With apologies to National Lampoon
If there’s anything that everyone can agree on, it’s that this is a passionate issue. Even Bell Media says it was taken aback last year by the outpouring of outrage over its plan to convert CKGM from TSN 690 to RDS 690 as part of its acquisition of Astral Media. Even though it was a minor related application of a $3.38-billion purchase, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission spent a great deal of time discussing the proposed change to this one radio station because of all the reaction. It was during questioning about CKGM that CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais held up a thick binder and said he didn’t have a summer vacation last year because he was busy reading all the public comments.
More than 700 people filed individual comments with the CRTC, the vast majority opposed to Bell’s proposal, and most not really caring about the larger acquisition. Three people without any financial interest actually showed up at the hearing to plead for the station, which is very rare and was greatly appreciated by commissioners.
This time around, things are different. Bell is taking the side of the fans, asking for an exemption to the CRTC’s common ownership policy to allow it to keep TSN 690 while also acquiring three of its four competitors in English-language commercial radio (including its main competitor CJAD). It started a petition and its radio personalities asked fans to fill it out (listen to Mitch Melnick explaining the situation the day the application was published), telling the CRTC why it should keep the station alive.
According to the CRTC’s website, there are now about 980 comments on this petition. You can read them in a series of PDF files posted here.
I went through a few hundred of them, and most of them are the same: heartfelt, angry, worried. These are the station’s loyal listeners, who say they will swear off radio altogether if their beloved station is pulled off the air. Many are from people in other cities who say they listen to the station online. Most argue that CKGM in its current form provides something unique to Montreal’s English-speaking community, and that alone is a reason to grant the exemption.
I’ve read at most a handful that say anything about the larger acquisition of Astral by Bell. Most couldn’t care less who owns the station or the others, as long as TSN retains its format, its personalities and its Canadiens games. Some even rant against large corporate media, which is odd when you’re indirectly supporting a mega merger of media companies. Some are even against the larger merger of Bell and Astral. One demands that Bell be forced to sell CHOM, CJAD or CJFM (Virgin Radio) instead.
But they’re all unanimous in that they want TSN 690 to be kept as is.
In reading these letters, it became clear to me that many of the writers have misconceptions about the application, about the CRTC’s intentions and about what could happen to CKGM. I hope to clear some of those up here. But first, I’ll present, as dispassionately as I can, the big reasons the CRTC should approve the exemption requested, and the big reasons it should not.
Why the CRTC should give an exemption to allow Bell to keep TSN 690
1. The format will go on: Bell has promised that, if it gets its way, it will commit to keeping CKGM as an English-language all-sports radio station for seven years, and will continue to air Canadiens games on it (as long as it continues to have the rights). This is, at least on the surface, the best possible outcome for the station’s listeners. Gone, for at least until 2020, would be the threat that the station might shut down because it’s unprofitable. And implicit in this promise is that the station’s staff would continue to have jobs (at least subject to the usual turnover that happens in radio). Plus, it would finally end all this uncertainty over the station’s future.
2. Consolidating sports on TSN: Bell hasn’t said that this would happen, but it stands to reason if it owns both CJAD and CKGM that Bell would move sports broadcasts to the latter. CJAD currently carries Alouettes games and select Impact games. CKGM could carry live broadcasts of all three Montreal teams (except where they directly conflict, which would logically see spillover go back to CJAD). Fans wouldn’t have to keep track of which station owned the rights to which franchise, and CJAD listeners who aren’t interested in sports wouldn’t have their regular programming interrupted by sports.
3. Retaining synergies with TSN: Though theoretically the station could continue if it was sold to, say, Rogers, any sale would strip the station of its branding as well as the advantages that come with being a member of the TSN family. With Bell’s claws firmly entrenched in the Canadiens, even if its ownership stake is minor, this becomes very important for an all-sports station.
4. Money for journalism and amateur sports: You could practically qualify it as a bribe, but in reality cash promises are encouraged by the CRTC and often help get things passed. Bell has promised to give $105,000 over seven years ($15,000 a year) to Concordia University for sports journalism scholarships (just what we need, more journalism students), and $140,000 over seven years ($20,000 a year) to support amateur sports in Montreal. These are not inconsiderable sums for a station that has been losing money since it launched in 2001. Though it may be pocket change for a $30-billion company, the fact that Bell is willing to spend it to keep a money-losing station on the air says something.
5. The cat’s already out of the bag: The truth is this same type of exemption has already been allowed. In 2010, the CRTC allowed a similar exemption in Montreal’s French-language market when Cogeco bought Corus’s Quebec stations. The acquisition resulted in Cogeco owning three French-language FM stations in Montreal (it already owned CFGL Rythme FM, and acquired CHMP 98.5 and CKOI). The commission said it could keep all three, despite the normal limitation, in exchange for setting up the Cogeco Nouvelles agency which would have CHMP as its flagship station. The request was billed as a way to save CHMP. Now it’s the most popular radio station in Quebec. By comparison, the CKGM request is for a station on the AM band and is for the station that’s last in the ratings.
Why the CRTC should not give an exemption to allow Bell to keep TSN 690
1. It would make Bell a dominant force in Montreal English radio: Allowing Bell to own both CKGM and the Astral stations would mean it would own four of the five established commercial English-language radio stations in Montreal, with only The Beat competing with it. The combined commercial market share would be over 70% for one company. This will be mitigated somewhat when the TTP Media group launches an English talk station at 600 AM, and when Dufferin Communications launches a low-power music station in Hudson/St. Lazare, but those will take a while to get established.
2. It would reinforce a bad precedent: Bell doesn’t have to put CKGM on the block. It could sell one of the other stations instead. But it’s forcing the CRTC’s hand by saying the sports station would be the one to go. Allowing an exemption here would be caving to Canada’s largest broadcaster by allowing it to get bigger, but also send a message to everyone that as long as you can spin a station as a charity case (even if it’s not actually losing money), you can get the CRTC to rubber-stamp an exception to its own rules.
3. There isn’t enough space for new competitors: Because Montreal is a bilingual market, and languages are counted separately in the CRTC’s policy, the airwaves are twice as saturated here as in other markets like Toronto or Calgary. Bell/Astral would actually own six stations in Montreal, with Cogeco owning five. There aren’t any more full-power FM frequencies available, and with new entrants like TTP Media and Dufferin Communications snapping up vacant AM frequencies, those are disappearing too. The more severe scarcity of channels here makes limitations on common ownership even more important.
Top misconceptions about Bell, the CRTC and TSN 690’s future
1. The CRTC wants to shut down TSN 690 / The CRTC has made a decision it is being asked to reconsider: The CRTC has not made any decision about the station, other than its decision last year to deny its request to switch to French (and that was only because the larger acquisition was denied). The request for an exemption is not being made in reaction to something the CRTC has done, but is a request from Bell to get an exception to a rule it anticipates the CRTC will apply. The fact that Bell bills this as “Save TSN Radio” may be leading to this misconception.
2. The CRTC wants to turn TSN 690 into a French-language radio station: This mistake is likely due to confusion between the two applications. It was Bell, not the CRTC, that requested that CKGM be converted from English to French in its first attempt to get approval for the Astral acquisition. It was done for the same reason, to get around the commission’s common ownership policy. In the new application, that’s gone, and there’s no threat of it coming back. Even if Bell is forced to sell the station, it would remain an English-language station unless the new owner requested a change, and that would be subject to a brand new hearing.
3. If Bell does not get an exemption, TSN 690 will be shut down: The reality of the situation may be that TSN 690 as we know it would be radically altered if Bell is forced to divest it. But it’s unlikely the station would be shut down. The 690 AM frequency is the best AM frequency available in Montreal, and another company would probably scoop it up if only for that. A company like Rogers or TTP Media might even keep the all-sports format, though there are no guarantees.
4. Granting an exemption is the only way Bell can continue to own TSN 690: The exemption is what Bell wants because it would be the best outcome for it financially. But there are two other ways it could keep the station: It could sell one of the Astral stations (or the CRTC could force it to sell one of the Astral stations), or the CRTC could deny the Bell/Astral acquisition again.
5. This is a language issue – TSN 690 can’t keep running because it’s an English station: Somewhat related to No. 2, this sentiment popped up in a lot of public comments. While it’s true that language is relevant to this discussion (because English and French stations are treated as if they’re in different markets), the rules don’t treat English and French differently. There is no Office de la langue française or official languages rule that is forcing the CRTC to limit the number of English-language radio stations in Montreal. There’s merely a rule that limits how many stations in one language in one market a company can own.
An event on Tuesday to show support for TSN 690
A show of support
Some of the station’s bigger fans are pushing harder to rally support to save it. In addition to the Facebook groups and blog posts, there’s a show being scheduled for Tuesday, April 2 at 6pm with some local bands. It doesn’t look like it’s official in any way, but it’s an idea of how important this station is to its small but loyal audience.
Deadline for comments is Friday
People wanting to comment on the Bell purchase of Astral, or the request for an exemption to the rules to allow Bell to own four English radio stations in Montreal, have until 8pm on Friday, April 5, to file an intervention. To do so directly to the CRTC, click here, select Option 1 and select the first application (2013-0244-7). Keep in mind that all information submitted to the CRTC this way, including contact information, is on the public record.