UPDATE (June 30): The station says it has officially launched.
For the first time in 17 years, Montrealers are beginning to hear a local station at 600 on the AM dial.
TTP Media, which has been promising since 2010 to revolutionize the AM radio scene in Montreal, has been doing work at the Kahnawake transmitter site for the two AM talk radio stations it has licences to operate — CFNV 940 AM and CFQR 600 AM (no relation to Q92, which used that same callsign).
The work has resulted in CFNV going off the air, but also some sounds coming out at 600 AM. The CRTC’s last extension for that station, originally approved in 2012, gave the company until June 30, 2017, to launch, and made clear (for the second time) that this would be the final extension given them.
With nine days before that deadline, tones and music were first reported being heard at 600 AM last Wednesday.
Even if it does officially launch, the English-language talk station long promised to be a competitor to CJAD might not be what listeners expect at first. Both English and French stations have generic commercial AM licences, which gives them a lot of freedom when it comes to programming. CFNV has run an automated music playlist since it launched in November, just days before its last deadline.
My attempts to get TTP Media to explain the various delays in launching their stations have failed in the past few years, leaving only official correspondence with the CRTC as a source of information. But last week, TTP Media President Rajiv Pancholy agreed to an interview, and though he couldn’t answer every question about the group’s plans, he did clear up a lot of information. Here’s what he told me:
What took so long?
In short, a lot of things, most of them technical. The initial delay in launching the stations was more strategic. TTP Media had originally applied for 690 and 940, two clear channels. The advantages to clear-channel frequencies, beyond the large coverage area (especially at night) is the simplicity: You don’t have to worry about complicated antenna arrays directing your signal so it protects another station on that frequency. Their initial plan was to house both stations on an antenna in St-Constant that’s currently used to broadcast CJMS 1040 AM.
“Had we got those two frequencies, it would have been easy to get the station on the air back then,” Pancholy told me.
But the CRTC only gave them 940, giving 690 to TSN Radio. TTP Media was invited to reapply for another frequency. They finally settled on 600, using the old pattern for CFCF/CIQC. That frequency and pattern wouldn’t work on the CJMS antenna, so they reached an agreement with Cogeco to use the old CFCF antenna site in Kahnawake instead. After the 600 licence was approved in November 2012, they applied to move the 940 licence there as well and signed a lease agreement with Cogeco.
Meanwhile, the market was changing. Bell had come to an agreement to purchase Astral Media, which owned CJAD, CHOM and Virgin Radio 96 in Montreal, along with the NRJ and Rouge FM networks. TTP Media put its plans on hold while that process sorted itself out twice (the CRTC denied the Astral purchase before approving it finally in 2013). Though the programming wouldn’t have made a difference either way, there was some thought given to the idea of maybe buying CJAD or CKGM if the CRTC forced Bell to sell a station.
“There were a lot of question marks about the future of radio,” Pancholy said. So the group decided to “take a step back and see how the landscape is changing.”
Also around this time, the group presented an application for a third radio station, a French sports talk station at 850 AM. It would broadcast from a new transmission site in an undeveloped area of Notre-Dame-de-l’île-Perrot, just southwest of Montreal. That proposal was approved in June 2013.
By the summer of 2013, the Bell/Astral deal was finalized, TTP Media had three licences approved, and the process could begin in earnest. The expectation was that stations could launch as early as that fall.
But in the fall, there was the first request for an extension, citing the apparent market uncertainty and the technical changes required to put the transmission site back in a condition to be able to transmit on 600. (It had been modified to work on 690 after CIQC and CKVL were converted into 940 News and Info 690 in 1999-2000.)
It was about that time that the partners started being less communicative about their plans.
From this point, most of the news came in the form of requests for extensions to the CRTC. In the fall of 2014, the group said the stations were six to nine months from launch. Six to nine months later, no stations on the air, but the group applied for an extension on the 850 AM station, saying they can’t get NDIP to agree to their proposed site on Île Perrot, but they think they can turn the Kahnawake site into a three-station system on 600, 850 and 940.
In November 2015, another extension request even though the CRTC had said the 2014 extension was their final one for the 940 station. By this point, TTP Media and Cogeco have decided that Cogeco should discontinue acting as a middle man. TTP Media will acquire the assets on the site and sign a new lease with the Kahnawake-based land owner.
In 2015, the sale of transmission site equipment and takeover of the lease for the land was presented as a mere formality. But in reality, Pancholy said, it “turned out to be a really arduous process.”
Not only did the group need to negotiate with Cogeco, but also the landowner and the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake. “It’s difficult enough in negotiations to have a biparty discussion,” Pancholy said, but in this case the negotiations took forever because of the number of parties involved. “It just goes on and on and on. It was a much longer timeline than we thought.”
By the summer of 2016, things looked grim from the outside. The deadline for the 850 AM station to launch came and went with no word from the group and no request to the CRTC for an extension. I figured that was a sign that the end was near.
But in November, there finally were signs of life. Transmissions were reported at 940 AM, the station had acquired a callsign, CFNV, and crews were seen at the site. It was really close to the deadline, but the station went on the air and the deals with Cogeco and Kahnawake were finally signed. The CRTC gave the 600 AM station until June 30, 2017, to begin broadcasting by once again extending what was supposed to be a “final” deadline.
With 940 on the air, it was time to focus on 600. That still required modifications to the transmission equipment (some modifications took a while because of problems acquiring parts), and some work couldn’t be done during the winter.
In February, another hiccup: The engineer they hired to retune the antenna died suddenly. Since he owned his own company, there was no one to take over right away, so there was a delay of two months while things were figured out.
“It’s been a long sequence of things to overcome,” Pancholy said. And experience has taught him that he can’t guarantee they won’t face more obstacles in the future. “In life you can only do your best, and we’ll see. The team is working very hard,” he said. “You just don’t know what issues you’ll face tomorrow.”
He can’t guarantee that 600 AM will meet the CRTC’s deadline, but the group is trying.
What happened with 850 AM?
The decision to abandon the 850 AM sports-talk station came around the same time that RNC Media decided to convert its 91.9 FM station in Montreal to a sports-talk format. The most obvious explanation is that TTP Media decided to forget about this station because of the new competition.
But Pancholy said that wasn’t it. “It was purely a technical issue,” he said.
“When we submitted the technical brief for the 850 AM station, we were unsure what would actually happen with 600 and 940. We had based this on a new site to be developed in NDIP. When we started to operationalize that motion, we got into a lot of issues.”
Among them: The proposed site was directly in the landing path of Runway 6L at Trudeau Airport, which required discussions with NAV Canada to ensure the towers didn’t interfere with aircraft. There was also the fact that people in the community didn’t like the idea of giant transmission towers where there used to be forest.
“We would have had to spend a lot of money and it was a long process to convince NAV Canada and other people,” Pancholy said.
They thought they might be able to transmit on 850 from the Kahnawake site, but their engineers eventually said that wasn’t possible because of how close in frequency 850 and 940 are. Looking at their options, they decided to abandon the plans for 850.
Are they still planning news-talk stations?
“Both stations will have a strong focus on spoken word,” Pancholy said, choosing his words carefully. This business of automated music will end once the stations launch, though. “There will be a predominance of spoken word, but there will be other things in there too,” he said, without elaborating.
But while the stations will be talk stations, it’s unclear what kind of news operation they’re going to have. Pancholy wouldn’t give details when I specifically asked about news.
Paul Tietolman in particular was very critical of CJAD and other stations in the early days of this group, criticizing layoffs and insufficient staffing on evenings and weekends. He said their stations wouldn’t let their listeners down that way.
It’s unclear if the partners still feel that way.
The plan will change from what was originally proposed, Pancholy said, because of the need to keep adapting to change in the marketplace. But he wouldn’t give specifics.
In the original applications, TTP Media based its programming on a “face-à-face” style in which people with differing political views would co-host programs and debate each other. It’s unclear if the new concept will be similar to that.
But Pancholy was clear that the programming will still be local. “These are two stations that will be staffed by local people, with a local footprint with local voices,” he said.
“We are a bunch of hometown boys, we live in Montreal, we intend to live in Montreal and we intend to create programming that is based in Montreal.”
When will they launch?
No date has been set yet, but Pancholy said they want to launch as soon as possible. They’re at least a month away because of the testing process for 600. But once that’s done it’s mostly just a question of hiring.
The one thing Pancholy was clear on was that the plan is still to launch the two stations simultaneously. This is why 940 has been broadcasting music since November.
“As you might have noticed, 940 is on the air and off,” he said. “We knew we’d have to take the 940 station off the air to make the changes for 600. You can’t really spend all the money on programming and then stop it for a week or two weeks.”
They haven’t set a deadline, but the feeling I have is that they hope to be on the air by this fall, if not sooner. But that’s assuming there are no more hiccups.
“We are getting to be very impatient at this point in time,” Pancholy said.
Why did Pancholy go to India?
One strange development in TTP Media’s story was when Pancholy accepted a job as CEO of Indian telecom company OnMobile in 2014. Was this a sign that he had dropped his plans in Montreal and found work elsewhere?
“It was one of those things that was not planned,” he said. He got a call from a former associate he knew from back in his previous job running the company that used to own Fido. “They needed a change of leadership of the company. They called me up and said we need you to go down there and fix whatever needs to be fixed.”
In other words, it was a temporary thing.
So Pancholy said yes, and went to India. “There was a lot of travel back and forth,” he said, not just Montreal and India but around the world. But he remained involved in the TTP Media group.
By the spring of 2017, Pancholy had reached the end of his mandate — “three years was my limit,” he said — and he stepped down from his position at OnMobile. Since he’s returned, he’s been focused on the technical aspects of getting 600 AM on the air.
Do they have a studio?
Pancholy said they in fact have two. One, in the West Island, will serve as a temporary studio at launch until their permanent studio “much closer to the city centre” is ready. I didn’t get any more details on their location.
Have they hired staff?
Not yet, but “we have an agreement with several people,” Pancholy said, specifying that he meant “more than two or three people.”
When the group first applied for licences, it brought along some people that it considered part of its core group: Yves Guérard, former head of RadioMutuel; Steve Kowch, former program director of CJAD and CFRB; and former 940 News anchor Jim Connell. Connell lost patience with the group and took a job at Global Montreal when it launched its morning show in 2013. He left that job two years later and is currently freelance. Kowch is still in Mississauga, Ont., working as a consultant.
Kowch and Connell are probably still available. But Guérard definitely isn’t. He died last summer.
As for on-air staff, Pancholy said the group has gotten a lot of applications from LinkedIn and through other means like 940’s website, “so we don’t need to reach out to people,” he said.
“There’s a lot of talent available.”
Obviously he isn’t going to tip his hat, but he did say that “many of the voices will be recognized by the audience, they’re known voices.”
So expect several names that were once on mainstream radio stations to pop up here.
“There’s some brand equity there,” Pancholy said. “It’s a brand that people in Montreal associate with English radio, and it was sitting there abandoned.”
In 2011, when Q92/The Q became The Beat, it changed its callsign from CFQR-FM to CKBE-FM. It had used the callsign CFQR-FM since 1966.
It’s not the first Montreal radio station callsign to be reused by an unrelated station to capitalize on some nostalgia. CJMS 1040 AM in St-Constant has no relation to CJMS 1280, which closed in 1994. And CKVL-FM 100.1 in LaSalle has no relation to CKVL 850.
That said, I can’t imagine Cogeco will be thrilled about TTP Media trying to profit from that brand.
The domain name cfqr600.com was registered on June 20 in Pancholy’s name. There’s no website there yet.
Do they have money?
When they applied to the CRTC for the stations, the group provided evidence of financial liquidity in the form of a bank loan. Of the $25 million in financing for the new stations, $21 million would come from the bank, and the rest in equal amounts from the three partners.
Since that agreement with the bank is six years old, I wondered if it was still valid.
Pancholy said money hasn’t been and won’t be an issue, noting that he has negotiated loans worth hundreds of millions of dollars in the past.
“I have the credibility in Canada on Bay St. and Wall St.,” he said.
Are they still partners?
Since TTP Media stopped talking to the media (well, me anyway) about their plans, rumours have gone around that there may be trouble in the partnership.
Pancholy said those rumours are baseless.
“I speak with Paul and Nicolas on a daily basis,” he said. “We are not at all disjointed.”
Formally, Pancholy is the president, Tétrault is the treasurer and Tietolman is the secretary, but in practice all three of them are involved in the stations’ preparation, collaborating as needed, Pancholy said.
Are they working on other projects?
The short answer is no. Besides the proposed-and-then-abandoned French-language station at 850 AM, the group applied to the CRTC for FM stations in Calgary and Toronto when frequencies came up. They lost both in very competitive fields.
“We always have ideas, but now it’s a credibility issue,” Pancholy said. They need to show they can get a station off the ground before they start trying to sell the idea in other markets.
Do we believe them?
On one hand, TTP Media has a radio station on the air and has begun testing the other one. On the other hand, after six years of promising to make a difference in the market, all we have is a station that’s playing an automated music playlist.
Some of Pancholy’s explanations give good reasons for delays in the process. But it’s still hard for me to wrap my head around the delays between 2013 and 2016. Had they had their stuff together, they could have significantly reduced those delays or worked around them.
The proof will be in the pudding when the stations go on the air with regular programming (assuming the CRTC accepts that the 600 station met the June 30 deadline). Only then will we be able to judge if the competitor to CJAD and 98.5 FM will meet the extremely high hopes that every critic of those stations has projected onto them.
I’m more hopeful than I was last week that this is going to happen, but I remain skeptical, too. This group has a long history of missing deadlines.
About the stations
CFQR 600 AM: English commercial licence. 10,000 watts daytime, 5,000 watts nighttime, broadcasting from 45°23’34” N, 73°41’53” W. First approved Nov. 9, 2012.
CFNV 940 AM: French commercial licence. 50,000 watts day/night, broadcasting from 45°23’34” N, 73°41’53” W. First approved Nov. 21, 2011. Launched November 2016.