July 27, 2016 1 year 7 months ago

RADIO: Why it doesn’t look like new AM stations will be launched in Montreal

MONTREAL – Five years ago, during a surprisingly competitive CRTC process to award new commercial AM radio stations in Montreal, one independent group burst onto the scene with grand promises to revolutionize the industry. Within two years, the three investors had acquired three licences for AM talk stations and the industry was filled with hope of new jobs and new alternatives to incumbent stations owned by major corporations.

But five years later, the group has nothing to show for it. It has already lost one of its three licence authorizations, and in November will lose the other two if it doesn’t get the stations on the air by then. So far, its partners are refusing to answer questions about their plans.

Tietolman-Tétrault-Pancholy Media, officially 7954689 Canada Inc., was formed in 2011 to compete with Cogeco to revive AM clear channels 690 and 940 kHz. Back then, Cogeco had proposed government-subsidized all-traffic stations in French and English (it dropped the application for a French station after deciding to switch CKAC 730 from sports to traffic). TTP Media countered with a proposal for news-talk stations in both languages. Another application, from Evanov Radio, proposed a format for the LGBT community, and Bell Media also requested to move its sports-talk station to one of the clear channels to improve its signal.

(Photo of TTP Media partners (from left) Nicolas Tétrault, Rajiv Pancholy and Paul Tietolman at a CRTC hearing applying for their first licence on Oct. 18, 2011 in Montreal by Steve Faguy.)

After the hearing, the CRTC awarded 690 to Bell, and TSN 990 became TSN 690. TTP Media got 940 AM to launch its French news-talk station.

TSN’s old 990 frequency went to Evanov by default, since neither Cogeco nor TTP were interested in a non-clear channel. (Radio Fierté eventually launched on 980, but Evanov has since abandoned that LGBT format for a Jewel-like easy-listening music one.) TTP was invited to re-apply for another frequency after telling the Commission its business model only worked with multiple stations sharing costs.

TTP applied for and was granted a station at 600 kHz, formerly used by CFCF radio, and in 2013 it was granted a third licence for a French sports-talk station at 850 kHz – a frequency formerly used by CKVL, which was founded by partner Paul Tietolman’s father, Jack Tietolman.

Each station was given two years to launch. Often, the Commission allows two one-year extensions to that deadline for new radio stations, if requested. Each time a deadline came up, TTP Media applied for one, citing various reasons, mainly having to do with technical changes to the transmitter. Last November, when an extension the CRTC had said would be the final one ended, it nevertheless gave another “final” extension, allowing until November 2016 to launch the two news-talk stations.

But when the deadline for the sports station at 850 came to the end of its first extension last month, TTP Media failed to ask for a second one.

Patricia Valladao, manager of media relations at the CRTC, confirmed the Commission did not receive a request for an extension before the deadline. “Since the station's authority to launch expired June 19, 2016, the frequency is available for any group to apply,” she said.

Cartt.ca requested comment multiple times from each of the three partners. Tietolman was the only one to respond, but declined to comment on the group’s plans because Rajiv Pancholy is the president and managing partner (though Nicolas Tétrault has also been described as managing partner in correspondence with the CRTC). All three partners have an equal stake in the company. Neither Tétrault, a real estate agent and former Montreal city councillor, nor Pancholy, a former CEO of TenXc Wireless who has since become CEO of India-based mobile music provider OnMobile, responded to multiple phone messages seeking comment. Emails sent to both of them bounced because the domain ttpmedia.ca is no longer registered.

Tietolman wouldn’t give any details on why the group abandoned the 850 frequency, but he seemed confident they would still launch on 600 and 940. He also suggested he’s working on other broadcasting projects separate from his partners.

The last published correspondence with the commission was a letter from Tétrault dated Oct. 20, 2015, requesting extensions for the 600 and 940 stations. In it, he said the group is “in the process of concluding an agreement” with Cogeco acquire all the former Corus broadcasting equipment and its lease for the land at the transmitter site on the Mohawk reserve of Kahnawake. It said the deal needed only approval of the band council, a formality, and that the transmitter was ready to go on 940 and required only minor changes for 600 and 850.

Nine months later, Cogeco Média president Richard Lachance says “nothing has been settled, only discussions” about the asset acquisition.

Meanwhile, there hasn’t been any news about anything else required to launch a radio station. No announcements about studio space (the company’s official address is Tétrault’s Royal Lepage real estate office), no hiring of even managerial staff.

There are legitimate reasons why TTP Media might want to abandon 850 AM. In 2013, two years after Cogeco’s CKAC 730 abandoned the all-sports format for traffic and angered listeners, creating a French all-sports station then made sense even though Cogeco kept the radio rights to Montreal Canadiens NHL and Alouettes CFL games. But last fall, RNC Média switched its struggling talk station CKLX-FM 91.9 to a French language sports-talk format. As well, Cogeco’s 98.5 FM is a news-talk station that is heavy on sports in the evenings. The increased competition for the format in the market might have been too much for TTP Media to want to bother with.

(It’s also worth considering the commercial AM radio industry in Canada is in a state of continual decline. According to CRTC data, the country lost 10 English-language AM stations from 2011 to 2015, and an average of about 2% of total revenue annually. The country’s remaining seven French-language AM stations are about the break-even point, but since the switch of CKAC's format none of those radio stations have big budgets that would compare to TTP Media's plans.)

Whether letting 850 go was a deliberate strategic decision to focus on its other two stations, or another symptom that this group’s plans have stalled for good, only the partners know for sure. We’ll have to wait until November, by which point either the stations will be on the air, the authorizations to launch them will finally expire, or the CRTC will give them a third “final” extension.

Two talk radio stations can be launched from scratch in four and a half months, but experience suggests the chances of that happening after almost five years of nothing seem slim.