In 2013, when Bell Media acquired Astral Media, it made a promise: In exchange for keeping TSN 690 as a fourth English Montreal radio station, one more than what would usually be permitted under the CRTC’s common ownership policy, it would commit to keeping the station running as a sports talk station, a format that has earned CKGM a small but loyal audience over the previous decade.
On the last day of the CRTC hearing on the (second) application to acquire Astral, Bell also agreed to a commitment, proposed by commission chairperson Jean-Pierre Blais, that TSN 690 maintain its 96 hours a week of local programming:
7775 THE CHAIRPERSON (Jean-Pierre Blais): Okay.
7776 So now I’m going to go even further down the road of analysis and we are obviously in the option of an approval and then there are some issues that we need to tidy up.
7777 On CKGM, how many hours of local programming are there? Could somebody give me that?
7778 MR. GORDON (Chris Gordon, head of radio and local stations for Bell Media): I believe it’s 96 hours of local programming.
7779 THE CHAIRPERSON: And would you be able to accept — how would you react if we imposed that as a condition of license on that service?
7780 MR. GORDON: We would accept.
7781 THE CHAIRPERSON: Okay.
When the CRTC approved the sale, in which Bell would acquire CJAD, Virgin Radio 95.9 and CHOM 97.7 from Astral, it required Bell to change TSN 690’s licence to impose requirements including that local programming quota (which is not standard for AM radio stations). As of January 2014, TSN 690 has had the requirement as part of its licence.
With the licence up for renewal (it was supposed to expire in August, but the CRTC has pushed that to Feb. 28), Bell has decided the 96-hour requirement is too onerous and wants it reduced.
That application has been posted separately as a request to amend the station’s licence.
“With respect to local programming, to the best of our knowledge no other commercial AM station has a set number of local programming hours or even a local programming requirement,” Bell Media writes in its application, glossing over the reason why this special requirement was imposed in the first place. “Indeed, the Commercial Radio Policy only provides that for an AM station, local programming requirements will be considered on a case-by-case basis. Furthermore, as set out in the Commission’s standard conditions of licences that apply to licensees of all commercial AM and FM stations, FM stations are only required to air a minimum of 42 hours of local programming during any broadcast week in order to solicit or accept local advertising.”
Bell instead proposes that CKGM’s local programming quota be reduced from 96 hours a week (averaging 13.7 hours a day) to 63 hours a week (9 hours a day).
TSN 690 says it currently broadcasts local programming generally from 6am to midnight on weekdays, plus 6-10 hours on weekends, particularly weekend mornings. It’s unclear how this would change under a reduced quota.
Bell says the main reason it wants to cut its minimum local programming quota is so it can air more non-local live sports programming, like NFL games, Blue Jays games, IIHF tournaments and NHL games that don’t involve the Montreal Canadiens.
It gives an example of a situation where that quota prevented it from airing an important sporting event:
A recent example of this situation was the NHL’s 2019 Stanley Cup Final between the Boston Bruins and the St. Louis Blues in June of this year. As a result of airing the NBA Finals between the Toronto Raptors and the Golden State Warriors during the same broadcast week, CKGM did not have the flexibility to also air game seven of the Stanley Cup Final as this would have put that week’s 96 hour local programming requirement in jeopardy. Instead of airing the NHL game — a highly attractive program offering for our audience — CKGM aired repeat local programming, thereby depriving CKGM’S NHL fans of live coverage of one the most important sporting events of the year.
Bell also says lowering the quota would mean airing more Blue Jays games (from less than 50 per season to more than 70).
It sounds reasonable, maybe, but you could imagine the worry that Bell would simply produce less local programming if given this additional flexibility. TSN 690 is not a money maker and I’m sure Bell would be happy to save a few dollars in the evening when it can just run content from elsewhere.
On the other hand, set the conditions of licence too high and Bell could decide it’s not worth the trouble and just shut the station down.
I tried asking Bell for an interview about the programming plans for the station, but the response I got back was this:
We have no comment beyond the application.
The application (#2019-0857-6) is posted here and accepts comments until 8pm ET on Nov. 30. You can file comments here. Note that all comments sent to the CRTC become part of the public record, including contact info.