A wall of signatures at the former Team 990 office on Greene Ave. in Westmount.
The anniversary almost went unnoticed. But 15 years ago this week, an all-sports radio station was created in Montreal. And over that decade and a half, its story has been one of stubborn perseverance, indifference by ownership, constant struggle with limited resources and a small but unusually loyal audience. It’s gone through some things no other station has, but it’s still there.
Rejected leftover of an acquisition
It began in 2000, when CHUM Ltd., owner of CKGM 990 AM (then Oldies 990) and CHOM 97.7 (formerly CKGM-FM), reached a deal with Standard Radio to swap assets in Montreal and Winnipeg. As a result of the deal, Standard Radio would own CKGM, CJAD, CHOM and CJFM (Mix 96, now Virgin Radio), all but two of the major commercial English-language stations — Q92 (CFQR-FM) and 940 News were owned by Metromedia, which was in the process of being sold to Corus Entertainment.
But the CRTC has a policy against a single owner controlling more than three stations in a market of this size. CKGM was the lowest-rated station and so it was left out of the transaction. CHUM considered selling it until it came up with a new idea: It would create a national network of all-sports AM radio stations, called The Team.
The station couldn’t have done worse than it already was. It went from being a top 40 station to adult contemporary to top 40 again, to oldies, to “talk radio with attitude” to being off the air after the 1998 ice storm to coming back as Oldies 990. There didn’t seem to be a format that worked.
A poor start
It would be nice to say that once it switched to all sports, CKGM found its footing and thrived. But that’s not even close to being true.
For one thing, it didn’t have any broadcasting rights deals for live sports. Competitor CJAD had the rights to the Canadiens and Alouettes. And the Montreal Expos couldn’t come to terms with either station on who should pay the production costs for its broadcasts.
The other problem was that the national network wasn’t just about having a common brand. Most of the programming was national, including the afternoon drive show, hosted in Toronto by Jim Van Horne and Stephen Brunt.
Pat Hickey, The Gazette, March 31, 2001:
I have reservations about the viability in Montreal of the new all-sports network that will be launched in May on what has been CKGM.
There are a couple of staples that make all-sports radio work. While there are all-sports networks in the United States with broadly based national talk and interview shows, the most successful stations, The Fan in New York, WTEM in Washington, WQAM in Miami, WEEI in Boston and WMVP in Chicago, offer live coverage of local teams and plenty of opportunity for local commentators and callers to share their opinions.
The local station has already struck out in the first regard. An attempt to wrap up a deal with the Expos collapsed because of a lingering debate over who should pay for the production costs for games. …
An Expos radio deal would have given the new station a strong presence in the community and established it as the place to go, not only for games, but baseball talk.
It was the station’s one chance to make a splash with CJAD already carrying the Canadiens and the Alouettes.
Even the morning show at launch was national, with Paul Romanuk, Brian Henderson and Mike Richards.
Sports television can work nationally because most of its content is live game broadcasts. Sports radio, especially if it doesn’t have those broadcasts, really has to be local.
Things fell into place late. Less than two weeks before launch, the station announced a deal to carry Expos broadcasts, and hired Elliott Price to do play-by-play. The first broadcast would be from San Francisco on Monday, May 7, 2001, the day of the launch of The Team 990. (The Expos lost, 6-2.)
It wasn’t until after it launched that the station finally signed a deal with its desired local morning team: Ted Blackman, the sports director at CJAD; and Mitch Melnick, who was at CIQC until it became an all-news station, and then took over an evening sports show on CJAD.
They started the next week, on May 14. But most of the rest of the schedule was still beamed in out of Toronto. And its content wasn’t exactly compelling.
Pat Hickey, May 12, 2001:
… in its quest to prove that it’s not just another Toronto radio station, The Team has taken to running stories that are irrelevant in any part of the country.
During the past week, I’ve learned more than I want to know about the Winnipeg Goldeyes minor-league baseball team, Russ Jackson’s views on Canadian QBs, Canadian stock-car racing, soccer and anything involving George Chuvalo.
A Team without a Team
CHUM pulled the plug on the concept for The Team a year later. Some stations, like CKGM Montreal, CFGO Ottawa and CKST Vancouver kept the Team brand and all-sports format, others adopted (or re-adopted) oldies or adult standards formats.
Within a couple of years, the station beefed up its local programming. Ted Blackman died in October 2002. Melnick eventually moved to afternoons, and new voices started appearing on the radio, including Tony Marinaro and Shaun Starr.
Pat Hickey, May 8, 2003:
The biggest positive change over the past two years has been the introduction of the afternoon show with Tony Marinaro and Joey Elias. It works because it’s local and because the hosts aren’t afraid to debate with each other, something that’s missing in the interaction between Melnick and Ron Francis. Elias’s occasional bawdy jokes seem inappropriate for the time slot and Marinaro fractures the English language, but the show is a welcome addition.
The station ended up getting comfortable in its niche of sports-talk, with analysis from experts, interviews with athletes and lots of talk from people who were certain they had a better idea how to coach or manage the Canadiens than the people actually in charge.
CHUM Ltd. was sold to CTVglobemedia in 2007, and CTV itself to BCE (Bell Canada) in 2010. It now had rich owners, but that doesn’t mean it made more money. And, as Bell’s only radio station in Montreal, it didn’t have the ability to share costs with sister stations in the same market. Its office at 1310 Greene Ave. in Westmount looked run-down.
As it celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2011, things were looking a lot better for the station. It finally acquired rights to Montreal Canadiens games (a deal most people in the industry attributed to the fact that Bell owned the station and had a significant working relationship with the team). That fall, Bell Media changed its brand from The Team 990 to TSN Radio 990, rebuilding a national all-sports radio network but this time with much more local programming, and the CRTC approved its request to move to 690 AM, a frequency vacated by the shutdown of Corus’s all-news station Info 690. The frequency change allowed the station to move to a clear channel, which gave it an unrestricted 50,000-watt signal day and night, instead of the highly directional one they had on 990.
A year later, though, it almost came to an end.
Abandoned by Bell
July 10, 2012: “Bell Media Files CRTC Application to Create RDS Radio 990 in Montreal”
Bell Media was in the process of acquiring Astral Media, whose many assets included CJAD, CHOM and CJFM, which it had bought when it acquired Standard Radio in 2007. The CRTC’s common ownership rules meant Bell would be over the limit in several large markets across the country. In most of those cities, it said it would sell stations to bring it below that limit. But in Montreal, it had another idea: It would convert CKGM from an English all-sports station to a French one.
It was an idea that made a lot of sense from a management/ownership perspective. Montreal had just lost an all-sports radio station when CKAC switched to its all-traffic format the previous fall. Switching CKGM to French would give it a larger audience, and solve the ownership limit issue because different languages are considered different markets, and neither Bell nor Astral had a French-language AM station. Canadiens games would simply move back to CJAD, which Bell would also own.
It made so much sense to the higher-ups at Bell. But from a human perspective, it was a disastrous idea.
Fans of the station, that had been loyal for more than a decade, revolted. The CRTC was flooded with angry comments from station listeners, with 774 interventions on this application alone, completely separate from the much larger Bell-Astral deal. It prompted CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais to comment that he spent his summer vacation that year reading comments from the public. Three people appeared in person in front of the commission as individuals to make a case for saving the station in some way.
The station’s staff, meanwhile, were stuck in the middle. The application was from its owner, and they couldn’t denounce it on the air. They could only speak in general terms about appreciating their listeners, and quietly offer them moral support away from the microphone. This, even though they would all certainly lose their jobs if this deal went through.
Bell tried its best to deflect blame, and listener anger was directed both at it and at the CRTC. Various demands were made, for the CRTC to make an exception to its ownership policy, for the entire Bell-Astral deal to be killed, or for some other deus-ex-machina solution to the problem.
In the end, it didn’t matter. The CRTC rejected the Bell-Astral deal, judging that Bell’s application would not benefit the Canadian broadcasting system and that it would leave too much market power in the hands of one company. Because the CKGM language change application was dependent on approval of the larger deal, it became moot and so the commission denied it.
The hundreds of comments technically didn’t matter to the CRTC. But they did matter to Bell, and to the station’s staff.
Bell-Astral Take 2
A month later, Bell announced it was trying again. But this time, it pivoted on CKGM, and used those hundreds of comments to argue for an exception to the ownership policy, allowing it to own four of the five English-language commercial radio stations in Montreal.
With Bell and the station’s listeners now on the same side (in as much as a hostage-taker and hostage negotiator are on the same side), the station helped push for hundreds more comments supporting the request.
But it was far from a done deal. As opposition continued to mount against the Bell-Astral acquisition on the grounds that Bell would still have too much market power even after its proposed divestments, competitors said letting it control 75% of Montreal’s English commercial radio market was similarly anti-competitive.
Offers, whose seriousness could easily be questioned, were made to buy the station. One, during the original acquisition process, was from a group that has since become experts in not doing things. The other was from Rogers, but came so late in the game it was hard to take it seriously.
Through all this time, the staff and fans of the station waited nervously. They organized a show of support, but otherwise could do little more than sit and wait to see what would happen.
Uncertainty continued until June 27, 2013, when the CRTC ruled Bell could purchase Astral Media and keep TSN 690 as an exception to the common ownership policy. (The same policy that prevented CKGM from being sold with CHOM to Standard Radio in 2000.)
The station’s staff was so grateful for the support of its listeners it threw a special thank-you party. One by one the on-air personalities gave heartfelt speeches about how touched they were by the support of their listeners.
Almost three years later, TSN Radio 690 has new life. The Astral acquisition enlarged the family, and the station moved from dilapidated offices on Greene Ave. to newly renovated studios at René-Lévesque Blvd. and Papineau Ave. It now shares offices and resources, including a program director, with CJAD.
With the two under common ownership, Montreal Impact and Alouettes games moved to TSN 690, with CJAD being used as a backup in case of scheduling conflicts.
The station’s ownership hasn’t stopped making decisions that enrage listeners. Casualties of cuts include general manager Wayne Bews and on-air hosts Ted Bird, Elliott Price and Abe Hefter.
Its ratings are better than when it launched, but its share of the market is still in the single digits. Station-level financial information isn’t published, but before the Bell-Astral deal Bell said it had lost $5 million in five years. The acquisition of Canadiens games and cost-cutting from sharing resources probably helped, but we don’t know if it’s making money yet.
But despite having more than its fair share of turmoil, or maybe because of it, TSN 690 has burrowed a place in the heart of thousands of Montrealers.
They say radio is about building a relationship with your audience. For the past 15 years, this station has been proof of that.
It may be a station whose programming involves a lot of complaining about minor management decisions of a professional hockey team, but to both its listeners and its staff, it’s family.