By Greg O’Brien
TORONTO – After listening to most of the nine applicants who have asked the CRTC for the 88.1 FM slot on the Toronto radio dial (of 17 in total) over the past three days, I can’t imagine how the Commission is any closer to making a decision on who will get the license.
It’s not the best signal, down at 88.1 FM and 8,000 watts, but goodness, lots of people sure want it (except for the big Toronto radio companies – Astral, Bell, Rogers and Corus – who weren’t about to challenge the Regulator’s radio station ownership policy based on this frequency, made available when the CRTC revoked the license from Ryerson University’s CKLN after multiple license infractions spread over years.)
Taken individually, each company’s application sounded pretty good on the surface. They all claim what they want to do with the 88.1 FM Toronto is something not available from any other station, from the all-independent music bid (Rock 95’s Indie 88.1); Torres Media’s Dawg 88.1 (a blues station building off of the company’s Ottawa blues FM station and its Skywords experience); Channel Zero’s all-business talk Biz88 format; the new easy-listening format of Durham Radio which it’s calling The Lake; the Sounds of Toronto Audience Network of STAN FM; the nice-family-values-radio station request of Family FM; or the triple-A (adult album alternative) requests of Newcap (The Sound, which they’re calling “modern adult”), Larche (Metro 88.1), and well-known investor Michael Wekerle (Tower FM). With their panels of many experts, prepared research and passion for a new business idea and radio in general, they all sound like very worthy ideas (some more worthy than others, but that’s for the Commission to decide).
However, the three days of the hearing (with six more scheduled) made us wish there were other places available on the dial for all of these formats.
The only radio applicant not asking for 88.1 so far was Pip Bola’s request for an FM station at 105.9 in Markham and while listening to his appearance, we also wondered why a quickly community the size of Markham (300,000-plus) doesn’t have at least one radio station. (As an aside, Mr. Bola must be one of the most optimistic wanna-be media moguls as he has received dozens of third-language category B digital specialty channel licenses, none of which, to our knowledge, have been able to secure carriage by a Canadian BDU.)
The AAA music stations all promise much more airtime to Canadian artists who get few spins on Toronto radio (Kathleen Edwards, Feist and Jim Cuddy, were your ears burning?) and cash for various content creation or content related activities (Newcap promised $12 million, Larche and Wekerle, $5 million each, for example). Plus, who wouldn’t like to have some blues on the dial? Or, business news is a well-mined niche in the States, with 34 stations there. Why isn’t there at least one in Canada?
There were even a few stars among the applicants. Torres had the biggest name with Dan Ackroyd putting his blues bona fides behind the Dawg FM application, appearing via teleconference. One of Wekerle’s backers is former CTV CEO Ivan Fecan, who spoke at the hearing. Former Toronto Argonauts star player and coach Michael “Pinball” Clemons spoke to the Family FM application, Newcap had Ongoing History of New Music’s Alan Cross, and one of Channel Zero’s leads was noted CHCH broadcaster Donna Skelly.
For some, like Newcap, Larche, and Durham, this station would be another link in their chains. Approval for 88.1 would double the size of Dawg. For others, like Wekerle (who’s a well-known investor with, notably, a large stake in his competition for 88.1, Newcap) and Channel Zero, this is just the start of the larger radio companies they hope to build. The hearing will continue the next few days to hear from other applicants such as Ryerson students who want their station back, WorldBand Media (talk for the younger demo), Trust Communications (Christian radio) and others which want the signal because their existing ones aren’t optimal.
We’re pretty sure the existing players have a different spin on the Toronto radio market, but all of the new applicants agree on one thing: The current slate of Toronto radio stations are not doing a good enough job with bland, monolithic playlists or superficial news catering to the vast mass, the mushy middle, with no thought to providing new music or new and interesting news and information beyond what one can find virtually everywhere.
But perhaps Cal Millar, president and COO of Channel Zero summed up the Commission’s challenge best when he said on Wednesday: “We’ve heard the Commission state clearly that 88.1 is both valuable and rare… With a record number of applications for this frequency there will be hundreds of different perspectives to consider in making this decision, but ultimately, this hearing boils down to one simple question – which application represents the best use of 88.1 for the widest number of Torontonians?”
The hearing continues today and can be heard live at www.crtc.gc.ca.