Monthly Archives: March 2013

TSN 690’s CRTC exemption: The pros, the cons and the misconceptions

With apologies to National Lampoon

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

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.

More links

The war over “ICI”: CBC demands new ethnic TV station change its name

UPDATE (June 11): Read my follow-up to this story here.

Sam Norouzi

Sam Norouzi is a busy guy these days. He’s starting a television station from scratch. He’s dealing with the technical side, acquiring a transmitter and antenna, as well as the content side, dealing with show producers. The plan is to have the station on the air some time in the summer, with a formal launch in the fall.

Norouzi is the manager of ICI, a new over-the-air ethnic television station in Montreal that was approved by the CRTC when it allowed Rogers to buy CJNT. Operating under the callsign CFHG-DT, it will air on Channel 47, using the same Bell-owned transmission tower on Mount Royal that was used briefly by CFCF as a temporary digital antenna while its analog transmitter was still running in 2011.

ICI, which stands for International Channel/Canal international, wants to bring ethnic television in Montreal back to where it was before CJNT, a producers’ cooperative where people sell advertising for their own shows and the station doesn’t try to make money by pushing the limits of its licence with third-rate primetime American programming.

It’s a big undertaking, with a very large amount of local programming, and it’s being put together on a pretty short time frame.

But now Norouzi has a new headache to deal with: The CBC doesn’t want him to use “ICI” as the station’s name.

The public broadcaster sent a lawyer’s letter to Norouzi’s company this week asking it to cease and desist the use of the name ICI. A statement of claim was filed with the court on Monday noting CBC’s request to have Norouzi’s trademark for ICI expunged. (Hat tip to the Citizen’s Glen McGregor for alerting me to that.) Norouzi (whose real name is Nowrouzzahrai) wasn’t aware of the letter when I called him Wednesday afternoon, because he’s currently in Florida. After checking in with his father, Norouzi confirmed he had received the letter.

Marc Pichette, a spokesperson for Radio-Canada, confirmed that the corporation asked the station to change its name “because « ici » has been a Radio-Canada staple for decades (Ici Radio-Canada) and because it is presently featured in an advertising campaign promoting Radio-Canada’s very personal relation with its audience. In these ads, people evoke how Radio-Canada programs that they have seen “ici” have been a pivotal in finding their vocation or lifelong interests.”

There’s another reason, though. Le Devoir reported Wednesday that Radio-Canada is thinking of rebranding, and calling itself “Ici.” Needless to say that would cause confusion.

Some of the trademarks registered to CBC

Some of the trademarks registered to CBC

A search of the Canadian trademarks database shows that the CBC registered a series of trademarks last fall with the word “ici” in it.

But Norouzi also has a trademark registered for his use of the term “ICI”. That trademark was filed in August 2011 and registered in September, before the CBC’s trademark applications were filed.

Asked about that, Pichette said “ici has been a Radio-Canada staple for decades” because it’s been used with the Radio-Canada name (à la “Ici Radio-Canada“). He didn’t say why the CBC is only acting on this now while the TV station’s use of the name ICI has been known since at least last fall and its trademark dates back a year and a half.

Norouzi said he was frustrated because he’d done everything he was supposed to, making sure nobody else was using the name for a TV station and then registering it himself and getting it approved. He said he doesn’t have enough money to hire lawyers to fight the CBC’s legal department, which means if the CBC decides to make this a legal case, it will probably win by default.

All this over a three-letter word.

UPDATE (March 28): Asked about the possible name change in the House of Commons, Heritage Minister James Moore says its name is enshrined in the law and it won’t change. Though I’m not sure how much control the government has over branding. The logos above show the official name would remain “Radio-Canada” but with brands focused on “ici”.

Meanwhile, CBC announces it’s going ahead with the rebranding, but Radio-Canada’s name remains “Radio-Canada”.

NADbank: Journal still reigns as print falls and online grows

NADbank, the company that surveys newspaper readership, released its 2012 survey results on Wednesday. In general, it shows that online readership of newspapers in Canada is growing as print readership is declining, and that is reflected in the numbers for the Montreal market.

Comparing last year’s numbers to this year’s for the Montreal market, there isn’t much change. The Journal de Montréal is still tops in most categories, with La Presse behind it. And Metro still beats 24 Heures in print and online, despite the fact that 24 Heures is distributed in the metro system.

I’ve compiled the numbers into a chart below. Red shows declines in real numbers, green shows gains. Bolded numbers are where there has been a change in rank. In the first case, it shows that for average combined print and online readership on weekdays, The Gazette has gone back ahead of 24 Heures after slipping behind it last year.

The huge gains online have also shaken things up. The Journal de Montréal more than doubled its online readership in a year, bringing it ahead of The Gazette for second place (though still only about a half of La Presse), and Metro has climbed ahead of the National Post for 5th place behind the Globe and Mail.

Overall, weekday print readership has continued to decline, with four of the five local dailies showing double-digit declines. Saturday was especially bad, with declines ranging from 11% for La Presse to 31% for the National Post. But thanks to the gains in online, every paper has a larger weekly reach than it did a year ago (except The Gazette, which is exactly the same), so everyone can claim gains here.

You’ll notice that Le Devoir is not included in this chart because its numbers weren’t published by NADbank. According to the Journal de Montréal, Le Devoir had a total weekly audience of 226,900, which puts it last among the local dailies.

Newspaper readership in Montreal

Paper Any paper The Gazette Journal de Montréal La Presse Metro 24 Heures Globe and Mail National Post
Avg. weekday print 2011 1,484,100 283,300 (5th) 597,900 (1st) 436,500 (2nd) 349,700 (3rd) 312,300 (4th) 40,900* (6th) 28,200* (7th)
Avg. weekday print 2012 1,381,600 (-7%) 239,300 (-16%) 532,400 (-11%) 438,100 (+0.4%) 311,400 (-11%) 252,900 (-19%) 35,400 (-13%) 29,700 (+5%)
Avg. weekday print/digital 2011 1,594,200 308,700 (5th) 617,500 (1st) 525,600 (2nd) 352,900 (3rd) 316,800 (4th) 64,600 (6th) 31,200* (7th)
Avg. weekday print/digital 2012 1,742,900 (+9%) 298,300 (-3%) (up to 4th) 612,800 (-1%) 689,800 (+31%) 325,900 (-8%) 263,400 (-17%) (drops to 5th) 80,300 (+24%) 57,500 (+84%)
At least one weekday 2011 2,163,900 464,200 (5th) 1,077,700 (1st) 722,100 (3rd) 789,700 (2nd) 637,000 (4th) 122,000 (6th) 78,700 (7th)
At least one weekday 2012 2,124,400 (-2%) 439,900 (-5%) 1,085,400 (+0.7%) 761,200 (+5%) 812,900 (+3%) 652,800 (+2%) 108,800 (-11%) 73,600 (-6%)
Saturday print 2011 1,362,700 318,900 (3rd) 617,300 (1st) 552,400 (2nd) N/A N/A 50,200 (4th) 37,200 (5th)
Saturday print 2012 1,164,500 (-15%) 268,300 (-16%) 513,400 (-17%) 489,300 (-11%) N/A N/A 40,200 (-20%) 25,500 (-31%)
Sunday print 2011 407,900 N/A 407,900 N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A
Sunday print 2012 372,600 (-9%) N/A 372,600 (-9%) N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A
Print at least once a week 2011 2,266,400 498,000 (5th) 1,163,800 (1st) 820,100 (2nd) 789,700 (3rd) 637,000 (4th) 132,200 (6th) 84,900 (7th)
Print at least once a week 2012 2,220,500 (-2%) 465,900 (-6%) 1,164,300 (+0.04%) 834,900 (+2%) 812,900 (+3%) 652,800 (+2%) 122,700 (-7%) 77,900 (-8%)
Web at least once a week 2011 578,800 144,000 (2nd) 111,500 (3rd) 293,800 (1st) 36,300* (6th) 35,200* (7th) 78,500 (4th) 50,200 (5th)
Web/digital at least once a week 2012 1,155,600 (+100%) 177,500 (+23%) (drops to 3rd) 252,700 (+127%) (up to 2nd) 553,000 (+88%) 67,600 (+86%) (up to 5th) 50,100 (+42%) 98,200 (+25%) 61,600 (+23%) (drops to 6th)
Print or web average week 2011 2,370,800 554,800 (5th) 1,188,300 (1st) 941,200 (2nd) 796,600 (3rd) 648,200 (4th) 186,600 (6th) 117,200 (7th)
Print or web average week 2012 2,505,200 (+6%) 554,800 (unch.) 1,276,600 (+7%) 1,104,700 (+17%) 844,000 (+6%) 674,800 (+4%) 207,300 (+11%) 128,900 (+10%)

* Small sample size

We’re all number one!

And the self-congratulatory press releases/stories:

Why aren’t journalism students interested in journalism?

Freelance writer Justin Ling, who tried journalism school but abandoned it, makes a point during a recent panel discussion hosted by the McGill Daily

Freelance writer Justin Ling, who tried journalism school but abandoned it, makes a point during a recent panel discussion hosted by the McGill Daily

A few weeks ago, I was invited by my alma mater The Link at Concordia to give a talk. The editor didn’t really care what it was about, she knew me and had invited other people from The Gazette to speak to her staff and contributors on various topics, so she figured I’d be good for just about any subject. I decided to focus on something I thought might be useful for student journalists: how to become an expert in something to increase your chances of getting hired or getting regular freelance work when you graduate.

I came in with the notes I’d scribbled onto a notepad during the metro ride over, and for about half an hour bumbled on about how good it is to become specialized, and how starting a blog and starting to write about something that isn’t getting mainstream media attention would be a great way to start that. It is, after all, how I became an expert on local media even though I started out having no contacts and no formal education in media analysis.

After lots of “umm, one more thing I wanted to mention” and other disjointed thoughts, I opened it up to questions. I got a couple of the pity questions the organizers plant so you don’t feel bad, and a couple of actual ones that I tried my best to answer. But of the 20 or so people present, I could tell by the way they were playing on their smartphones that there wasn’t much interest in what I was saying.

It’s okay. I won’t be auditioning for TED any time soon. I didn’t mind so much that I wasn’t the most riveting speaker they’d ever seen. But I was curious about these 20-somethings (or even 19- or 18-somethings). What were their plans after graduation? What kind of careers do they want to fashion for themselves? I tried to get an idea through a show of hands, but I couldn’t. I don’t know if it was because they were shy or because they didn’t know, or because their vision of the journalism industry was fundamentally different from mine. Without grilling them individually I wasn’t going to get an idea what these journalists of tomorrow were thinking of their future, or if they were thinking of it at all.

What bothered me wasn’t so much that they weren’t interested in me (I’m not terribly interesting, or at least I wasn’t that day), but that they weren’t interested in talking about their future as journalists. If they didn’t want to specialize, find beats to cover and become experts in their fields, just what exactly did they plan to do? Be the 100th applicant for that general-assignment TV reporter job that’s going to go to an industry veteran anyway? Coast on internships until their 30s? Find that mythical left-wing publication that has perfect ethics and yet is stable enough financially to pay its writers? Freelance for pennies for the few publications out there that pay but don’t require much effort? Or just leverage that journalism degree into a cushy PR job? I couldn’t figure it out.

What’s worse is that the students I saw that day are the involved ones. These are the ones who will show up at the office of a student newspaper on a Friday afternoon. Many of them applied for editorial positions at the paper (the deadline for candidacies was the same day I was speaking). When you look at Concordia’s journalism school as a whole, and I suspect many others like it, the situation looks even worse.

I want to be a travel writer for the New York Times

On Thursday, I didn’t have much to do, so I sat in the audience of a panel discussion, hosted by the McGill Daily as part of their student journalism week, about whether or not people looking to go into journalism should bother with journalism school (McGill, I should note, doesn’t have one.). Take a moment and imagine this question being asked of any other field, of people contemplating becoming doctors or engineers or teachers or bankers without getting educated in those fields first.

Justin Ling, a freelancer who writes for a variety of publications, told an anecdote of being in a journalism class and the teacher asking what types of journalists the students wanted to become. For most answers, only a few hands were raised. But when the teacher mentioned travel writing, those hands that had stayed down suddenly shot up. Ling pointed out in recalling this story that travel writing is essentially dead, replaced by wire stories or by stories written by people sitting at desks looking at tourism websites. It’s gone, just like the foreign correspondent and other dream jobs young journalists aspire to.

When I talk to young student journalists these days, they still aspire to these kinds of jobs (foreign correspondent and magazine feature writer are common dreams), though the good ones are realistic, knowing that the chances of them scoring such prestigious jobs are one in a million.

I don’t want to trample on any dreams here. Most journalism students are well aware, or at least they say they’re well aware, of the difficulties the industry is going through. They know they’ll have to make compromises once they enter the workforce, sacrificing the salary they would like, the location they would like to work in, or the exact type of job they would like to do. And the truth is that there actually are journalism jobs out there, if you look hard enough, if you’re willing to make those compromises and think outside the box.

But you get the impression that few of these future journalists are spending any time thinking outside that box while they’re in school. Journalism schools have to practically force some of their students to get published at some point during their three-year degrees. Many graduate having barely or never been published even in their student newspapers, but apparently expect a job to be waiting for them when they get that certificate.

I didn’t get my first paid freelance gig until a year after I was hired at The Gazette, so I’m not going to sit here and lecture university students on not getting a front-page Globe and Mail story in their first year. But I was actively involved in my student newspaper for three years before entering journalism school, and my being hired as an intern at The Gazette had a lot more to do with that than it did my grades in that magazine writing class. My application for that internship included five clippings of articles I’d written (and laid out and even taken photos for). It did not include a university transcript.

Experience > grades

You can’t practice medicine or law or even operate heavy machinery before getting an education and a licence. But you can practice journalism. While that fact kind of puts the very existence of journalism schools into doubt, it’s also a big opportunity for students to get started in their field before they’ve finished their education. And that’s an opportunity that, if you’re not taking advantage of it, someone else will.

This is why, when I talk to journalism students, I implore them to start doing journalism, to start covering stories that aren’t being covered. It doesn’t matter if it’s for a blog or a university paper or the New York Times magazine (though the latter would certainly be preferred over the former). It doesn’t matter that you don’t have a big name publication behind you. If you’re covering something that isn’t being covered, you’re not competing with the big guys for access.

Practicing the art not only allows you to get better at it, it shows to potential employers that you know how to do it. Writing for a university newspaper doesn’t bring in money, but it shows to that person hiring for that internship that you can meet deadlines, write to assigned word lengths and turn in readable copy in real-world situations. That’s always going to be an advantage.

Being an expert is an even bigger plus. Covering an industry or a topic regularly makes you familiar with it eventually, and turns you into an expert that can be relied upon by others. Knowing your stuff is a big part of being a successful journalist, and having a beat already established is a big plus in finding work.

The faster these young journalists realize this, the better off they’ll be in this industry that is already extremely difficult to succeed in.

I’m participating in a panel discussion hosted by the Professional Writers’ Association of Canada called Working in the Blogosphere: How to create and maintain a successful blog (spoiler alert: I have no secrets about how to make money directly from a blog). It’s Monday at 7pm at the Atwater Library, and it’s free. Hopefully I can impart some of this wisdom on the attendees, though many will be well past journalism-school age.

Living English: Un peu de respect, SVP

CBC Living English panel, from left: Debra Arbec, Kevin Tierney, Terry Mosher, Jean-François Lisée, Anne-France Goldwater, Tamy Emma Pepin, John Stokes, Mike Finnerty

CBC Living English panel, from left: Debra Arbec, Kevin Tierney, Terry Mosher, Jean-François Lisée, Anne-France Goldwater, Tamy Emma Pepin, John Stokes, Mike Finnerty

It started with a chuckle when Jean-François Lisée raised his hand after moderator Mike Finnerty asked who in the crowd thought the English language needed protection in Quebec. It could have been seen as a good-natured laugh at the idea that a Parti Québécois minister, a member of a cabinet that pushes for stronger language laws, believes the English language needs help.

It got worse about 16 minutes in when blogger Tamy Emma Pepin tried to explain language conflicts in a historical context, saying that while historically francophones have felt oppressed by anglophones who had economic power here, her generation has no recollection of the days before the Quiet Revolution and there’s less resentment on both sides of the language divide. (She didn’t explain it very well, using the word “superior”, but it wasn’t hard to figure out her point.)

The crowd got angry. One person sitting near me actually said out loud that she was lying about history.

As the night went on, the interjections from the crowd got worse, and the entire event even more awkward and infuriating for spectators like me who came to hear a polite discussion.

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Inside Quebec’s budget lockup

The lockup room at the Centre des congrès de Québec

The lockup room at the Centre des congrès de Québec last November

Thursday is Budget Day in Ottawa. It’s the day that the finance minister stands up inside the House of Commons and tells Canadians all the goodies that they can look forward to in the coming year: tax breaks, new spending, a tighter control over the deficit (or, even better, no deficit at all).

This happens just after 4pm. That’s because that’s when the markets close in Canada. Because of how dramatic an effect changes in tax policy and government spending or other government financial policies can have on business here, and how much people can profit from knowing these things before the general population, the release of budget details is strictly controlled. Anyone, even a minister, caught leaking information ahead of time is subject to serious penalties. (This doesn’t include hints that are publicly laid by the finance minister in the weeks ahead of a budget, to soften the ground a bit for the announcement.)

It’s partly for this same reason that the media are given access to the budget hours before everyone else. If they were given the hundreds of pages live at 4pm, there would be chaos as reporters and opposition politicians speed-read, potentially getting something important wrong and sending incorrect information out to the public. We saw the dangers of this last year with the Obamacare ruling at the U.S. Supreme Court, which wasn’t subject to a lockup.

That said, this isn’t just any embargo. There’s no communication outside the lockup. None. Not even the assignment editors or news directors know what’s in the budget until after the lockup ends at 4pm (the tradition is the lockup ends when the finance minister stands in the House to begin the budget speech).

I’ve always been curious what it’s like in one of these things. Thanks to my employer at The Gazette, I was given a chance to see it when the Quebec government presented its budget last November.

The week before, the city editor asked me if I wanted to go, saying she wanted a copy editor there so that stories could be edited inside the lockup and posted online immediately instead of being sent to an overwhelmed and underinformed Montreal desk at 4pm and posted one by one. I was given a laptop, a cellphone and booked a train ticket (business class! They served me booze and a meal!) and a hotel for two nights. It was the first time I’ve ever travelled on the company dime, and it was way cool.

Anyway, here’s what it was like inside that lockup.

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CRTC lays down the law for OWN

OWNThe Canadian version of the Oprah Winfrey Network is not one of the CRTC’s favourite things right now.

On Friday, the commission issued what’s called a mandatory order — a kind of “do this or else” note that has the backing of the federal court behind it — requiring the channel to abide by the terms of its licence that it has tried its best to work around since its days as CLT.

OWN, formerly VIVA, formerly CLT, was originally licenced as Canadian Learning Television in 1996 as a channel that would “provide formal and informal educational programs on a wide range of topics.” (Even then, there were concerns — Commissioner Claude Sylvestre objected because it stepped all over provincial jurisdiction over education.) Its licence has been slightly watered down since then, but it remains at its core a channel focused on education.

Despite this, its programming has been largely of the mainstream entertainment variety. Under CLT, it aired episodes of The West Wing preceded by some comment by professors in a half-hearted attempt to justify the educational value. When it rebranded as VIVA, a network for “boomer women”, it just about laughed in the face of its nature of service.

One needs only look at its current list of “accredited” educational programs to see how it’s twisted things, showing general interest shows and getting small colleges to have courses where they critique camera angles or other silliness.

A look at its finances shows the move to OWN has been successful. Profit has gone up significantly, and the network now has a profit margin of 40% (that’s actually down from almost 50% in 2009), making $10 million a year ($8.5 million after interest and adjustments) for Corus.

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A bad morning at Global Montreal

On the bright side, we know Global Montreal Morning News has some viewers, because they complained the show wasn’t on the air on Thursday morning.

Apparently a major computer failure, whose nature we don’t know, caused Morning News to be delayed well past its start time. it wasn’t until after 8am that the show finally got on the air in an abbreviated version.

The Twitter feed from host Richard Dagenais was active during the non-show, as frustrated Montreal staff cold only sit and watch.

Asked about the problem, Global News spokesperson Samantha Simic said it was a computer problem.

As you know, working with computers has made life infinitely simpler but they can occasionally make things complicated and difficult to resolve.  That’s what happened this morning.  Our technical problem was made all the more challenging by the fact that it was a computer problem.

Global Montreal station manager Karen Macdonald didn’t respond to a request for comment, but staff in Montreal made it clear via social media that the problem was not local to Montreal.

The show is produced and directed in Montreal, but with computers that work off of servers in Vancouver. It’s not clear if that’s where the problem was or if there was something else that kept them off the air.

Technical problems have been common at the show since it started airing in late January, but at least in this case it seems the problems were not the fault of anyone in the offices at Peel and Ste-Catherine.

The technical difficulties came on the same day that Global launched Global News BC 1, its new regional all-news specialty channel based in Vancouver. The channel is available so far only to Shaw digital cable subscribers in B.C.

UPDATE (March 16): Dagenais offers some insight into the problem on his blog.

CRTC says no to Planète Jazz/Radio X licence change

CHOI 91.9

Planète Jazz lives! Well, kinda.

On Thursday morning, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission released a decision denying a request from owner RNC Media to amend the licence of CKLX-FM Montreal (91.9 FM), changing it from a specialty jazz format to a spoken word one.

RNC said in its request that the jazz format did not bring nearly enough revenue, reaching only 18% of projections. So it proposed a spoken word format that, at the time of its application, was on only one other commercial station in French: the very successful CHMP 98.5.

It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out this would have meant Montreal getting a Radio X station, as RNC owns the brand and its Quebec City station CHOI is very successful.

Sure enough, in August, the station switched formats anyway, launching Radio X Montreal. In order to remain in compliance with its licence, the station kept jazz music during the low-rated evenings, overnights and weekends (except a few hours on weekend afternoons when it airs rock music). The licence says that “a minimum of 70% of the musical programming broadcast to musical selections from content subcategory 34 (Jazz and blues)” — but there’s nothing that requires music itself to take up a certain percentage of the broadcast day. So theoretically it would have to air no jazz music at all so long as it aired no other type of music.

The CRTC’s decision doesn’t really address this issue, and the appearance that the station, while respecting the letter of its licence, doesn’t seem to reflect its spirit. In fact, it said: “The Commission analyzed the broadcast levels of CKLX-FM’s spoken word programming and notes that the licensee is in compliance with its obligations in that regard.”

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Bell/Astral Take 2: The Proposal

Bell CEO Georce Cope (right) and regulatory head Mirko Bibic will appear in front of the CRTC again to make another proposal to buy Astral Media

Bell CEO Georce Cope (right) and regulatory head Mirko Bibic will appear in front of the CRTC again to make another proposal to buy Astral Media

In case you have been living under a rock for the past week, the CRTC finally released Bell’s revised application to buy Astral Media. If you want to read it all, you can download it in a .zip file here. But beware, it’s 73 documents, and many of them are long (the Supplementary Brief, in which Bell makes its case, is 63 pages, plus an eight-page summary plus a two-page table of contents).

So what’s different this time around? Well, a lot. As we already knew from the Competition Bureau, Bell will sell some of Astral’s TV channels in order to get it down to about 35% of English Canadian TV viewing and about the same amount of revenue from French-language TV as Quebecor.

And as we knew from the point when they announced the revised deal in November, Bell will ask the CRTC for a special exception from its competition rules in order to allow it to continue to own TSN Radio 690 while buying the three English-language Astral stations.

I’ve compiled, in point form, Bell’s revised proposal for this story, which appears in Wednesday’s Gazette.

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TSN 690 gives 1-3pm slot to Chris Nilan

It doesn’t come as a huge surprise, mainly because he mentioned it himself in passing in a Los Angeles Times story published in January, but former Canadiens enforcer Chris (Knuckles) Nilan will be taking over the early afternoon slot on TSN Radio 690 that was vacated by Randy Tieman in December.

The announcement was made just after 4:30pm Tuesday, though it came out through Mike Cohen’s blog shortly before that.

Nilan, 55, has been a regular contributor on TSN 690 the past little while as an analyst. He played in the NHL from 1979 to 1992, mainly for the Canadiens, but also with the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers.

Nilan’s show, which airs from 1-3pm weekdays starting March 18, will be called Off the Cuff with Chris Nilan. Like Tieman before him, Nilan will also co-host the Intermission show from noon to 1pm with Tony Marinaro.

“When Chris made it clear he wanted to pursue a career in broadcasting we made no promises. What we did do was open a door so he could reconnect to the city he loves and to the many fans who love him,” Mitch Melnick is quoted as saying in the TSN press release. “To his credit, Chris has kicked that door down.”

In an interview with Melnick, Nilan described what kind of show he wants to host:

“I want to do a show that entices people to listen,” Nilan said on air. “And to get people to listen I want to be upfront, I want to be honest, I would like to be funny, — I think I’m funny at times — and have some humour in there. I want to be able to let people know how I understand the game and how I look at the game, maybe not just big-picture-wise but little picture at times, as far as systems, the way the Canadiens are playing on certain nights or some of the things they do wrong. I guess my job is to analyze and comment on things, but I want to analyze it and I want to be fair and I want to be informative, and maybe some people don’t see some of the things I see, or know about the game. And I’d like to translate that to the people.”

Nilan was born in Boston and has a very thick Boston accent. Combined with the fact that he comes into this without the same kind of broadcasting experience as you might find from other high-profile on-air hosts makes him an interesting pick for the job. Nilan speaks slowly and has a lot of umms and ahhs when he talks, to say nothing of the words that come out of his mouth completely indecipherable. But if his analysis is insightful enough, sports fans are probably willing to see through that.

Hockey Inside/Out also has a post about the news.

CJAD launches new sound

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CJAD listeners will notice the station sounds a bit different now, particularly during its newscasts. Montreal’s news-talk leader launched a new imaging profile on Monday morning. “Imaging” is a radio industry term for “sound” and reflects things like news themes, promo ads and other stuff that give a station its unique sound.

I’ve excerpted some elements of this from a newscast Monday afternoon. Give it a listen. The new sound comes with new pacing for the radio station as well as an advertising campaign, brand director Chris Bury told me (while asking me to wait a day before I evaluate it all).

These kind of things come down to personal taste, so I’ll leave it to you to decide whether you like it or not.

UPDATE: In case you want to compare, Brendan Peterson has put the current CJAD news theme together with the CFRB theme and old CJAD themes here.