When the CRTC called the licensee of St-Constant country station CJMS 1040 to appear at a hearing, it was clear that the station was in trouble. For months the commission had been trying to get program logs and recordings, and every attempt was unsuccessful. Finally, frustrated, the CRTC threatened to revoke the station’s licence if it didn’t travel to Gatineau and explain itself.
So we knew this was going to be serious, and the explanations given for non-compliance with its licence were going to have to be big. But still, the commissioners were taken aback by two bombshells that owner Alexandre Azoulay presented to them on Wednesday.
First, Azoulay blamed non-compliance on his father, who was diagnosed with dementia this summer. He said responses and filings with the CRTC were given to him, and then “disappeared,” with the station’s staff assuming that they had been mailed to the commission. Compliance issues began a year ago, but it was only a few months ago, after the dementia was diagnosed, that the younger Azoulay realized what was going on and took active control over the station’s operation.
Second, Azoulay announced that he has come to an agreement to sell the station. He wouldn’t say who has agreed to buy it, but did say that the other party is the licensee of one other station in the area (he used the singular, implying it owns only one station) and that synergies between the two would make it easier for the station to be viable financially. He said the new owner would be able to ensure the station continues, though he did not say (and was not asked) whether it would be in its current country music format.
The hearing was tense, as you can tell from the audio below, taken from the CRTC livestream. Azoulay did not come with a written statement, and presented a slow-paced, monotonous statement about the status of the station.
On the commission’s side, the mood was equally tense, with commissioners stressing how serious these issues of non-compliance are.
“I want to stress upon you the difficult position you’ve placed the commission in,” Commissioner Raj Shoan told Azoulay, saying that the sale of a station that has been in non-compliance with its licence obligations “calls into question the integrity of our licensing process.”
Normally, the CRTC doesn’t accept requests to transfer or amend licences that are in non-compliance. Or it would like to, at least. But if a station’s owner no longer wants to have a licence, they can’t force them to keep one. The decision then becomes whether to accept the transfer or to force the outgoing owner to turn in the licence and the incoming one to apply for a new one.
CJMS 1040 is a medium-powered radio station, licensed to operate at 10,000 watts daytime and 5,000 watts nighttime (Azoulay said during the hearing that upgrades necessary to improve to that power, approved in 2002, had started in the past two years but not yet been completed). Even as an AM station, that frequency would probably be in demand should the licence be revoked or surrendered.
Azoulay said he would supply documentation confirming the sale within 24 hours. It’s unclear whether the agreement would be on the public record. He also said an application for transfer of ownership would be filed by the end of the month. At the CRTC’s request, Azoulay also committed to filing, confidentially, documentation proving his father’s medical diagnosis.
As Shoan said, the CRTC is in a difficult position here. This hearing is about CJMS’s compliance issues, and a sale of the station would have to be dealt with in its own process. The commissioners also didn’t seem absolutely convinced that this licence non-compliance was an isolated incident. The station’s three previous licence renewals were all for short terms because of issues of compliance. CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais expressed frustration that this is recurring every time.
Azoulay assured the commission that the sale of the station would not benefit him financially, presumably because the sale price would be less than the amount of money he invested in the station during his ownership. He was also very apologetic for the compliance issues, and assured them that he has taken direct control of the station and would remain in charge personally until the sale is approved.
The commissioners also asked Azoulay about the station’s programming, and its recent transmission outages. Azoulay said the station has two full-time staff, both on-air hosts, and that it broadcasts 18 hours a day of live programming during weekdays, though after 6pm that programming is done remotely. And he assured them that the station is broadcasting regular newscasts during the mornings and middays on weekdays.
CRTC decisions usually come within a month or two of a hearing, so expect one by Christmas on whether CJMS can keep its licence.