CKIN-FM 106.3, which was recently sold to a Toronto businessman, is in gross violation of its conditions of licence now that it has revamped its programming to make most of its schedule Arabic.
At least, that’s what a complaint by CHOU 1450, Radio Moyen Orient, would have the CRTC believe. And though the complainant’s frustration is understandable, I can’t find the condition of licence it’s accusing CKIN-FM of violating.
Before last year, CKIN-FM was a sister station to CKDG-FM 105.1, owned by Canadian Hellenic Cable Radio. The two stations are commercial ethnic radio stations, each required to serve several ethnic communities in several third languages. CHCR split its language offering between the two stations. It made CKDG English-language during peak hours, with the rest mostly Greek but a few other languages sprinkled in. CKIN was French-language during peak hours, with Spanish, Creole, Arabic, Romanian and Armenian in descending order of weekly airtime, plus a handful of other languages with less than four hours a week.
When Neeti P. Ray took over, there was a major overhaul at CKIN-FM, and the amount of Arabic programming increased from 8% to 68%, according to CHOU’s complaint. The station’s schedule lists it as having Arabic programming from midnight to 7pm weekdays, and all weekends except from 6 to 9am. Spanish programming airs from 7pm to midnight weekdays, and all six other languages the station is required to air get an hour each on weekend mornings.
CHOU, whose entire schedule is Arabic, is crying foul, and demands in its complaint that the CRTC order CKIN to devote no more than 8% (10 hours a week) of programming to the Arabic language, and to stop marketing itself as “la nouvelle voix arabe de Montréal.”
In its argument, CHOU cites comments that Ray made to the CRTC in applying to acquire the station:
The Applicant intends to continue this mix of languages, while maintaining CKIN-FM’s particular focus on programming directed to South Asian communities and a substantial amount of Spanish programming and related world-music programming (for which CKIN-FM is now well-known). … The principal change in programming will likely involve the production of more local and in-studio programming, particularly for South Asian audiences.
There is absolutely no reason for the applicant to change the programming mix and focus, which was recently reviewed by the CRTC and has been embraced Montrealers.
CHOU said that based on the information provided in the application, it chose not to intervene in the ownership change application. “If Mr. Ray had, in his application for transfer of assets, expressed his intention to broadcast this many hours of Arabic during the most attractive hours, we would have strongly opposed this change and would have asked the commission to deny the application,” it wrote in the complaint.
And it argues that Ray himself had noted that Montreal was not a large enough market to support two ethnic radio stations targeting the same ethnic group. (He wanted to start up a station for the south Asian community, and opposed (unsuccessfully) an application by Radio Humsafar for that reason.)
And it says that according to its analysis of a sample week, the station was short two ethnic groups and two languages in the number it is required to provide programming for in each week. CHOU says its complaint is valid regardless of the CRTC’s ruling on this particular compliance issue.
(Also unrelated is that CHOU recently got approval for a low-power FM retransmitter of its signal in St-Michel.)
What the licence says
So is CKIN-FM following its licence conditions?
The decision approving the transfer of ownership, and a new licence for the operation of the station, has conditions related to programming, requiring it to be directed to at least six cultural groups in at least eight languages. It also must ensure at least 60% of its schedule is in a language other than French or English, and at least 70% is ethnic programs.
But there are no conditions of licence setting a maximum or minimum for any given language. So legally Ray is allowed to have most of his schedule be Arabic and only an hour a week for all but two of the groups he’s supposed to cater to.
And though CHOU says Ray made commitments not to change the mix of programming on the station, the application does not explicitly state that there would be no change to the amount of programming for each language, nor does it include a sample programming grid.
The station may be ignoring the spirit of the ethnic broadcasting policy, but not the letter. At least not yet. The CRTC promised to begin a review of its ethnic radio policy as part of a three-year plan in 2014-15, then again in 2015-16, then again in 2016-17. At this rate we’re at least a year away from any policy change. But whether a minimum amount of programming should be established for each language/group might form part of that review.
Ray and CKIN-FM have not responded to the complaint. I will update this post when their response is filed.
CHOU’s complaint against CKIN-FM can be downloaded here (1.4 MB .zip). Comments about the complaint can be filed until 8pm ET on May 24. Note that all information submitted, including contact information, becomes part of the public record.
UPDATE (May 27): Ray has replied to the complaint, noting arguments similar to what I outline above. He also brings up that the CRTC responded to a similar complaint issued last fall (that also included Radio Shalom, CPAM Radio Union and Médias Maghreb), in which commission staff found that the increased Arabic programming didn’t break a condition of licence.
- Ray says CKIN-FM has complied with its licence obligations, and almost all of its programming is local
- Ray acknowledges that for the week sampled, CKIN-FM was two languages short on the number it should broadcast. He explains this as a hiccup caused by a schedule change — Punjabi and Urdu programs were moved from Sunday to Saturday, causing both to be broadcast twice in the same week (the CRTC defines a week as beginning on Sunday and ending on Saturday).
- Ray notes that the decision granting the ownership change explicitly states that the station is free to use whatever mix of third-language programming it wishes, provided it meets its licence requirements.
- Ray says the station will reduce overlap with CHOU by skewing younger, and providing more music programming.
In the response, he writes:
We acknowledge that the amount of Arabic programming has increased recently. However, this increase is well justified by the size and continued growth of the Arabic-speaking population in Montre?al. The focus on Arabic programming reflects a considered business decision to place CKIN-FM on a more secure financial footing while providing a much needed improved level of service to one of Montre?al’s largest – and until now dramatically underserved – third-language groups.
This decision was not taken lightly. The Commission is well aware of the difficulties that the original owner of CKIN-FM had to maintain the station’s viability. After a lengthy and considered analysis of the needs of the Montreal market and what it would take to maintain viability going forward, it was decided to retain CKIN-FM’s substantial focus on Montre?al’s Spanish-speaking and Latino populations and to expand and update the Arabic programming offered on the station.
Originally, it had been intended to continue to offer more programming targeted to South Asian audiences. However, after a deeper analysis of the needs of the Montre?al market and the audiences already served, it became apparent that a South Asian focus would likely not provide the community with the most needed service – or offer the financial stability to support the station. … Whereas the South Asian radio market in Montre?al already had a number of radio programming options, and two new radio stations recently licensed by the CRTC specifically to target these language groups, the Arabic-language audience is considerably larger and has fewer programming options – indeed, really only one station with a substantial amount of Arabic content (CHOU AM).
In providing an increased level of Arabic programming, we have, however, been mindful of the existing radio service that is currently available to serve this population. CHOU AM offers programming that, in our estimation, skews toward a more mature audience. CKIN-FM’s programming strategy is to offer a younger format through predominantly music-based programming. This is intended to attract a younger audience and to offer that audience radio programming that is not otherwise available to them in Arabic.
Arabic is the most popular third language in Montreal, after Italian (which is served mainly by CFMB 1280), with 126,865 identifying it as their mother tongue.
Tangible benefits change
In a separate, unrelated application, Ray is asking the CRTC to reallocate funding he was required to provide as part of the CKIN-FM acquisition. Tangible benefits, a kind of tax on acquisitions imposed by the CRTC, normally go to Canadian content development funds according to a standard formula. Ray agreed to provide $41,430 of benefits to groups like Radio Starmaker Fund, FACTOR or MUSICACTION and the Community Radio Fund of Canada, plus some for other eligible initiatives at its discretion.
Rather than split up this money between these organizations, Ray is proposing to divert all of it to a scholarship program at Concordia University’s journalism department.
… given the relatively modest amounts involved, we believe that it would be of greater benefit to the community of Montréal to aggregate the annual benefit dollars and to designate a single beneficiary each year. Each of the annual amounts allocated to the different recipients is, on its own, not material within their overall operations. However, when a single recipient is selected, the amounts together can have a significant positive effect for the recipient.
It’s unclear why Ray is coming to this conclusion now as opposed to when the application was filed.
Diverting all the funding to a discretionary initiative like this not only makes for a bigger splash, but is also more self-serving. Funds like Starmaker and FACTOR obscure the source of funding, while a direct donation can get your logo plastered all over a thank-you event, with the words “tangible benefits” or “CRTC” not even mentioned anywhere in the press release about it.
Whether Ray is considering the promotional value of a donation, or just wants to save money on cheques, is unknown.
This application, which can be downloaded here (725kB .zip), is open for comment until June 15. You can comment on it here.