Bell Media managing the decline of AM radio

Last week, while I was on vacation, Bell Media announced it was shutting down six AM radio stations, selling three others, laying off foreign correspondents and together with the rest of BCE laying off 1,300 people.

The stations shut down or sold were the lowest-hanging fruit — six of the nine were part of the “Funny” brand of all-comedy stations or “BNN Bloomberg Radio” business-news stations, which mostly replaced TSN Radio when Bell decided most of those were not worth continued investment and should switch to something low-budget:

  • CFRW (Funny 1290) Winnipeg, formerly TSN Radio
  • CKMX (Funny 1060) Calgary, formerly country
  • CKST (Funny 1040) Vancouver, formerly TSN Radio
  • CFTE (BNN Bloomberg 1410) Vancouver, formerly TSN Radio
  • CKOC (BNN Bloomberg 1150) Hamilton, formerly TSN Radio (being sold)
  • CHAM (Funny 820) Hamilton, formerly country (being sold)

The other stations getting the boot have their own reasons:

  • CFRN (TSN Radio 1260) Edmonton. Not much of a surprise either (if anything it’s surprising it kept the station when it dropped TSN elsewhere), since it didn’t have a contract with either the Edmonton Oilers or, since 2022, the Edmonton Elks. The shutdown leaves only three TSN Radio stations in Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto, and you have to wonder how long the first two are going to last. (Shows were cancelled on both Toronto and Ottawa stations as part of these cuts.)
  • London’s CJBK 1290, being shut down, was mostly national programming except for the morning show, and had direct competition from Corus’s 980 CFPL.
  • Windsor’s CKWW 580, being sold, is an oldies station in the Detroit-Windsor market with minimal local programming and had more use as a station for sale than a money-maker in its own right

I don’t know who’s buying the three stations in southern Ontario, except that it’s probably not Corus since they already have an AM station in Hamilton. While the Hamilton market itself is probably not a big prize, Hamilton AM stations also cover the GTA (both stations are 50kW daytime), and so AM frequencies are useful for that reason in the crowded Toronto market.

I’m honestly a bit surprised Bell couldn’t find a buyer for its AM stations in Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton. But that’s an indication of how much AM has declined in recent years, and how little value it has left.

Radio is letting go of AM

This isn’t the first time a broadcaster has given up on an AM station, and it won’t be the last. With new CRTC rules on common ownership, many AM stations will be able to move to FM in smaller markets. CBC is continuing the process of moving low-power AM stations to FM, and maintains full-power AM stations only in places like Toronto and Windsor where there’s no place left on the FM band.

Here in Montreal, commercial AM is almost dead, with the notable exception of CJAD. Corus shut down 940 Hits and Info 690 in 2010, and while there was a fight for those two clear-channel AM frequencies, here’s how those projects look 12 years later:

  • TSN is continuing to operate at 690 AM. The station must remain in a sports talk format as a condition of licence, though Bell could choose to shut it down at any time.
  • TTP Media has stations operating at 600 and 940 AM, but they have done little beyond play music. The big talk about competition to CJAD and French-language talk radio has so far been just that.
  • TTP Media abandoned its plans for a sports-talk station at 850 AM.
  • Evanov Radio launched an LGBTQ+ station at 980 AM, but abandoned Radio Fierté within a year to switch to a music-talk format and shut the station down in 2020.
  • Cogeco withdrew its application for a French all-traffic stations and decided instead to turn CKAC 730 into one, moving sports programming to 98.5.
  • Cogeco’s application for an English all-traffic station was denied by the CRTC, and the company did not pursue trying again on a different available frequency.

Quebec City’s last AM station shut down in 2012. CJMS 1040 died when the CRTC was finally fed up with its compliance failures. Radio Shalom 1650 went dark and was eventually sold to a Christian broadcaster.

According to the Innovation, Science & Economic Development Canada database, there are only 203 AM broadcasting transmitters still operating in Canada, and if you exclude low-power CBC retransmitters and the stations Bell has shut down here, that number drops to 156.

Many of the ones who remain exist because:

  • They’re in major markets where the FM band is full
  • They’re in markets where the same owner already has two FM stations and so can’t have a third on FM
  • They’re stations in rural spread-out areas like Saskatchewan where distance is more important
  • They’re old stations and either don’t have the budget or haven’t seen the need to move to FM

As I learned when speaking with major radio executives two years ago, AM isn’t the future. It’s expensive to run, the audio quality is bad, and many new receivers (particularly those in electric vehicles and hybrids) don’t support it anymore. The question isn’t whether more AM stations will pull the plug, it’s when and how.

Alternative declines

In Ottawa, Rogers made a bold move to deal with the AM problem, choosing to sacrifice a music station so it could simulcast its AM CityNews radio station on FM. In Calgary, Corus did the same, turning Q107 into a simulcast of CHQR 770AM (a move the CRTC took issue with because you can’t just turn a station into a rebroadcasting transmitter without approval). In those cases, it’s easy to see a day when they’ll pull the plug on the AM side, though neither company has said it will do so.

In many other cases, broadcasters have chosen to establish HD Radio channels on FM stations in the same or nearby markets to simulcast AM station programming. That has had limited success, due in part to the limited availability of HD Radio receivers outside of newer cars and the complexity of explaining how to tune in to these stations on FM HD. Broadcast executives don’t see HD as the future either.

That isn’t to say talk radio is going anywhere. Podcasts are still popular, and Rogers, Corus, Bell, Quebecor et al have their own podcast groups.

But acquiring programming through the amplitude modulation technology developed by Reginald Fessenden in 1900 is a concept that will soon be on its last legs.

Other Bell Media cuts

AM radio wasn’t the only place where employees faced the chopping block at Bell Media. Cuts were made across the country, including several big names at CTV National News (Joyce Napier, Tom Walters, Daniele Hamamdjian, Glen McGregor, Paul Workman and executive producer Rosa Hwang) and cuts to smaller newsrooms like Rimouski, where Bell Media’s two radio stations can now rely on only a single journalist covering the region. In Victoria, CTV2 will now be simulcasting the Vancouver news at 5, sandwiched between Victoria local newscasts that are now half an hour in length. Unifor says it expects 100 union jobs to be cut nationwide.

In Montreal, Jason Rockman has left CHOM. He posted a video to Facebook explaining that he has no hard feelings toward his former employer.

Bell attributed these latest cuts to its workforce to the changing media landscape, and tried to deflect some blame on the CRTC for Bell’s regulatory burden and on the Canadian government for not moving fast enough on making Google and Facebook compensate news companies.

But let’s be honest here, eliminating CRTC obligations or cutting a cheque with Google’s logo in the corner isn’t going to reverse these cuts. The truth is that Bell is losing the war for people’s attention, and the advertising income that goes with that.

31 thoughts on “Bell Media managing the decline of AM radio

  1. Paul Wong

    I also believe Montreals CHOM FM is not in great shape ? Will Bell Media possibly sell the station ? The present evening broadcast is poor in my opinion. I don’t enjoy having no announcer or DJ from 7 :00 pm onwards. It’s like listening to a glorified MP3 player with commercials.

    1. Fagstein Post author

      How do you define “shape”? Bell has no reason to sell CHOM, and not much of a reason to hire an announcer after 7pm when fewer people are listening and many who do want to hear more music.

    2. Michael Anthony

      Chom 97.7 fm in Montreal is a horse ???? station in my opinion and has been that way for at least 20 yrs …lately … has got worse , so repetitious and predictable ….it’s bloody awful ….Jason Rockman was the one true saving grace of Chom , his show was filled with variety , great tunes that didn’t fit into the ” safe” or PG playlist of Chom ….and I miss his on air presence and knowledge of great tunes immensely , let’s face it ….he was the last truly great dee jay of Chom …in the vein of Too – Tall , and we’ll never see that again ….truly sad ….and I won’t be surprised at all when they hammer the final nail in the coffin on this storied and historical Rock station…au revoir Chom ….le bal is over ! ????????????

  2. Chris Fry

    I can understand closing or selling AM radio station, they’re dead or dying, but removing foreign correspondents while leaving that terrible CTV Your Morning trash on air????. Time to cancel my CTV News Network subscription.

    1. Bob Aubertin

      Totally agree 100%. Bell Media is all about PROFIT the bean counters don’t give a R..S about Real on-air talent that are the MONEY-MAKERS for the suits in the tower.

  3. Peter Arzenshek

    “The truth is that Bell is losing the war for people’s attention, and the advertising income that goes with that.”

    Is anybody (on AM or radio in general) winning the war?

  4. Anonymous

    The only way to save these AM stations, and the jobs associated with them, is for a transition to HD Radio onto the FM Band. Station management needs to explain to listeners how to tune into HD Radio stations.

    In Montreal, with no more room on the FM Band, having CJAD 800 and CKGM 690, on the FM Band (107.3 FM) with HD Radio makes these stations sound better. And extends their life.

    The HD Radio solutions should be used during this crazy transition period.

    They think we’ll all tune into their streaming signals. Not really. The simplicity of radio tuning can’t be matched. And, I won’t even get into emergency situations that can turn a battery powered radio into a life line.

    1. Fagstein Post author

      The only way to save these AM stations, and the jobs associated with them, is for a transition to HD Radio onto the FM Band.

      They did that. It didn’t work.

      Station management needs to explain to listeners how to tune into HD Radio stations.

      They did that. It didn’t work.

      They think we’ll all tune into their streaming signals. Not really. The simplicity of radio tuning can’t be matched.

      Radio tuning is relatively simple, HD Radio tuning is not as simple. And with smart speakers, saying “Alexa, play CJAD 800” isn’t too difficult.

      1. Dial H

        I’m from south of the border (by that I mean the 49th parallel) but I do feel that there are quite a few issues with HD Radio as it stands now… HD Radio tuning is not intuitive (try remembering 105.3-2 HD versus 880 AM or even 95.5 FM), it takes a second to lock onto the signal, and I have found that the HD Radio signal itself can get a little fickle… It also had to deal with the rise of the smartphone and its unlimited access to audio streams, although there are technical issues with those as well.

        I do think the long term future for AM Radio is not great… perhaps a few stations will continue to serve rural areas or as heritage stations but the trends aren’t going to suddenly reverse. When Audacy in Los Angeles sacrificed their Hit music station on 97.1 FM to simulcast KNX 1070 AM’s All-News format, that should tell you something on where the AM Radio band is going to go in… maybe 5-10 years.

        1. Anonymous

          It is the thing that DTV Got right, which was unless you really want to know the mucky bits of tuning, you don’t have to do anything. Scan and enjoy. Channel 12 can still be channel 12 for all that it is worth.

          As for AM news stations moving to FM, the reality is simple: People are more likely to get music from non broadcast sources (streaming, MP3 players, etc), but NWS (news weather sports) is still a current event that has some value as a live to air right now broadcast thing. It is unique content that cannot be podcasted for later consumption, we have newspapers and magazines for being a day late and a dollar short.

          The only reason you aren’t seeing this as much in Canada is because of the convoluted licensing rules. In the US, you get a license and good luck, do what you like with it. In Canada, changing formats or content is a big deal that requires experts from the government and CRTC to figure out.

  5. Bruce Harris

    I’ve been listening to TSN690 in Montreal since they came on the air. Mitch Melnick’s afternoon show is a jewel. Even though I’m now in Calgary I like to stream it when I’m driving. Would hate to see the station shut down but as you say in this day and age AM radio is slowly going away.

  6. JF Filion

    Seems like the writing is on the wall for TSN 690. Do you think Bell tries one more time to make it french language RDS 690?

    1. Fagstein Post author

      Do you think Bell tries one more time to make it french language RDS 690?

      Not unless it has to. The first attempt was to solve a regulatory problem, and they ended up getting an exception to CRTC rules to keep TSN 690. Having an RDS station means having to create all its own programming (no TSN 1050 or ESPN Radio content) and two competitors with 98.5 and 91.9. Not to mention the lost goodwill from firing everyone at 690.

  7. Dilbert

    None of this is surprising, least of all blaming Google or Meta or whoever for their problems. AM certainly isn’t a surprise, I have mentioned it before here. AM is technology level on par with party line telephones. There may still be a few users out in the sticks, but generally it is all over but the shouting. at least in Canada. CJAD in Montreal is one of the rare exceptions at this point, and that is mostly a lack of FM space and media concentration. The rest of the AM band is, well… trash.

    Bell and other media companies will continue to face difficulties because even on FM or whatever, they are pushing old media ideals. Broadcasting is slowly dying, The cost per listener / viewer is often much higher than the potential revenue per same. In trying to shrink to profitability (stop me if this sounds familiar) they have instead gone through the fat, the muscle, and now have whittled the bone down to next to nothing. In doing so, Bell (and most of the other media players) have finished up with a product that quite simply nobody is excited about or really wants.

    That whole problem crossroads with a more personal approach to music, information, and discussion. Many, many people have moved away from radio and towards being podcast consumers, listening to things on their own schedules. The only time radio “matters” to most people is for traffic, weather, and the small smattering of local news. People are tuning out, turning on their playlists, and leaving radio to wilt. We are reaching the point where we all have enough wireless bandwidth to play 24 hour per day music from curated sources that aren’t going to wang us with a dozen commercials an hour and government mandated CanCon content.

    Trust me, Terry and Ted were just as good on a podcast as they were on the air, and I didn’t have to spend two hours in traffic to have the time to listen!

    The harder the government, the CRTC, and the major media players try to tip the balance back by force, the most the people will just route around them. Already Meta and others are making it clear that they aren’t going to get held hostage.

  8. Anonymous

    The CHOM situation has me laughing…. if I understand correctly, their entire on air staff at this point is the morning show, Pete, Hilal and Hal. That’s it. The rest of the time it is called Chom rocks… all rock no talk.

    They are >this close< to total automation.

    1. Mario P

      For those here old enough to remember WKRP (TV show), this was predicted. And I laughed back then thinking it would never happen

  9. Anonymous

    today Sunday the traffic bulletins at CHOM were broadcast but the music only no comments, it gives an idea of ??where we are at…for 2 hours nobody seems to have noticed it at the station..

  10. Harvey

    The shutdown of AM stations is concerning. I reside in a rural area that is considered tornado alley.
    In spite of our so called high technology where I can be woken from a sound sleep, alerting me some child is missing on the other side of the province, it seems our institutions cannot reliably issue a tornado warning when one has been spotted in the area.
    Let’s also not forget what happened in August 2003 when the entire hydro grid went dark. I happened to be driving home from work that day and the only source of information that was being relayed was from AM stations with back up generation. Do the FM stations have back up generation?
    My take. There needs to be one functioning AM station serving local markets where emergency information can be reliably disseminated.
    BTW, after the August 2003 event, our entire home is now backed up by an automatic nat gas fueled generator.


    A few years ago… There was talk he talk, of expanding the FM band to the old TV channels five and six. I would’ve thought that would’ve been a really good idea to do that and I think it’s unfortunate. They’ve decided not to from my understanding. I’m amazed to see the amount of radio stations that have gone off the air just in the past couple of months. I’m gonna be interested to see which other major outfits are going to go off the air in the next little while. I think chorus is having some problems too aren’t they?

  12. INFAMY

    what some of the comments don’t realize is there are still quite a bit of AM stations still around and have more listeners than FM
    FM is more geared to the hit sounds and specialty shows, whilst AM is about talk shows, and the current news and weather
    if it’s also dying why not allow them to be so-called ethnic stations.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *