Updated with news of court injunction. See below.
In a decision that shocks only the people who haven’t been paying attention, the CRTC today decided to revoke all the licences of Aboriginal Voices Radio, a network of FM stations in major markets that were designed to provide programming to aboriginal Canadians living off-reserve. In a press release, it said it was doing so “to help improve radio service for urban Aboriginal listeners”, which sounds a bit like Orwellian doublespeak but is actually more true than false.
The decision requires AVR to cease broadcasting within a month (July 25), and will open up FM frequencies in the very competitive markets of Toronto, Ottawa, Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver. (AVR also had stations in Montreal and Kitchener that they later dropped, and authorizations for stations in Regina and Saskatoon that never went on the air.) The commission says it will call for new applications for those cities, but “will give priority to proposals for services that will serve Aboriginal communities.”
To understand the decision, I could point to licence renewal decisions in which the CRTC got promises from AVR that it would come into compliance with its obligations, and then fail to do so. I could point to the programming on the air, of which none is local and little seems specifically targeted at aboriginals.
But instead, I’ll just point you to the transcript of the CRTC hearing of May 13 that AVR was asked to attend to explain itself.
AVR brought in external consultants from Bray & Partners who promised to bring the stations into compliance with their licenses. (It included a news team led by Steve Kowch, former CJAD and CFRB program director.) Bray representatives and AVR president Jamie Hill made the usual we’re-so-sorry and we-take-this-very-seriously statements as everyone does when they’re called to a CRTC hearing for non-compliance.
But every time a CRTC commissioner would ask about their coming into compliance, the answer wasn’t “we’ve fixed it” but “we’ll fix it”. And this clearly annoyed the commissioners, because AVR had been making promises to fix it for years.
A few excerpts from the transcript, with key points highlighted by me, are below. It’s long, but in short, AVR has spent a decade failing to meet its licence obligations, it came to the hearing with a half-baked, improvised and incomplete business plan, almost none of which had yet been implemented. The stations were providing no local programming and had no on-air staff, and as a last resort AVR tried to claim CRTC policies are discriminatory.
This wasn’t just about being delayed in filing a form, or being a few percentage points under on Canadian content. The stations were zombies — the Ottawa one had even been off the air since last fall — and there was no real plan to bring them back.
In short, it was all far too little, and far too late. The Canadian Association of Aboriginal Broadcasters also came to the hearing asking the CRTC to call for new applications to serve the communities, and that’s what the commission will do.