In the week since Bell's application to switch CKGM from TSN Radio to RDS Radio became public, the station's small group of loyal fans has mobilized. A Twitter account, a public protest set for Aug. 4, and lots of comments online. Many of those comments seem to be based on misconceptions about what's going on. In particular, many blame the CRTC even though the commission has yet to make a single decision about Bell's application (besides deciding to consider it).
As of Monday night, 456 interventions had been filed with the CRTC about this application alone. I haven't been able to read all of them yet, but a handful selected at random are all from individual people, all opposed to the application.
People have been asking me if this number of interventions is high. It is. Very high. I don't know what the record is, and it's hard to compare this to other "average" applications in front of the CRTC, because not all applications are the same, and most are non-controversial. But even controversial ones don't usually generate quite this much attention. As an example, RNC Media's application to turn CKLX-FM (Planète Jazz) into a talk station modelled on Radio X - which is to be heard at the same hearing on Sept. 10 - has received only 76 interventions. (I compiled some highlights of those here.) The $3.38-billion acquisition of Astral Media by Bell has only generated 18 so far, and many of those are as much about TSN 990 as they are about Astral and Bell.
The biggest reason for this is probably social media. The link to file interventions has been passed around, published on this blog and others, retweeted and posted on Facebook with instructions telling people how to file. The CRTC, probably annoyed that so many people were using the complaint form instead of the intervention one, has taken the unusual step of posting a special link on its homepage telling people where to file interventions related to TSN 990. (The link, it should be noted, refers to the brand "TSN 990", rather than the company name "Bell Media Canada Radio Partnership" or the station's callsign CKGM, which are the more formal ways the commission usually refers to radio stations in public notices.)
The result of making this more accessible is yet more interventions. It's something commissioners and commission staff love to see more of - individual people getting more involved in the process and making their opinions heard. But if those interventions just call on the CRTC to be dismantled or demand something not in the commission's power, they won't be very useful.
In an effort to give people a better idea of the regulatory hurdles in front of Bell Media's application to change CKGM from English to French (and perhaps prompt some more insightful interventions with the CRTC, whether they're for or against the application), I wrote a piece that appears in Tuesday's Gazette: The five ways to save TSN 990.
Specifically, they are:
- The Competition Bureau could reject the Astral purchase. Unlikely considering it hasn't stood in the way of these kinds of acquisitions in the past. But still possible.
- The CRTC could reject the Astral purchase. Also unlikely. Even if the commission finds serious issues of media ownership concentration, it would more likely order Bell Media to sell off assets that put it over a specific threshold.
- The CRTC could issue an open call for applications. This is much more likely. CKGM was given the frequency of 690 kHz last fall (it's moving there this fall, with 990 kHz going to Dufferin Communications for Radio Fierté) based on an application that argued, among other things, that the English sports-talk station needed a clear channel to better reach the anglophone community. If this station becomes French-language, that argument goes out the window. Additionally, the CRTC could concern itself with the fact that this switch would make all three clear-channel frequencies in Montreal (690, 730 and 940) French-language stations, disrupting a historic language balance. There's precedent for issuing an open call: CKGM got 690 in the first place after people objected to an application by Cogeco to reactivate it and 940 kHz for (heavily subsidized) all-traffic stations. The CRTC responded by issuing an open call for applications for 690 and 940, and Cogeco was left empty-handed. (It cannibalized CKAC 730 for its French all-traffic station, and the status of the English all-traffic station is unclear.) Of course, if the CRTC does issue an open call, Bell could apply for this frequency for RDS Radio, and it would stand a good chance of succeeding. But the prospect of losing the frequency might scare Bell off. It said in its application that if the CRTC issued such an open call, it might reconsider.
- The CRTC could deny the language switch. It's the simplest thing. Bell has applied for a language switch, because it needs an amendment to its license (or a new license) to do so. The CRTC could simply deny this request, and say if Bell wants RDS Radio it needs a new application for a new radio station.
- The CRTC could issue an exemption. This is the one everyone's calling for, and it's possible, though rumour has it Bell unofficially asked the commission if an exemption could be granted and were told it was highly unlikely. Bell would have to make a serious case that one of the four stations is so vital to the broadcasting system that an exemption is warranted, and make the case that the station simply couldn't survive if it was sold to someone else. I don't think most of the station's listeners really care who owns the station, only that it stays on the air.
Interventions are still being accepted at the CRTC until 8 p.m. Eastern time on Aug. 9. The hearing is Sept. 10 at the Palais des congrès, and those who indicate a wish to appear in their interventions will be allowed to present their arguments in front of the commission in person.
UPDATE (July 17): Pat Hickey argues that the CRTC has a responsibility to keep CKGM running as an English station. Mike Boone adds that TSN 990 is such a small piece of the Bell empire that they couldn't care less what happens to it and its employees. For more commentary about the application and the station, see the bottom of my previous post.