Have You Heard About The Hearing?

In case you haven’t heard, the Hearing in Calgary was a hotbed of competition, proving that the hunger for FM radio licences remains strong. It seems those pundits predicting the death of the medium are more than a little premature. In fact, the market currently boasts over $90 million annually in ad revenue, with local broadcasters posting significant profit margins.  I was pleased to participate in the process which ran from Feb.6-9, and while I wouldn’t presume to speculate on who will prevail, I can provide a bit of insight as to the hot buttons that seem to be attracting the attention of the commission. Moreover, we were given an idea of what we might expect to see and hear at the upcoming Toronto hearing (date TBA).

In all, 12 applicants appeared, vying for 3 different frequencies. A sign of the times is the fact that five of these were seeking multicultural licences. Mainstream broadcasters were out in full force….but of course with all of the consolidation the industry has experienced in recent years, there aren’t as many as there once were. We heard from Bell Media, Harvard, Rawlco, Corus, Jim Pattison, Clear Sky and Tietolman, Tetrault & Pancholy. A nice mix of large corporate entities and up and coming independent broadcasters. The five commissioners were Rita Cugini, Peter Menzies, Stephen Simpson, Marc Patrone and Tom Pentefountas (Chair). Mr. Pentefountas kept things running smoothly and at a good pace. It was very civilized affair with little or no petty backbiting between the applicants. Of course there were significant differences of opinion and some discussions which you might term lively.

So what does it take to win a licence? Some broached the topic of economic sustainability, taking the posture that the commission should grant a licence to those currently holding one FM property in the market. The thought was that a second FM would allow for cost efficiencies, making the owners more economically viable. That met with a resounding thud. The commissioners noted that they are seeking to answer the listeners’ needs as opposed to ensuring profitability for ownership groups. Of course, applicants have to exhibit financial stability as part of the process.

It was clear that the commissioners are open to all comers large or small, corporate or independent. The deciding factor must always remain…..the best interest of the listeners.

CCD (Canadian Content Development) commitments clearly play a role. We heard pledges of anywhere from a few hundred thousand to around $5 million and in one instance $12 million (over the 7 year term of licence). There is a fine balance between committing enough to be competitive and committing so much that the entity will struggle to be financially viable. But more importantly, the commissioners seemed to want broadcasters to back up the contributions with a real desire to support artists on air. Cutting a cheque then walking away will no longer cut it. The artists need significant on-air support. In one notable segment, one applicant’s supporting intervener spoke appreciatively about the money he and other artists had received. When asked what he thought of the proposed format, he responded that he knew very little about it. A clear disconnect between money and on air support.

CANCON, as always, remains important. Pledging 40% seems essential. Supporting Emerging Artists has become more and more of a hot button. This was particularly evidenced when one applicant with significant CCD contributions to new artists was asked to show where those artists were on the station’s playlist. It seems wise to commit 15% of your total playlist to Emerging Artists. Most importantly, it was obvious as to who was playing lip service to these policies and who was truly passionate about the music.

We heard a number of format suggestions…. in addition to the aforementioned multicultural proposals, Clear Sky proffered Country, Bell offered Rhythmic CHR (patterned after its Flow station in Toronto), Harvard proposed Adult Contemporary, Pattison chose AAA (patterned after The Peak in Vancouver), Rawlco proposed a version of its popular NOW format in Edmonton with an emphasis on innovative interactive talk supported by AC music, while Corus was requesting an FM repeater to help out with the reception problems experienced by its AM station QR77. As I mentioned earlier, I was working with broadcaster Paul Tietolman on a format emphasizing diversity spanning a number of genres of popular music including Pop, Country, Rock, Folk, R&B and Reggae. As you may have guessed, I have a particular enthusiasm for supporting Emerging Artists.

We now stand by with baited breath in anticipation of the CRTC decision. What we are sure of is the fact that radio continues to generate significant competitive interest. Enough to ensure that the medium will remain viable as it searches for digital solution in an ever more fragmented media universe. Stay tuned for the Toronto Hearing.



David Bray is President of Bray & Partners Communications.

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