By Steve Faguy
MONTREAL - "Do you know what I did for my summer holidays?" CRTC chair Jean-Pierre Blais asked rhetorically to Bell Media on Tuesday. "I didn't have summer holidays. I read interventions."
Blais held up a large binder with the 774 interventions, most of them by individuals, filed in response to an application by Bell to convert Montreal all-sports AM station CKGM (TSN Radio 690, formerly 990) from English to French. “There are nine volumes like this,” Blais (pictured below on CPAC.ca holding up that binder) said of the 774 interventions filed in relation to this application.
The Commission skeptically grilled Bell Media over the application, which is separate but related to its larger purchase of Astral Media. The comnpany wants to hang onto the license in Quebec and changing it to a French station is the strategy the company settled on to try and make that happen. It didn’t seem as though the panel of commissioners were buying what Bell was selling, however.
The total acquisition of Astral would put Bell over radio station ownership limits by 11 stations spread over six markets. Bell has committed to selling 10 of the stations, but for CKGM, Bell can change the station's market without moving it, by changing its language. Astral owns only two FM music stations in the French-language Montreal market, and Bell owns no French radio stations.
The switch prompted a firestorm of opposition in local media and from listeners. "There's a lot of anger" from intervenors, Blais said. Response from individuals was so high that the CRTC added a special link to its homepage for people to file comments related to the application (rather than communicate using the CRTC's complaint form).
The Commission was particularly concerned about this application because it comes less than a year after CKGM came to the commission to ask for a the clearer 690 AM frequency because its Class B 990 signal had poor reception at night in areas of Montreal with a high English-speaking population. The decision granting the station the use of the vacant clear channel 690 kHz (formerly used by Radio-Canada's CBF and later Info 690 CINF) made clear that part of the motivation was to better serve the Anglophone community.
CKGM began transmitting on 690 only on Sept. 4, beginning a three-month simulcast period before they vacate their old slot on the dial.
CRTC vice-chairman Tom Pentefountas said many intervenors were concerned that this about-face undermines the CRTC's process. "Our preference would have been to keep (the station) in English," Bell's chief regulatory officer Mirko Bibic told the Commission, adding Bell has no choice with the Astral acquisition to ask for this. The company has not requested an exemption from the ownership policy, which has been also criticized by fans of TSN Radio.
If Bell's applications are approved, the Montreal English-language market would drop from five commercial stations owned by three companies to four stations owned by two. Only music station CKBE-FM (92.5 The Beat), owned by Cogeco, would not be owned by Bell.
A separate application, being considered as part of the non-appearing phase of this hearing, is for a new talk station at 600 AM owned by Montreal businessmen Paul Tietolman, Nicolas Tétrault and Rajiv Pancholy. Bibic pointed to this (provided it's approved) as evidence that there would be balance in diversity of radio voices in English Montreal.
Bell has promised, as part of its replies to intervenors, to move sports content, including broadcasts of Montreal Canadiens NHL games, from CKGM to Astral's news-talk station CJAD 800. But Astral Media executive vice-president Jacques Parisien, who would take on an expanded content management role at Bell Media, said the station would not model itself after Cogeco's CHMP 98.5, a French station in Montreal that similarly incorporated sports programming when Cogeco shut down sports talk station CKAC 730 AM to replace it with a government-subsidized all-traffic station. "There are better ways to respond to the needs of sports listeners," Parisien said.
Commissioners played the hypothetical game with Bell, asking what they'd do if the CRTC rejected the application. Bibic said Bell would be forced to sell the station (though he said Bell would keep English Canadiens radio broadcasting rights and would probably not licence the TSN brand, which he considers a "crown jewel" of Bell Media). Parisien was more pessimistic, saying they might not find a buyer for the money-losing station and could be forced to give the licence back.
A rejection of the overall Astral acquisition would leave CKGM as it is. Many intervenors are calling for this option, as you’ll read elsewhere on Cartt.ca.