The power struggle tearing Radio Centre-Ville apart

A protest outside Radio Centre-Ville’s office on March 29.

Montreal’s only community ethnic radio station is in crisis. It started as a financial one, without a major source of revenue to pay expenses. But since last fall it has turned into a legal one as well, with two stubborn sides fighting it out. And each side is willing to financially bankroll their legal battle, even though that money would be put to far better use rescuing the station directly, because they’re convinced that their victory is the only way they can truly save the station.

And neither side is willing to negotiate or compromise.

The issue has been getting some media attention, with articles in Métro and Le Devoir. I wrote about it as well for the Montreal Gazette. Here, I’ll lay out the issues in more detail, based on interviews with both sides.

Background

Radio Centre-Ville (CINQ-FM 102.3) has existed since 1975. It bills itself as the city’s only community ethnic radio station, though its CRTC licence doesn’t officially recognize it as an ethnic station. Instead, it’s a community station that’s allowed to broadcast up to 40% ethnic programming.

The station is structured as a democratically-run non-profit. Board members are elected by the members, each of whom has one vote. People get membership by working for the station in some capacity for three months and paying a membership fee.

Members belong to various teams depending on the language of programming: French, English, Haitian, Portuguese, Hispanophone (Spanish), Greek, Arabic and Chinese.

Programming is decided by management, but the bylaws of the corporation require that the membership approve any change in the allocation of airtime to the various language teams, which in turn allocate airtime to their members for individual shows. Each team also has a fundraising goal, an amount they’re expected to raise every year through fundraising. Some teams are more successful at it than others.

CINQ-FM sells advertising, but not nearly enough to keep it afloat. So in addition, it collects membership fees, looks for sponsors and seeks out other sources of funding. One major source until a couple of years ago was a $105,000 a year grant from Centraide. It was the non-renewal of this grant that put things into motion.

As the financial situation became more and more dire, drastic measures began to be taken. All paid staff at the station were laid off, membership fees were doubled, fundraising goals were increased, and a new fee was established for each show to be paid by the producer. The third floor of the three-storey building it owns (the company’s biggest asset) was rented out.

But the most controversial of moves was the decision to lease out airtime, entire blocks of programming, for a fee. This meant less airtime for the various language teams, which meant some long-lasting shows had to be cancelled.

A large number of Radio Centre-Ville’s members say they never approved the sale of airtime. And in the months that followed these measures being put into place, each side has held a general assembly of members that the other side says is illegitimate.

CINQ general manager Wanex Lalanne.

On one side is the station’s management, led by general manager Wanex Lalanne Zéphyr and board chairperson René Pluviose, both from Montreal’s Haitian community. For them, the problem is strictly a financial one. The station is deeply in the red, and its their job to do what’s necessary to keep it viable, and that means leasing out airtime, in particular to other members of the Haitian community. And because daytime hours are the most valuable, those are the ones being leased out. This isn’t like selling infomercials during the overnight hours. It’s the best time slots that are being sold.

For Lalanne, the situation is far from ideal, but he’s bailing water to keep the ship afloat. “Either we keep the shows and close the station, or we cut some shows and save the station,” he says. “It’s a temporary measure. If we find a solution in a year there’s no problem. But for now we need it.”

Things got so bad, he notes, that members of the board lent money to the station out of their personal bank accounts to keep paying the bills. His actions have been keeping the lights on, he says, and the actions of dissenters are causing yet more waste of money they desperately need.

On the other side is a group of dissenters, with the Spanish-speaking group being the most prominent among them, that have declared management illegitimate because of a dispute over the legality of general assemblies and have argued that any change to the schedule requires approval by the members.

For them, there’s no point in saving the station if it’s going to become a top-down commercial enterprise instead of a true community station. And they’re frustrated that management has not explored other possible sources of funding, like government grants.

There’s a racial and language divide just beneath the surface of this conflict, and though some groups are united on one side or the other (the Portuguese team is mostly if not entirely behind management, while the Spanish team is mostly if not entirely behind the dissenters), others are claimed by both sides. There are Haitians and Francophones in both camps.

But both sides have similar motivations: They care about the station because they’ve been volunteers there for decades. “I’m a fighter. I never let go,” Lalanne says. “I came to Quebec to take my place, I had to fight. I’m a teacher, I had to fight. To be here I had to fight. For the radio, I will fight.”

“Radio Centre-Ville is dying now, it’s becoming a commercial station,” says Andrea Hazelwood of the anglophone group. “I want to see justice done, and I want to see a return to democracy to Radio Centre-Ville.”

There’s also the awkwardness that both groups still have access to the station and its transmitter, though Lalanne and the board have apparently suspended some members for speaking out on the air. Several on-air protests have been held, and Lalanne has hired security to control who comes into the station. But for now even the dissenters continue with their programming during their allotted time.

The roots of the station’s financial crisis aren’t hard to locate. The non-renewal of the Centraide grant, and a downstairs café and event space that “did not bring in what we thought,” as Pluviose puts it. The struggling radio advertising market certainly didn’t help either.

The roots of the political crisis stem from issues of general dysfunction. There is no formal list of members, which are supposed to come from the language teams. So there’s no good way to prevent illegitimate members from voting during the general assemblies. The lack of paid staff makes organizing things on a legal level difficult, and meant that the audited financial statements weren’t ready in time for the annual general assembly, for example.

Though things have quieted down lately, there’s still a stalemate, and it looks like it’ll continue until another general assembly is held. Lalanne said he has no plans to call one, but holding one (assuming both sides could come to an agreement on who to consider a member) might solve a lot of the legitimacy problems and legal disputes.

I don’t know how the dispute will end, but I can say with some certainty that both sides are going to have to put some water in their wine for it to happen.

“We can’t spend 6-7 months like this. Everyone will lose,” Lalanne said when I interviewed him. That was three and a half months ago.

Radio Centre-Ville crisis: A timeline

Jan. 27, 1975: Radio Centre-Ville launches. The community radio station broadcasts in five languages, and adopts the callsign CINQ-FM.

Dec. 14, 2012: The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission renews Radio Centre-Ville’s broadcasting licence until Aug. 31, 2019. It is generally CRTC policy to review a licensee’s compliance only when the licence is up for renewal.

2014: Radio Centre-Ville loses a $105,000 a year subsidy from Centraide. It begins looking for ways to replace that source of revenue in its budget.

May 2015: Radio Centre-Ville launches a crowdfunding campaign to help finance L’Auditoire, an “intercultural centre” on the ground floor of the building on St-Laurent Blvd. that will function as an event venue and café. The space was formerly occupied by Luck Hop Foo, a Chinese restaurant that rented the space from Radio Centre-Ville. The campaign sets a goal of $50,000.

June 2015: The crowdfunding campaign closes having raised only $2,155 from 52 backers. The project nevertheless goes ahead, with an investment of $400,000 financed by a mortgage on the building and a $108,000 grant by the city of Montreal. The station continues to believe L’Auditoire will be profitable and help finance the station.

Aug. 7, 2015: L’Auditoire gets a $150,000 investment from la Fiducie du Chantier de l’économie sociale. The money is in the form of a loan they won’t have to start paying back for 15 years.

Aug. 26, 2015: Radio Centre-Ville launches L’Auditoire, billing it as part of the station’s 40th anniversary celebration. Among those in attendance is Mayor Denis Coderre. Ricardo Costa, the station’s president, says the café will help finance the station.

August 2016: Wanex Lalanne Zéphyr is named interim general manager of Radio Centre-Ville after the resignation of Marc De Roussan. Paid staff is laid off as the financial crisis hits.

Sept. 18, 2016: Radio Centre-Ville holds a general assembly of its members, during which they agree to measures such as doubling membership fees to $50 a year and charging an administrative fee of $100 a year for each member, and renting out the building’s third floor. Other proposals are also presented and rejected, such as selling the building. The prospect of selling airtime is discussed, but members disagree on whether this was approved.

October 2016: The station begins selling airtime, during the day on weekdays. By March the station was selling 33 hours a week and bringing in $10,000 a month (it works out to about $70 an hour). The sales go mainly to people in the Haitian community, through Lalanne’s social circles.

Oct. 10, 2016: Jean-Ernest Pierre, manager and owner of Haitian radio station CPAM Radio Union (CJWI 1410 AM) complains to the CRTC about the increased amount of Haitian content on the air at Radio Centre-Ville, saying it threatens his station. Pierre does not point to any regulation, condition of licence or policy being breached by Radio Centre-Ville. Lalanne responds by saying he’s not doing anything wrong.

Nov. 13, 2016: Dissident members of Radio Centre-Ville hold an on-air protest of the changes at the station. Lalanne says he chooses not to intervene to keep the peace. “I could have come with police officers,” he says. “We didn’t react. We let the wind pass.”

Dec. 1, 2016: Lalanne sends an email to Daniella Guerrero, the secretary of the board, asking her to make changes to the minutes of the Sept. 18 assembly to add the fact that the sale of airtime was approved by the members. Guerrero sends an email the next day to the board saying “it’s very sad what’s happening at Radio Centre-Ville” and includes a screenshot of the decisions taken at the Sept. 18 meeting, which does not include approving the selling of airtime. (Lalanne says “I thought she forgot” to note that the members said such a decision is up to the board.)

Dec. 4, 2016: Another general assembly is held, during which dissenting members say they voted 42-15 against the imposed changes to the station’s schedule, including the selling of airtime. Lalanne sends an email saying contracts have already been signed and he will not abide by the decision. He invites leaders of each language team to an information meeting to take place three days later.

Dec. 15, 2016: After two hearings at which representatives of Radio Centre-Ville failed to show up, the Commission municipale du Québec rules on a request to exempt the space occupied by l’Auditoire from having to pay municipal taxes, on the grounds that it is a community space rather than a commercial one. The commission rejects the request, finding that events represent only 22 per cent of the use of the space, and no information was filed as to the nature of those events to prove they are cultural in nature.

Dec. 16, 2016: Sébastien Robillard, senior analyst with the CRTC, writes a response to complaints about Radio Centre-Ville. “the (Broadcasting) Act does not give the Commission any regulatory mechanisms to intervene in the daily management of a (radio station), since companies are regulated by designated proceedings under their respective legal incorporation,” he writes. “The Commission will examine compliance with (its licence) conditions, as well as with all of CINQ-FM’s regulatory obligations, during the renewal process for the station’s licence, which expires on 31 August 2019.”

Dec. 18, 2016: Another general assembly is held. It was originally supposed to be an information-only session, but Lalanne cancelled it when he learned members planned to take issues to a vote. The members go through with the assembly on their own anyway. Members are elected to fill vacant seats on the board and a motion is passed against the selling of airtime, but the meeting’s legitimacy is not recognized by the existing board.

Dec. 30, 2016: Lalanne announces another annual general assembly for Jan. 22, even though the AGA is supposed to happen by Dec. 31. The main reason for the delay is that audited financial statements are not yet ready.

Jan. 9, 2017: The station holds a membership sign-up meeting. This will come to be controversial at the next general assembly. For one thing, the dissenting group says the judge hearing the injunction demand suggested that members who signed up after Dec. 31 should not vote in the general assembly. For another, “several people from different language groups were present … they noted a maximum of five people interviewed (for memberships)” said Israel Valencia, a spokesperson for the dissenting group. “The intention was very clear: He wanted to justify an increase in the number of memberships to secure their election in the annual assembly.”

Jan. 13, 2017: Members of the dissenting group led by Mikhail Kapellas go to Quebec Superior Court to demand an injunction preemptively declaring the Jan. 22 general assembly illegal because they believe Lalanne and board chair René Pluviose intend to illegitimately pack the meeting with supporters. Judge Gérard Dugré denies the request, ruling the request “premature” and “speculative.”

Jan. 15, 2017: The dissenting group begins rallying members for the Jan. 22 general assembly, saying Lalanne plans to pack the room and sympathetic members need to respond in high numbers.

Jan. 21, 2017: Pluviose sends a letter to supporters saying “tomorrow is D-Day and the only way to defeat our adversary is to be present before the annual general assembly.” He also tells them to “call everyone you know who is in our camp” and “don’t all sit in the same place but spread yourselves out in small groups in the room.” The dissenting members take this as evidence that Pluviose intends to pack the meeting with illegitimate supporters. Pluviose contends that was not his intention, and his request that they space themselves out was to avoid them getting into conversations that would disrupt the meeting.

Jan. 22, 2017: Another general assembly is held, three weeks after the deadline to do so according to the organization’s regulations. The meeting, at the Portuguese Association of Canada (Lalanne said he avoided picking a locale connected to the Haitian community to avoid perceptions of bias), has more than 150 people in attendance, about twice as many as previous general assemblies, according to dissenters, who say dozens of these people are unknown to them. “There were people I had never seen before, even in passing,” notes Andrea Hazelwood of the anglophone team. Some say the number present was as high as 250. Believing the assembly has indeed been packed by supporters of Lalanne, the dissenters walk out in protest. They later issue a statement describing it as a “putsch”.

Dissenting members of Radio Centre-Ville try to get attention to their cause with a press conference on Feb. 2.

Feb. 2, 2017: Members of the dissident group, including Pascal Lapointe and Roberto Núñez, hold a press conference at CSN headquarters downtown to denounce the actions of the Radio Centre-Ville board. Each language group is given an opportunity to address the audience, but the meeting deteriorates when members of the Arabic and Portuguese groups insist on speaking. Lalanne and Pluviose are also present, and hand out documents to journalists.

Feb. 15, 2017: Lalanne holds a meeting with dissenting members of the Spanish group, which also represents the interests of the anglophone group. According to the Spanish group’s minutes of the meeting, they refused to agree to any compromise.

March 1, 2017: Álvaro González, a member of the Spanish group, is prevented from doing his show. He says Lalanne told him the show was suspended because of his on-air comments criticizing the board.

March 19, 2017: Lalanne sends a letter to the Spanish group saying their Saturday night show has been “taken off the air until further notice” after it discussed “internal affairs” on the air the day before.

March 29, 2017: About 100 members of Radio Centre-Ville protest outside the station, denouncing its “mercantile vision” and lack of transparency.

May 18, 2017: Another on-air protest by the Spanish-speaking group.

9 thoughts on “The power struggle tearing Radio Centre-Ville apart

  1. Frank Schwimmer

    This is an unfortunate situation, I used t listen to the Spanish broadcast even if quite frequently I disagreed with the views of the hosts. It looks like the Haitians want to get control of the station and turn it into a Haitian station, which would defeat its primary purpose. It also look like the Haitian manager has brought along with him all the corruption from his country of origin. If radio Centreville becomes a Haitian radio station it should have it´s license withdrawn and apply for a new one, as a standard commercial station. Perhaps it´s time to let the CRTC join the party and bring some order.

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      There’s a tendency to descend into racist conspiracy theories, but portraying this as some sort of Haitian takeover oversimplifies the issue. I have little doubt that both sides feel they’re doing the right thing for the future of the station. But the big dispute is over how much should be on the table when it comes to ensuring financial viability.

      Reply
  2. Observing

    The Haitian community seems pretty much to be self defeating and way too obvious when it comes to tsking advantage of the situation.

    RiP radio centre ville. The zombie remains still functioning but tge spirit long since left.

    Reply
  3. Brett

    They must do what they feel is best for the station. I get done people at the station don’t like leasing out airtime. If it helps pay the bills and keeps a good community station going, for years to come then maybe it’s all worth it.

    Reply
  4. Laura Yaros

    There has been a glaring lack of transparency on the part of the current management. They have failed to produce audited financial statements, or copies of the contracts made with the purchasers of airtime. We have no concrete proof of how money received either via grants, loans or revenues (for example, I heard that at one point, $11,000 was brought in via l’Auditoire, turned over to the station, and we have no idea what happened to that money. Was it used to pay bills? If so, which ones and how much? Was it used to repair equipment? How did we go from losing a $105,000 grant to being millions of dollars in the hole? There is no documentation to explain all of this.

    Reply
  5. Mario D.

    This is always the scenario with most if not every community radio station. The on air content often has to deal with financial issues first and management decisions following. At some point a mix of all those ingredients becomes impossible to deal with because someone has to take decisions and whatever they are will get some well meaning people pissed even though those same guys were named in a general assembly.

    Because you cannot have a ton of people on the management board because it then becomes a circus. You do have annual meetings to deal with priorities and orientation but it all goes down the drain when money is getting scarce. That is when the political side of things comes in play.

    It does not have to do really with ethnicity but you always have to deal with different point of views and interests that clash when times are tough…One must not forget that each and everyone involved in this type of radio station believes that this is a vital and different type of voice that needs to be heard by as many listeners as possible and sometimes…at any price .

    If there was a real type of authority stemming from the CRTC it would prevent politically oriented moves that although seem legit go against the grain and the spirit of the radio itself. By the time the CRTC gets involved, tar and feathers have already been used…

    It takes so much dedication to continue fighting because every year it’s back to square one: financing.

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      If there was a real type of authority stemming from the CRTC it would prevent politically oriented moves that although seem legit go against the grain and the spirit of the radio itself.

      The CRTC doesn’t have the power to regulate corporations, only what they broadcast. So long as they’re meeting their licence conditions, there’s not much the commission can do. It certainly can’t simply overrule management decisions.

      Reply
  6. Phillip Dampier

    This sounds very much like the mess Pacifica Radio’s outlet in New York City has been dealing with for years. Money troubles and occasional autocratic decisionmaking launches recriminations that quickly bring out all the ugly suspicion and self destruction. If people spent as much time figuring out how to pay the bills as they do spending time and money fighting with their opposition, this problem wouldn’t be as urgent.

    The station manager should have also known the result of selling the bulk of available airtime to his Haitian connections. Any dealings that seem opaque or under the table will have explosive results, fair or not. Station “democracies” work when the bills are paid but become paralyzed when groups factionalize.

    The best idea to resolve this is with an independent new board of trustees held to account to certain principals, starting with keeping the station viable. These people should have no prior involvement with the station and no involvement in its programming or volunteer staff and work under a specific charter to preserve the values of the station. Then assess the financial problem, work to resolve it (listener and business sponsorships, fundraising events, online fundraising, etc.), and then worry about program diversity. Those who object can launch their online streaming alternative if they want, but in the end none of this will matter if the station cannot support itself. If the board determines it cannot, it is time to surrender the license and let something else emerge.

    Reply

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