According to the CRTC's website, 774 interventions (comments in favour, opposed or neutral) were filed related to a proposed licence change replacing CKGM (TSN Radio 690) with a French station. Of those, only six were scheduled to appear at a CRTC hearing at the Palais des congrès this week to present their case in person.
Of those six, only three showed up.
And yet, that's three more than appeared as individuals to comment on the $3.38-billion purchase of Astral Media by BCE.
Rahul Majumdar was the first. He's a big sports fan and a fan of the station, but he has no other stake in this game.
"I'm not a professional intervenor nor do I play one on TV," was his opening line, eliciting chuckles from the commissioners and the small audience. He may be inexperienced, but his presentation was professional, earning him specific praise from the commission.
"Eliminating TSN 690 may help Bell-Astral satisfy CRTC ownership rules, but the price will be a further erosion of Montreal's sports broadcasting scene," Majumdar said in his opening statement. "If the CRTC accepts Bell's proposal, you will deprive Montreal of an important local sports media presence, and deny its rightful place within a national radio network."
"Montreal is a bilingual, multicultural city and I believe that its sports fans must be served in both of Canada's official languages."
Bell's proposed compromise of moving sports programs and Canadiens games to CJAD didn't sit well with him. He said doing so would take away from CJAD's core purpose, which is news and information.
Majumdar has harsh words for Bell: "I am dismayed at the manner in which Bell neglects, downplays and outright dismisses its English clientele and English Montreal sports radio."
When I spoke to him after his presentation, Majumdar said he had been listening to CKGM for years, but when it first became a sports radio station "I wasn't completely into it." He cited nationally syndicated programming as part of the problem. But when it grew to be more local and gained its own personality, he became hooked.
At first he hadn't planned to go beyond sending a written statement. But "you got to ask yourself: 'Am I willing to go further?'"
So he did.
His proposal is that the CRTC reject the language switch, if only because Bell obtained the 690 frequency by saying it needed better coverage to reach the West Island anglophone community.
"At the very least, Bell should be ordered to surrender the frequency in order to allow another party to bring sports radio to Montrealers," Majumdar's statement reads. "Even so, it will take months or years for a competitor like Rogers, Cogeco or another Montreal media entrepreneur to essentially reinvent the wheel."
"Mr. Chairman, in all honesty, does this specific application really make sense?"
It always looks funny when people appear in front of the CRTC without lawyers or executives by their side, sitting alone at a table meant for six (with another table behind), and introducing themselves as individuals without titles. But Majumdar's presentation impressed other national journalists and interested third parties who came here to talk about Bell and Astral.
As for Majumdar himself: "I thought I did a decent job."
Sheldon Harvey was the second presenter. He's a radio enthusiast, moderator of the Radio in Montreal forum and co-host of the International Radio Report on CKUT. He's about as tapped in to the radio scene as you can get.
Harvey also presented at last year's hearing, in which Bell asked for CKGM to move from 990 to 690 to improve its signal. Harvey didn't support or oppose that application directly, though he said he was skeptical of CKGM's reported signal problems and even accused the station of not respecting its obligations to adjust its signal at night to protect distant stations.
Here, Harvey was extremely critical of Bell.
"I think it is more than coincidence that Bell began broadcasting on the 690 kHz frequency just 10 days prior to these hearings commencing," his opening statement reads.
"The word on the street, in the radio business circles in Montreal, was that it was always the intention of Bell Media to get into the French sports radio business, piggy-backing off their successful RDS television service, particularly when Cogeco closed their CKAC 730 sports station in favour of government financed Radio Circulation. 690 would be the best frequency for them to accomplish this."
Harvey's right that Bell has wanted to launch RDS Radio for a while. It even hinted at that publicly at the hearing last year. But there's no evidence (beyond the circumstances) that Bell was acting in bad faith or had ulterior motives when it applied to move CKGM to 690.
Harvey continues: "It appears that both Bell and Astral really don't seem to care about their listeners. CJAD has an incredibly loyal listenership and is currently Montreal's only commercial news/talk English option. How will their listeners feel about having approximately half of CJAD's broadcast day dedicated to sports? Nobody is bothering to ask."
"There is a level of arrogance and cockiness that has so many members of the public concerned about the power and strength of Bell and their attitude that 'we are Bell and we will do and get what we want.'"
Finally, Harvey points to "corporate-level instructions" that Bell gave to TSN Radio staff not to discuss the station's future on the air. This order, which Bell and TSN Radio have never denied, seems to contradict what Bell told the commission earlier in the week, that the company has never issued orders to its staff (meaning, for the most part, journalists) on how to discuss this hearing.
Harvey wants the CRTC to have to reapply to use 690 through an open application process, because a French station would be "a completely separate entity" from the English one. Commissioner Suzanne Lamarre called Harvey on this suggestion, asking what would happen. CKGM can't stay on 990, because that frequency is already licenced to another broadcaster. Opening 690 up would mean turning in CKGM's licence, and putting TSN Radio off the air.
"I threw everything at them that I could," Harvey told me after the hearing. He's particularly critical of the fact that Bell did not bother asking for an exemption allowing it to keep the station in English. "I think that would have been something to try at least," he said. "It might not work, but at least try. Show you believe in your property."
Harvey doesn't know what the ideal solution is for CKGM, particularly if the Astral takeover is approved. A forced sale would mean the station losing not only its TSN branding and Canadiens rights, but other resources associated with TSN. It would be starting from "square one," Harvey said, even if someone like Rogers or Cogeco came into the picture.
"They've painted the whole organization into a corner."
The last presenter to show up was David Birnbaum. He's the executive director of the Quebec English School Boards Association, but made it clear he's here as an individual.
"I love the station," Birnbaum said. "It's really intelligent radio."
Birnbaum spoke as if a man here representing the anglophone community, even though that wasn't his role here. But he invoked this idea that the community would be harmed if this station were allowed to change language, and that the CRTC has an obligation to protect minority-language services like this one.
His solution seems to be to allow Bell an exemption from common ownership rules. "My preferred position remains getting an additional frequency for a French-language sports station," he said. "I would hope the CRTC would have said 'yes we are the watchdog about media concentration, but we're also a watchdog for the needs of Canadian consumers, particularly those in minority language situations."
He understands the need for ownership concentration rules, but feels the need to keep English radio should be more important. "I would expect one rule to be trumped by another."
How it's solved isn't his major concern. "Bottom line is to keep TSN 690 on the air," he said.
Asked about a possible sale to Rogers or others, Birnbaum was, like Harvey, skeptical of how much that would set the station back. "You're starting over," he said.
All three presenters made it very clear they have no objection to a French-language sports station with the RDS brand. And, in fact, all of them welcome the eventual return of sports-talk radio to Montreal's French community. They just don't want it at the expense of TSN Radio.
"Francophones should have a sports station," Majumdar said, "but it should not happen through the back door of a zero-sum game."
Three interventions might not seem like much, but they're quite rare for the CRTC. Commissioners have repeatedly expressed disappointment that more individuals are not interested in the commission's processes. (We can have a whole other discussion about why the excessive bureaucracy of the commission is preventing more participation.) So commissioners, and particularly chair Jean-Pierre Blais, repeatedly expressed to the individual presenters a great deal of gratitude for taking the time to make their views heard.
Whether those three make the difference for the commission is unknown. They might be given more importance than statements by interest groups, or they might not. But the commission certainly won't ignore them. Neither will they ignore the hundreds of written statements sent in by people who wouldn't or couldn't appear in person, though Blais said those who do appear in person have a stronger impact.
While the first and second days of the hearings received a great deal of coverage, there wasn't much local interest in these three interventions today. In fact, Global Montreal was the only media to cover these appearances specifically.
The hearings continue on Friday, with the last of the intervenors in the Astral purchase. Then Bell will get a chance to respond to them, as well as to the comments about the CKGM application.
People have asked me how I think this will end. I can't predict that. The CRTC has a new chair, these applications have little precedent, and the commissions decisions aren't always that predictable. The commission was definitely very skeptical about both applications Bell presented, but also grilled some competitors about their stances as well. Bell has a hard road to climb here, but not an impossible one. If I had to guess, I would say a compromise situation is most likely. But what that entails is hard to guess.
A decision will come in a few months. How many is unknown. The timing is up to the CRTC. It could be done by October, or it might not be done until January. It's entirely up to them.