Montreal’s Divided, Vibrant Radio Industry

Old Montreal retains the charm of its French European roots.

MONTREAL —Two radio markets, one city: that’s the best way to describe the radio industry here in Montreal.

Serving a mainly French-speaking metropolitan area that is approaching 4 million in population size, this cosmopolitan Quebec city is home to both French- and English-language radio stations. Each group serves its own advertising base and is governed by different government regulations.

Music and talk formats dominate. But Montreal is also home to specialty stations serving a range of niche communities. These include stations serving multiple language groups, the city’s long-established Jewish community, Aboriginals and gays/lesbians/bisexuals/transgenders.

That said, it is the French/English divide that defines Montreal into two distinct radio markets, collectively supporting eight French and five English stations. As defined by the Canadian radio ratings service BBM, the “average daily universe” for Montreal French radio is about 2.96 million, while the English audience equivalent is 843,000.

Two rulebooks

“Language is the big thing,” said Steve Faguy, a Montreal Gazette newspaper reporter who covers local media, and also blogs on the subject “This, combined with the fact that Montreal is the hub of French media in Canada as much as Toronto is the hub of English media, means that there’s a lot of stuff that gets produced in this city,” he said.

Tune across the Montreal radio bands — either on AM and FM — and you’ll hear a mix of talk and music. Although the languages used are either French or English, the overall sound is the same. Whatever their mother tongue, Montrealers love engaging conversations and good songs.

Unfortunately, the rules are not the same for French- and English-language broadcasters. In a bid to protect the French language, the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) — Canada’s version of the FCC — has decreed that French language stations must play at least 65 percent French vocal music. This high threshold is meant to protect Quebec’s French majority from being overwhelmed by the English-speaking cultures of both Canada and the United States.

The common antenna used by most of Montreal’s FM and TV transmitters; atop Mont Royal in the center of town.
Meanwhile, in a bid to foster English Canadian music, the CRTC requires English-language stations to play at least 35 percent Canadian-made vocal content. Since the English language is not seen as being at risk, the content requirement is significantly lower than the 65 percent rule for French-language stations.

Like people around the globe, French Canadian listeners want to hear English-language songs, specifically the biggest hits coming from the United States and the United Kingdom. This poses a tremendous dilemma for Astral Media, which owns five radio stations in Montreal. Two of these stations — CKMF(FM) and CITE(FM) — broadcast in French. The other three — CJFM(FM), CHOM(FM) and CJAD(AM) — broadcast in English.

“We own Virgin (CJFM) and CHOM (both music stations), and when we look at their numbers, between 65 and 70 percent of their audience are French,” said Charles Benoit, EVP of Astral Radio (part of Astral Media). At Virgin Radio U.K., which Benoit describes as being Montreal’s “big number one radio station,” this works out to “more than a million French listeners.”

Unintentional consequences

Unfortunately for Astral Media, the company’s advertisers refuse to pay for its English stations’ French listeners. That’s the way things operate here: French listeners are to be reached only on French stations, and English on English. Any crossovers simply don’t count — at least for the people who buy airtime.

That may seem counterintuitive in a city where most residents are bilingual, but it suits the advertisers. After all, this deliberately blinkered model means that they are actually paying less money to reach the same overall audience.

Mindful of this, Quebec’s French-language broadcasters have tried creative ways to retain their listeners while playing within the rules. The most notable tactic is the “music montage,” combining a series of English tunes into an extended segment. The montage is then officially logged as a single song, to legally stay within the CRTC’s language quota.

Unfortunately for the broadcasters, the CRTC is cracking down on this loophole. As a result, Benoit expects these broadcasters to lobby hard to have the 65 percent rule changed when the CRTC next reviews its radio policies. “We’ll try to fight the quota and get it down to a more reasonable 50/50,” he said.

A view of Montreal at night.

Despite these unique challenges, Montreal remains a good place to do radio. “The French language market is worth around CA$102 million, while the English market is worth around CA$44 million,” said David Bray, a respected Canadian radio consultant and president of Bray & Partners. “Business-wise, these are vibrant markets.”

Benoit agrees: “The average Montreal resident still listens to radio more than 21 hours a week,” which is good by Canadian radio standards.

Good investment

Montreal’s radio markets are so good, in fact, that new stations are being started here. For instance, Tietolman-Tétrault-Pancholy Media has won a CRTC license to launch a new French-language talk station on 940 AM and is seeking an English language talk license for 600 AM. Adding new stations in the Montreal market is “a good investment,” said Paul Tietolman, a managing partner with Tietolman-Tétrault-Pancholy Media.

If there’s a moral to this story, it is that two radio markets can reside in the same city, with both making money while doing so. Granted, the Montreal radio industry is pretty unique by North American big city standards. But as a French-dominated city in English-dominated North America, so is Montreal.

  James Careless reports on the industry for Radio World from Ottawa, Ontario.

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