Since the announcement last month that Concordia’s CJLO radio station has applied for an FM retransmitter downtown to allow listeners at the downtown campus to hear it, but would block out Vermont Public Radio for many more, there’s been a lot of questions, debate and differences of opinion about this proposal.
The CRTC has already received 645 interventions, almost all of whom are radio listeners who support one side or the other. The majority are VPR listeners responding to the organization’s public call-out on its website. Others are CJLO fans who want to be able to hear the station on the downtown campus and say this is the only practical way to do so.
In most (but not all) cases, the interveners don’t have bad things to say about the other side. The VPR fans hope for an alternative solution to the reception problem. Both CJLO and VPR say they support the other and don’t want to prevent anyone from being able to listen to the other.
I look a bit deeper into this application in this story for The Gazette, which appears in Friday’s paper. Below, I’ll tackle some of the questions and perceptions that people have and try to come up with some unbiased answers to them.
I live in X. Which station would I hear if this is approved?
The biggest difference of opinion, and worry for listeners, is about the coverage of CJLO’s proposed transmitter, and which areas of the region would be prevented from listening to VPR after it goes live.
Unfortunately it’s a very difficult question to answer. A map submitted in CJLO’s application shows the interference could be widespread, going from Dorval to Anjou, from central Laval to La Prairie. But as broadcasting consultant Michel Mathieu explained to me, that map is based on a theoretical flat city in which an antenna sits 100 metres above the ground and there are no objects blocking its signal. In reality, downtown buildings would absorb much of what the transmitter would put out, and Mount Royal would block it to the north. He estimated that only people within about three or four kilometres of the transmitter would hear any interference, and only those within a few blocks of de Maisonneuve Blvd. and Mackay St. would hear CJLO cleanly.
Vermont Public Radio’s president Robin Turnau said they disagree with that assessment. VPR had another broadcasting engineer produce a “realistic” map of interference zones (above) that takes into account terrain data. It shows that Mount Royal would effectively block it to the northwest, but most of the rest of that zone could still face interference, as would a few areas outside that zone such as the western face of Mont St-Hilaire. The CJLO signal would be heard cleanly within a few blocks of the transmitter and areas of Westmount and the Sud-Ouest borough.
Even this map is still theoretical. It doesn’t take into account downtown buildings, many of which are taller than Concordia’s Hall Building, blocking the signal.
It also doesn’t take into account that every receiver is different. As anyone knows trying to hear a station on the fringe of its range, what kind of radio you have, what kind of antenna it uses, how it’s positioned and even how the human body is positioned next to it can make a difference as far as reception. Some people in these zones might face interference, but could eliminate it by simply repositioning their radios.
What we can say with a reasonable certainty is that if you live in western downtown, you’ll hear CJLO, and if you live in places like Ahuntsic, Laval, the West Island, north shore or most places outside the metropolitan area, you’ll still hear VPR and won’t even notice CJLO.
Isn’t there another FM frequency that CJLO could use?
The short answer is no. The longer answer is more complicated.
Mathieu said he’s been working on this file for two years now, and he’s looked at every possible frequency on the FM dial. Everywhere else is too close to another station and would cause or receive too much interference to be acceptable.
To give you an idea, here’s the FM band, and a list of the stations that can be heard on those frequencies. Go ahead and try to find a spot to put this station that’s at least three spaces from another in the city and wouldn’t interfere with a neighbouring market. (Industry Canada doesn’t allow stations to be closer than that in the same market, and a 2009 review of that policy concluded that it should remain that way.)
Mathieu is convinced that 107.9 is the only one that can work downtown. And even then it’s not an ideal frequency. Because it’s right up against the edge of the band, special care would have to be taken to ensure it doesn’t interfere with air navigation frequencies just above it. Plus there’s all the interference it would get from VPR.
The CRTC said as far back as 2007 that all the FM frequencies in Montreal have been claimed. Since then, broadcasters have tried various means to get something done anyway, reducing power or moving far enough away from the city that a frequency can become usable. But for downtown, the options are very limited.
Wait, didn’t a new FM station just get approved? How did that happen if there are no frequencies?
Indeed. AGNI Communications has CRTC approval for an ethnic station at 102.9 FM from a transmitter on Chabanel St. in Ahuntsic. At only 50 watts, it wouldn’t reach far before it starts getting interference from four different stations.
Here, location makes all the difference, and moving just a few kilometres in any direction wouldn’t work technically.
The station has to protect five others from interference. Two are on the same frequency, two are on adjacent frequencies, and one is two frequencies away. In addition, there are two other stations three stops away from the dial that might see interference for listeners within a block or two of the transmitter.
CFOI-FM-1 102.9 St-Jérôme
CHOC-FM-2 102.9 St-Jacques-le-Mineur
On 102.9, the station sits between two others: CFOI-FM-1, a retransmitter of a Quebec City religious station in St-Jérôme, and CHOC-FM-2, a retransmitter of a community station in St-Jacques-Le-Mineur. An analysis by Yves R. Hamel and Associates done for AGNI shows the station is far enough away from CFOI to not cause interference to it in its coverage area, and would cause interference to only a small sliver of the coverage area of CHOC if CHOC was operating at its maximum parameters. And that area is already in the interference zone of CFOI, so this new transmitter wouldn’t cause any new interference problems. The fact that CHOC isn’t operating at the maximum allowed for its class, and the fact that a mountain separates the new station from CHOC, means there won’t be any realistic overlap.
The new station, on the other hand, would receive severe interference, particularly from CFOI, which limits the area people can listen to it in.
CKOD-FM 103.1 Valleyfield
CITE-FM-1 102.7 Sherbrooke
For adjacent-channel interference, one up or one down, the math is different. The potential interference area is smaller because of the difference in frequency. The analysis shows the station would stop just 500 metres short of interfering with CKOD in that station’s coverage area if CKOD were operating at its maximum allowed parameters.
CITE-FM-1, which broadcasts with 92,000 watts from the top of Mount Orford, has a booming signal into Montreal considering the distance, and a coverage area so vast that it actually includes eastern parts of the city. The new station would cause interference to an area of Hochelaga-Maisonneuve on that frequency. But that’s a small area. More importantly, since CITE-FM-1’s contours are actually larger than its theoretical maximum for its class (because of its height), the station shouldn’t expect to be protected from interference beyond that maximum, an 86-kilometre radius which stops well short of Montreal.
(It’s somewhat of a moot point anyway, since CITE-FM-1 is the Rouge FM station in Sherbrooke, and Rouge FM has a station in Montreal that people would listen to instead. But programming isn’t taken into account when measuring interference issues like this.)
CITE-FM-1 would be the largest cause of interference for the new station, even more than the other stations on the same frequency, if the theoretical analysis is right.
CHAA-FM 103.3 Longueuil
CHAA, which broadcasts toward the south shore from the top of the Olympic Stadium, would not cause interference to the new station in its coverage area, and CHAA’s coverage area doesn’t include the area near the new station’s transmitter where interference might be an issue.
CINQ-FM 102.3 Montreal
CKRK-FM 103.7 Kahnawake
With stations three and four stops away on the dial, the interference issues are limited to areas where one station severely overpowers the other. The only issues would be for listeners of these stations who are within two blocks of the new station’s transmitter. And even then the new station would deal with any complaints that arise.
All this to say that squeezing this station in between all these others was not easy, and it’s not perfect, and because of the interference it would cause to CHOC-FM-2, CITE-FM-1 and CHAA-FM in their contours, this frequency wouldn’t work downtown, even if it hadn’t already been snapped up by AGNI.
If FM stations aren’t allowed to interfere with others, why can CJLO interfere with VPR?
Because VPR is a U.S. station. A treaty between Canada and the United States protects radio stations, but only up to the border. This means that a Canadian station can’t be set up that would cause interference with VPR listeners on the U.S. side, but VPR is not protected from interference on the Montreal side.
Even if it was a Canadian station, VPR’s 107.9 transmitter is 125 kilometres away, and it wouldn’t be protected that far. The only reason its signal is so strong into the city is because its transmitter is so high. It’s on top of Mount Mansfield, which 800 metres high. (It’s the same deal for Sherbrooke stations on top of Mount Orford, which is 600 metres high. Mount Royal, by comparison, is only 250 metres above the average local terrain.)
What about Star 92.9, or 94.7 Hits FM, or other U.S. border stations? Why not block them instead?
WEZF (92.9) in Burlington, Vt., and WYUL (94.7) in Chateaugay, N.Y., also are unprotected across the border, and WEZF’s signal is about identical to VPR’s WVPS since both transmit from Mount Mansfield with about 45,000 watts. Neither is protected in Montreal, which is outside their coverage areas anyway.
But both frequencies are too close to Montreal stations, CKBE-FM 92.5 (The Beat) and CKMF-FM 94.3 (NRJ) respectively. CJLO would need the permission of these stations to operate so close to their frequencies in Montreal. And listeners close enough to CJLO’s transmitter theoretically might have problems hearing them. Though considering the distance from the Mount Royal tower, it’s more likely their massive power output will interfere with CJLO.
There might be some second-adjacent channels that might work, including one at 90.7 adjacent to CKUT McGill, if they can get the neighbouring station on board. But Mathieu said he looked at all those channels and none would be practical. I would expect VPR will also study these frequencies and come to its own conclusion about their feasibility.
Why not just increase the power on the AM transmitter?
CJLO’s AM transmitter, which is in Ville-St-Pierre, is 1,000 watts, which is pretty low for AM. But increasing the power won’t solve the problem, Mathieu says. Even 50,000-watt signals like TSN 690 have reception problems downtown. To create a signal that could be properly heard downtown, they’d need an array of huge antennas like CJAD to direct the signal toward downtown. Not only is this very expensive for a student radio station, it would also require real estate that it simply doesn’t have.
What about an AM retransmitter downtown?
Finding an AM frequency might not be that difficult, despite five unlaunched stations in Montreal that have been licensed in the past three years (600, 850, 940, 990 and 1610 AM). But because of their much lower frequency, AM antennas are much larger than FM ones, and the Hall Building downtown can’t support even a modest AM antenna, Mathieu said.
Some sort of low-power transmitter on a compromised AM antenna might work, but it would get drowned out during the night, when ionospheric conditions mean that distant AM signals can enter the city. (Mind you, since CJLO’s downtown transmitter would be for students on campus, being effectively daytime-only might not be so bad, at least outside of December and January.)
Why did CJLO set up a transmitter you can’t hear downtown?
By the time CJLO finally launched on AM in 2008, it had been actively trying to get on the air for seven years. It chose an AM frequency because FMs weren’t available, and chose the transmitter location because it was simple, practical and cheap. Originally the plan was to have the transmitter downtown, but practical considerations (particularly the lack of real estate to install an AM antenna on) prevented that.
CJLO also has reception problems that couldn’t be so easily predicted. Just west and east of the downtown campus, the reception isn’t quite as bad, according to its real-world reception analysis. It’s not good, either, but that adds to the problem.
How much does Vermont Public Radio rely on listeners in Montreal?
Turnau, VPR’s president, told me that they estimate they have about 20,000 listeners in Canada. But that’s only a guess, really, because Nielsen, the company that does U.S. radio ratings, doesn’t survey in Canada.
VPR relies on listener donations for much of its funding, and 1,000 of its members are Canadian. Based on the map submitted by CJLO showing an interference area with a 14-kilometre radius around downtown, it estimates about 350 to 400 of those members are in that zone. VPR’s average donation is about $100 to $120 per person per year. So if all of the members in this zone stopped receiving VPR and stopped donating to it as a result, this would mean about a $45,000 cut in its $7.5-million annual budget. “It’s significant, but it’s not going to put us out of business,” Turnau told me.
Couldn’t downtown listeners just get CJLO online/via HD Radio/on a subcarrier frequency?
Sure. But students don’t have HD Radio or special SCA subcarrier receivers, and many of them are too poor to afford the data usage that listening online with their smartphones would mean.
More importantly, any argument for an alternative distribution method for CJLO could also be used to distribute VPR to people who would no longer be able to hear it over the air.
Couldn’t CJLO and CKUT just timeshare or something?
No. Though they’re both campus stations, they’re licensed separately to separate owners, and their schedules are both full. The fact that they’re campus stations as opposed to commercial stations doesn’t give them any less of a right to the airwaves.
What about 87.7, which used to have CBC Television?
Below 88 MHz is the frequency for TV channel 6. Under the analog system, the audio signal for that channel was 87.75 MHz, and since it uses a similar FM transmission method, many FM radios were designed to be able to tune down to that frequency to pick it up (87.7, though slightly off frequency, was close enough). CBC TV in Montreal (CBMT-TV) has since vacated that channel to move to UHF, but the channel is still allocated to television broadcasting.
Industry Canada could choose to reallocate the channel or part of it to FM, opening up frequencies below 88 MHz. It would involve moving a handful of full-power stations in the country (none in major markets), and coordinating with the U.S., which might be tricky if they don’t do the same.
Since TV channel 6 is from 82 to 88 MHz, reallocating it entirely to FM broadcasting would increase the FM radio band by 30%, giving space for as many as 10 more full-power stations. But since few radios here go below 87.5, most people would need new radios. There’s a good reason to discuss doing something like this, but it won’t happen soon and neither CJLO nor the CRTC can decide to wait until it happens. And until the channel is re-allocated, the CRTC can’t authorize a radio station to operate below 88 MHz.
VPR transmits an HD Radio signal. Could I still hear it with an HD Radio even if I’m getting interference?
HD Radio operates on the same channel, 107.9 FM, though it operates around the analog signal (slightly above and below in frequency), at reduced power. Receivers who get some interference from CJLO might still be able to pick up VPR’s digital signal strong enough to get VPR on digital. But those very close to CJLO’s transmitter would get enough interference to block both the analog and digital signals of the VPR station.
What will the CRTC decide?
The CRTC likes to hear from the public and take their views into account. But there’s a decision that is almost exactly on point here. In 2008, the CRTC granted an application from CHLT-FM in Sherbrooke to move form 102.1 to 107.7 FM and increase its power. Because it’s an adjacent frequency to VPR’s WVPS station at 107.9, the move would have meant many listeners in the Townships would have had trouble listening to VPR. Dozens of listeners wrote to the CRTC, but the commission dismissed those concerns because VPR is a U.S. station.
There have been far more interventions this time around, but the CRTC doesn’t play that kind of numbers game. It can act based on a single intervention, or ignore hundreds that suggest actions that don’t follow policies.
The commission is different than it was in 2008. Its new chair, Jean-Pierre Blais, is more consumer-centric. But even he’s unlikely to ignore established policy and protect a U.S. broadcaster at the expense of a Canadian one.
If VPR doesn’t convince CJLO that there’s a better technical solution, it’s probably going to lose this fight.
When is the hearing?
There is no hearing. The CRTC published this application as a “Part 1” application, which means the public has a month to comment on it, but it’s not considered significant enough to warrant a public hearing. The commission can upgrade a proceeding if interventions come in that raise important policy issues. But it hasn’t done so in this case, and there’s no reason to believe it will.
When will the CRTC decide?
CRTC decisions can happen in weeks or months, depending on the nature and importance of the demand. Since there’s no rush in this case, it might take a bit longer, and a decision might come some time in late summer or fall. But there’s no deadline, and it could wait as long as it wants before issuing a decision.
If CJLO tries another frequency, can someone else apply for 107.9?
Yes. And this is something Mathieu points out. CJLO only wants to cover a few square blocks of downtown. A different application might come from a commercial broadcaster who would want as wide an area as possible, which could mean a much larger interference zone. So long as VPR is protected at the border and other Canadian stations aren’t interfered with in their coverage areas, a potential station on this frequency could be of higher power.
Comments on this application were due by Monday, May 26, at 8pm. The CRTC received a total of 930 interventions.
- Pages on the websites of CJLO and VPR explaining their cases in this.
- An episode of CKUT’s International Radio Report on the application, including interviews with the heads of CJLO and VPR.
- A post on Brian Holidae’s Facebook page with his take