When word started to spread that the top two people at The Beat had resigned, many came to a quick conclusion: Cogeco is cleaning house, maybe in response to unsatisfactory ratings, or because, one rumour went, they were planning to sell the station.
As it turns out, everyone involved says it’s just a coincidence. Really bad timing.
Last Friday, general manager and general sales manager Mark Dickie informed his bosses that he was resigning in order to accept a position as a manager of multiple radio stations at Corus Entertainment. Because he was leaving for a competitor, even though it wasn’t in the same city, his three weeks’ notice was waived and he was asked (politely) to leave the building, though neither he nor Cogeco Diffusion have any hard feelings. Staff were informed of his departure on Monday.
Leo Da Estrela, the program director, has been named interim general manager. But he, too, is leaving. He actually informed his bosses in September that he wanted to leave, but he was asked to stay on until December. With Dickie’s departure, he’s been asked (and accepted) to stay on until April to ensure a smooth transition to new managers.
At the same time, promotions director Linda Fraraccio is also leaving The Beat. This Friday was her last day at the station, and she starts a new job at CTV Montreal as manager of creative services, marketing and community relations, on Monday.
I write about the three departures in this story, which appears in Saturday’s Gazette. It includes comments from Dickie, Da Estrela and Cogeco Diffusion President Richard Lachance.
Here’s some more detail about what’s going on:
Mark Dickie has been with The Beat and Cogeco since 2004. Actually, wait, neither of those things are true. Because he was actually hired by Corus in 2004, and it owned two English-language stations: Q92 and 940 News. Dickie was general manager at the latter when it was shut down in 2010. And he stayed on after Q92, along with all the other Corus Quebec radio stations (CKOI, CKAC, CHMP 98.5 and their sister stations in other cities) were sold to Cogeco in February 2011. That fall, he led a team that transformed “The Q” into The Beat, which they called an entirely new radio station (even to the point of changing its callsign), even though it was still operating under the same CRTC licence, on the same frequency, with the same staff, from the same location.
“I think we did a lot of great things, worked with a lot of great people,” he said, looking back. “It was tough to walk away from all that. We’ve got a really, really good team at The Beat.”
But going one more step up the ladder of corporate success, from managing one radio station to managing a “cluster”, as they call it, has been “something I’ve wanted for a long time,” he said. With his son graduating from McGill this May, he said now was a good time to make a move.
Dickie wouldn’t say where he’s going, being coy even about what city he’s moving to. But his colleagues said he’s moving to Ottawa. This makes sense if Corus’s plan is to put him in charge of the two FM stations that Corus is acquiring as part of the Bell/Astral divestment process. Corus’s acquisition of those stations (CKQB-FM 106.9 The Bear and CJOT-FM Boom 99.7) has not yet been approved by the CRTC (though it is expected next week), and it would be premature to make such an announcement publicly. Both those stations list Greg Orr as “interim general manager.”
Corus also owns two stations in nearby Cornwall, Ont., which don’t currently have a general manager. It’s likely Corus could put Dickie in charge of all four. Its TV and radio stations in Peterborough, Kingston and Oshawa share a general manager, as do its three stations in Toronto, its three stations in Barrie and Collingwood, and its 11 stations in southwestern Ontario (Hamilton, Kitchener, Guelph, London and Woodstock).
UPDATE (Jan. 30): With the acquisition of the Ottawa radio stations approved, Corus has made Dickie’s appointment official. He starts Feb. 3 as GM of the two Ottawa stations and the two Cornwall ones. Rumours, meanwhile, circulate of impending rebranding at the two Ottawa stations.
Dickie leaves a station that, he said, has seen a significant increase in revenue, and a successful reorientation of its target audience (one of the main reasons for switching from Q92 to The Beat was to appeal more to women 35-44, who saw the Q92 brand as their mother’s radio station). But outside of that tight demographic, the station continues to fall behind rival Virgin Radio.
“We’re much further today than we would have been if we’d stayed Q92,” he said. And with “the foundation” set, he believes “it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when” the station climbs above its competitor.
I imagine Mark Bergman and the people at Bell would disagree.
Leo Da Estrela has been program director at Q92/The Beat since 2010. Before that, he was a producer on the station’s morning show. But for the past few years he’s been living a double life.
He’s partners, with two others, in a business called Couture Media. It’s a company that provides custom radio stations — or music/audio streams, if you will — to businesses. Rather than just pipe in a radio station (like The Beat) or a CD into the store loudspeaker or as hold music in the phone system, the business can hire Couture to provide them with a custom playlist, complete with custom advertisements or other pre-recorded messages. Da Estrela also points out that, since Couture Media handles music rights, it’s less of a headache than putting on a CD and hoping the music licensing people don’t stumble on your store.
Couture started in 2008, and has grown to have 10 major clients. But it’s growing, and Da Estrela said he promised his partners that he would devote more time to the business.
He said he told his bosses in September that he wanted to step down, but that they convinced him to stay on until December. Now, with Dickie leaving, that’s been extended to April. Once new management is in place, he’s leaving.
But will he miss it?
“You hear there’s isolation that sets in, and you miss the camaraderie at work,” he said. “The day-to-day will be tough.”
“The salary I’m going to miss,” he added with a laugh.
He hasn’t closed the door completely to continuing to be involved, though that’s not in the plans yet. I point out that something similar — a radio-related side business that took off — happened to Nat Lauzon, who downgraded from full-time at Virgin Radio to part-time at The Beat so she could devote more time to her voice-over business (as well as her dog blog).
“If they need me to be around for anything, we could possibly look at me still being involved,” he said.
Da Estrela’s mandate as PD is highlighted mainly by hiring decisions made around the time Q92 became The Beat. The morning show lost the second half of Aaron and Tasso when Aaron Rand left. He was replaced by Cat Spencer, who was stolen from Virgin Radio. Da Estrela then hired Lauzon to do weekend afternoons. She was also stolen from Virgin Radio. In 2012 he let go of AJ Reynolds and hired “Cousin” Vinny Barrucco, who was also stolen from Virgin Radio. (Notice a pattern here?) Add in Kim Sullivan, who was also at Virgin but left for Winnipeg and Ottawa before coming back to Montreal to join The Beat, and almost half the schedule is filled with people who used to work for the other guy. (Not that it’s a one-way street — Rand and Suzanne Desautels are now at CJAD.)
As popular as those poached personalities are, they failed to bring their ratings along when they switched, and The Beat still trailed in audience measurement.
Finding a new PD for the station will be a challenge, Da Estrela said. “The hardest thing is finding a PD who’s either from Montreal or is familiar enough with the French culture,” he said.
If you have any ideas for one, he’s all ears.
Linda Fraraccio worked at Global Montreal and CJNT before taking the promotions director job in 2009. She returns to that medium as manager of creative services, marketing and community relations at CTV Montreal.
“We are thrilled that Linda is starting with us,” said Louis Douville, CTV Montreal general manager.
Fraraccio replaces Gerry Dixon, who is retiring. Dixon has been in the position since 2011. Before that, his jobs included being the executive producer and director of the Don McGowan show Travel, Travel in its final years.
Fraraccio’s tenure is highlighted by all the ways the station tried to promote itself with the new brand. From contests with tickets to big concerts to giant pumpkin drops and more, in addition to the everyday things like handing out Beat bags or organizing a presence at the St. Patrick’s Parade.
Her final day began with a prank call from the morning show, where a man masqueraded as a MasterCard employee checking up on her company credit card and discovering some odd charges. “I’m such a sucker,” she said of having fallen for one of her own station’s gimmicks.
“Today’s your last day and we just wanted to say goodbye in a special way,” said Cat Spencer.
“Yeah, you scared the crap out of me,” she responded. “Very special.”
Fraraccio also has a business on the side. She’s the co-creator of PenMyPoem.com, which sells custom greeting cards. She took the opportunity to write one about her departure, which she posted to Facebook:
This is the tale of a little station
That was due for a major transformation
In order to stand on its own two feet
It needed to move to a different beat
So we de-branded, then we re-branded
Then we branded, branded, branded, branded!
The mission statement was very clear
Montreal had to know us within a year
I’m not sure what we could have done better
Soon “Q” became nothing but a letter
It was time to start building loyalty
So we treated our listeners like royalty
We gave them cash, we gave them trips
If we could, we would give them a lunar eclipse
First Enrique, then Usher in Cancun
Stars on the beach under a golden moon
Then hot JT in NYC
And in T.O., Katy and 1D
The one and only miss Rihanna
Shone bright like a diamond in Punta Cana
Madonna in Rome, Pink in Boston
Just thinking about it is exhaustin’
We gave free gas, we gave free cars
We almost gave a trip to Mars
The only ones with tix to the Grammys
Listeners texted in their jammies
We did all we could to make people feel good
We showed them that we understood
We challenged them for 30 days
Helping them to mend their ways
We made them chuckle, just for a laugh
They felt like they were part of our staff
We showed up at hundreds of events
Proudly displaying our flags and tents
Parades for Santa, St. Pat’s, Canada Days
Festivals for the Italians and the gays
Singles events and hot firemen nights
Had ladies defending their equal rights
We froze our toes and died of heat
Beat bags, Beat bags all over the street
Before we dropped those pumpkins I prayed
You’ll forgive me for being a little afraid
We smashed it up, mashed it up
With Sean Kingston and Massari, we bashed it up
We pampered with mani-pedis, hold the Brazilian
Darn, we almost gave away the million
So thank you all, it sure has been sweet
There’s no way I can ever forget The Beat
“The success of The Beat doesn’t fall on one person,” said Richard Lachance, president of Cogeco Diffusion. It was a sentiment echoed by Da Estrela, and by Dickie. The station will go on, with new management.
Lachance said he respects that the three of them have found better opportunities, and was “very happy” with their work.
Looking forward, the process to find a new general manager is already under way, applications have already started coming in, and we should get word of a hire in the next few weeks. A similar process will find a new program director.
There’s a possibility that the structure of management could change, though there’s no indication that they’re moving in this direction. The Beat is the only English-language station owned by Cogeco Diffusion, so it needs to be managed by itself. But whether the next general manager is also the general sales manager, like Dickie was, or whether the responsibilities of sales, programming, promotions and management are redistributed in some other way will depend on the candidates they receive, Lachance said.
Meanwhile, for listeners, little changes. No on-air staff are leaving (or if they are they haven’t told anyone), and no major changes are foreseen in the short term.
New management could change that, of course, and Da Estrela thinks that’s a good thing. You need new ideas, he said. Otherwise you’re just repeating the same ones, like giant pumpkin drops and million-dollar snowfall contests.
UPDATE: The Beat’s staff has been sharing its love on social media.
Nat Lauzon, on Facebook:
Excellent bosses – but more importantly, great people.
I’ve had the pleasure of working with this rare and talented group of management the past few years. They dusted off that old-school, fun ‘magic of radio’ feeling for me. They made radio fun and inspiring for me again at The Beat of Montreal – navigating that fine line between management, co-worker and pal – with ease.
At the end of the day, radio is a business like any other. But business will always blossom when you foster an environment where individuals feel heard, valued and important. The not-so-secret formula? The bottom line is key – but employees are how you get there. Morale is a top priority in every work environment – and these three knew how to make it work very well. That’s a crucial – but all too rare quality.
Sorry to see them go – but you just can’t fault a follow-your-heart decision! A pleasure to work with ’em – and wishing them nothing but the best on their new adventures! Thank you Mark Dickie, Leo Da Estrela and Linda Fraraccio!
(Lauzon insists the comments aren’t meant to be taken as a negative portrayal of her previous employer, Virgin Radio.)
— Anne-MarieWithenshaw (@amwithenshaw) January 19, 2014
Sarak Bartok, on Facebook: “bad for us, but good for them. Following dreams! We will miss them all.”