For at least the third time, the CRTC is about to make a call on whether Quebec City should be allowed to have an English-language commercial radio station.
An application by Evanov Radio subsidiary Dufferin Communications, which also owns stations running the Jewel format (including 106.7 in Hudson), plus CFMB 1280 and CHRF 980 in Montreal, prompted a request for comment by the commission in 2016 about whether a general call for applications should be issued. So far two applications (the other one for a French station) have been filed for the use of 105.7 MHz, considered one of the last available usable frequencies in the city.
On Wednesday, the CRTC issued another notice of consultation, effectively reopening the file. It never came to a decision in the case, ironically because of a lack of francophone commissioners. With recent appointments that problem has been solved.
This is Evanov’s second attempt to do this. In 2010, the CRTC denied a previous application by the company, ruling by majority vote that because the English-speaking population of Quebec is so small (1.1% speak it most often at home), “for all practical purposes there is virtually no advertising market in Québec for an English-language station” and “its service is almost entirely dependent on Québec’s French-language audience.”
In 2006, the CRTC similarly denied an application by Standard Radio (which at the time owned Mix 96, CHOM and CJAD, before it was bought by Astral Media the next year).
Why does it matter that an English station would attract a francophone audience? (After all, Montreal’s English-language music stations have larger francophone audiences than anglophone ones.)
Mainly because of CRTC policies relating to music. The commission requires that French-language radio stations broadcasting music ensure that 65% of popular music selections be French-language (and 55% of songs broadcast from 6am to 6pm, Monday to Friday). English radio stations do not have that requirement, which means they can broadcast more American hit songs. (In Montreal and Ottawa-Gatineau, the only large bilingual markets in the country, the CRTC imposes a “hit music” limit on English-language stations, limiting to 50% the songs that can be broadcast that have ever reached the top 40 on the charts, as a way of mitigating this problem.)
With such a small English-language population to serve, other radio stations in the market concluded, and the commission agreed, that this was merely a way of getting a commercial radio station in the market that could broadcast more popular English-language songs and get an unfair advantage on competitors.
The commission wasn’t unanimous on the matter. The 2010 decision included a dissenting opinion from commissioner Timothy Denton (who also noted that it was a panel, rather than the full commission, that decided this matter):
If the people of Quebec City wish to listen to English-language radio, or any foreign-language radio, it is not the concern of the federal government to prevent it. People are free in principle to listen to what they like. In particular, they are free to listen to radio programs in the other official language, where those are available. In my opinion the majority of the panel in this case appears to believe the contrary. Otherwise why would the majority be concerned with the possibility of French-language listeners tuning into an English-language station in Quebec City?
Denton noted in his dissent that French-language music requirements were imposed by the same industry that is now using it as a way to block a minority-language station, and that it’s not the CRTC’s business to say an English-language station can’t attract French-language listeners or advertisers.
If the French-language music requirement causes such a problem, maybe that’s what should be reviewed, Denton argued.
Turns out the CRTC is doing just that. In 2015, it announced a hearing to review its policy on French-language vocal music requirements. But that hearing was indefinitely postponed because of a lack of francophone commissioners. It has yet to be rescheduled.
So what has changed?
CRTC policy says that once it decides that a market can’t support a new radio station, it will return applications for the next two years, and can re-evaluate the situation after that.
Six years after the last denial, the situation hasn’t changed that much. According to data from the 2016 census, of the 560,310 people in Quebec City, only 9,575 (1.7%) speak English only, mostly, or equally with another language at home. Another 26,495 (4.7%) speak English “regularly” at home (and most of them “mostly” French).
The financial situation at existing stations is also about the same. In the year ending Aug. 31, 2017, Quebec City’s nine commercial radio stations made $6 million combined in profit before interest and taxation, about 15% less than in 2013.
The biggest change has been to the commission itself. There has been complete turnover of commissioners, and the newest batch might be willing to look at the situation differently.
Arguments for and against
In 2016 submissions to the commission, Evanov made its case for an English-language station while a joint submission by Bell, Cogeco and RNC Media, which own French commercial stations in the market, argued against.
Evanov’s arguments in favour:
- The Official Languages Act: “As the Commission has previously noted, it is subject to the OLA as an independent public organization that reports to the federal government. Consequently, any decision rendered by the Commission on the present application must be informed by the overarching principle that the English-language minority in Que?bec City is deserving of full recognition and support. In our view, these obligations created by the OLA militate toward the needs of the English language minority of Que?bec City being evaluated on their own merit, and not against the needs of the Francophone majority. As a result, it is appropriate to limit the call for applications to those seeking to provide a service in English exclusively.”
- The Broadcasting Act: “The recognition of the importance and equality of both French and English is also reflected in the Broadcasting Act. In particular, section 3(b) which highlights that “the broadcasting system, comprising of public, private and community elements, shall operate in both languages”. Furthermore, section 3(k) indicates “a range of broadcasting services in English and French shall be extended to all Canadians as resources become available” (emphasis added). The word “shall” means Parliament intends to make the presence of both official languages mandatory in the broadcasting system. It is therefore essential to the question of whether a call for applications should include those for another French language service. As indicated above, the proposed frequency is the last available in the market. If the Commission were to make it available, and ultimately occupied by another French service, it would undermine the mandatory provisions of the Broadcasting Act that call for service in both languages.”
- Frequency scarcity: Because this is the last open frequency, “licensing an additional French-language service would forever prevent an English language service in the market.”
Bell, Cogeco and RNC Media focused mainly on the French music policies in arguing for a delay. Their arguments:
- Regulatory uncertainty: They argued this decision should be delayed until the review of French-language music policy is complete, otherwise the regulations in place during the application process would differ from those in place when the station actually launches. (They argue applications for French-language stations should be delayed for the same reason.)
- Frequency scarcity: Because this is the last open frequency, the commission should take its time because it won’t have another chance. The new French music policy might open the door to other unique formats for French-language stations that wouldn’t be viable under current policy.
In its reply, Evanov argued that there was no evidence that its new station would have an unacceptable impact on existing ones, and it countered the population argument with statistics of its own: “while there are 10,700 “mother tongue” Anglophones in the market, there are 273,000 individuals who speak and understand English who reside in Quebec City, 36,250 of whom speak English regularly at home. In other words, there is approximately 36% of the total population of Quebec City who speak and understand the Anglophone English language”
Evanov also argued that rather than wait until the policy review to decide on an English-language station, it should do the reverse, and see how the English-language station impacts the market before doing the policy review.
Evanov’s isn’t the only application being considered here. French-language stations in Quebec City and two neighbouring markets are also up for debate. Here are the summaries of the applications (the full applications aren’t published, and won’t be unless the commission decides to go ahead with them):
- Evanov Radio (Dufferin Communications): English-language station in Quebec City, 105.7 MHz, 5,000W max ERP
- Gilles Lapointe and Nelson Sergerie: French-language station in Quebec City, 105.7 MHz, 8,000W max ERP
- Michel Lambert: Commercial station in Portneuf, 88.7 MHz, 12,000W max ERP
- Attraction Radio: Commercial station in Sainte-Marie, 105.3 MHz, 4,500W max ERP
Portneuf is the region just west of Quebec City. Stations licensed there include CHXX-FM Donnacona, (Pop 100.9). Sainte-Marie (aka Sainte-Marie-de-Beauce) is 40km south of Quebec City.
This would be Attraction Radio’s first application for a new radio station. Its network has been built up mainly of acquisitions of small-market players in Quebec’s regions.
The CRTC is accepting comments until Aug. 31. Other parties who might want to apply for a radio station in Portneuf or Sainte-Marie have until then to express their interest. It’s unclear if the commission is accepting new expressions of interest for the Quebec City market.
UPDATE: A few comments below note that an English-language radio station can target anglophone tourists. Setting aside the fact that Quebec City already has an English-language tourist information station, the statistics aren’t very encouraging here. Quebec City has, on an average night, about 27,000 tourists staying at least a night. Of them, about 16,000 are from elsewhere in Quebec, and the rest are from elsewhere in Canada or overseas. Even if we assume all 9,000 of those are anglophones, we’re still talking about a market of fewer than 50,000. And how many of those tourists are going to be spending time tuning their radios to find a station that speaks English? And how many advertisers are going to want to spend money to advertise to people who are just going to leave the next day anyway?
UPDATE (Aug. 8): Mark Elliot points to a post he write about CFOM 1340, which was a private English-language radio station in Quebec City that was also a CBC affiliate. The station shut down in 1976.