with a much more directional pattern. Some areas might pick up CJAD better than CKGM at night, but CKGM's transmitter is more powerful.
- Sports media satirists Sportnographe make a bizarre statement about how we shouldn't worry about TSN 990 staff because of all the subsidies that are rained on anglo Montreal by the Harper government. They also point out how difficult it will be for RDS Radio to work without the rights to Canadiens games, which are held by Cogeco.
- At La Presse, Ronald King wonders why francophone media are paying little to no attention to TSN 990, besides a brief regurgitating Bell's press release.
- Toronto Sports Media, which says TSN Radio is too often just shilling for TSN television.
- Eric Engels at HockeyBuzz. Engels got his start at CKGM and credits its staff.
- Andrew Maggio at The Link
- Ian Hermelin at The Breakdown on the "kinship" he feels with the station
- Brian Hastie at Cult MTL on listening to the radio late at night as a kid
- Northeast Radio Watch, which looks at this from a radio nerd's perspective
- Paul Branchaud, writing for Cowhide and Rubber, with his CRTC intervention