94.7 Hits FM bills itself as “Montreal and the Seaway Valley’s 20 in a Row Hit Music Station.” Meanwhile, its sister station 101.5 The Fox is “Ottawa and the Seaway Valley’s Classic Hits Station.”
Despite the fact that 94.7 Hits FM and The Fox claim Canadian markets as home turf, neither is a Canadian broadcaster. Both are actually U.S. stations: WYUL(FM) and WRCD(FM), respectively.
Because they are located about 70 miles south of the Montreal and Ottawa markets in Massena, N.Y. – just across the St. Lawrence Seaway on the Canada-U.S. border – their 50 kW signals are able to punch into the second and fourth largest cities in Canada.
Tim Martz, president of the U.S.-based Martz Communications Group LLC, owns 94.7 Hits FM, The Fox and seven other FM and AM stations in upstate New York. For 17 years, Martz has specialized in buying low-priced radio stations in small U.S. border communities close to large Canadian cities.
Martz then rebrands the stations to fit seamlessly into the Canadian market he is targeting. As a key part of this strategy, he drops obviously non-Canadian call signs such as WYUL, and replaces them with non-national monikers such as 94.7 Hits FM, The Fox, Q Country, YES FM, PAC 98.7, The Valley and Wild Country.
The stations are clustered in the New York border towns of Massena, Malone and Ogdensburg.
The reason Martz goes to all this trouble is revenue. By promoting 94.7 Hits FM as a Montreal-area station, he is able to sell advertising on the basis of the 3 million-plus population of that city (although the potential audience is only about half that, as the station’s reception is not uniform throughout Montreal).
“We are strong in the English-speaking West Island, and northward into Laval,” said Martz. “According to audience research conducted for us by Eastlan, we have a 4.3 percent share of listeners 12 and older in the West Island, which makes us number six in the market.”
For Montreal proper, the Spring 2004 ratings compiled by the Canadian Bureau of Broadcast Measurement (BBM) ranked 94.7 Hits FM 17th in the market, with a 0.8 percent share, out of a total of 20 stations (it bumped up another tenth of a share in the summer).
By way of comparison, the English music station Mix96, the prime target of 94.7 Hits FM, ranked fourth in the West Island with a 8.8 percent share in the Eastlan survey, and eighth in Montreal with a 5.7 percent share in the BBM survey.
In contrast to the 1.5 million listeners Martz targets in Montreal and the 1 million in Ottawa – plus the 112,000 people living directly across the St. Lawrence in Brockville and Cornwall, Ontario – the populations of Massena and Malone only stand at about 11,000 and 10,000 respectively.
“To attract advertisers, we have done a lot of promotion in Montreal, and bus, aerial and outdoor advertising in Ottawa,” Martz said. “We also have sales offices in Montreal, Ottawa, Cornwall and Brockville with Canadian representatives that sell air time to Canadian advertisers to reach Canadian customers.”
It is no wonder Martz Communications is hungry for Canadian listeners and advertisers. Canada is where the money is for this radio entrepreneur.
For the listeners
The question is why the listeners want to tune to 94.7 Hits FM and The Fox, rather than their home-grown stations.
“No Cancon,” Martz said.
Short for “Canadian Content,” Cancon refers to the percentage of domestically produced music that Canadian stations must play to keep their licenses. Under the rules, anglophone stations must play at least 35 percent Canadian music each week. Meanwhile, 65 percent of the music aired on francophone stations must be in French.
“Unlike our Canadian competitors, we can play whatever we want,” said Martz. “This means that we can play the music Canadians really want to hear, as opposed to what their government tells them to listen to.”
Canadian stars such as Shania Twain and Bryan Adams do turn up on Martz stations, but only because their songs are international hits.
Still, the longstanding popularity of homegrown broadcasters plus a limited promotional budget have required some creative marketing by Martz.
For instance, in order to grab some initial attention from Mix96 in Montreal, Martz launched a campaign, “Nix The Mix,” which included a Web site with links to the 94.7 Hits FM Web site.
“We also do guerilla-style marketing, where we crash competitors’ promotional events in order to gain some attention,” he said.
In a more conventional vein, the Web sites for the Martz stations have Montreal and Ottawa weather reports from The Weather Network. Also, the 94.7 Hits FM Web site promotes the Canada-based Much Music music video channel.
“We are also committed to giving back to the Canadian communities that we reach,” said Martz. “For instance, we are involved in various charities, and have raised $20,000 so far for the West Island’s Lakeshore General Hospital.
“We also have some 15 Canadian employees and numerous interns, and buy our promotion vehicles, T-shirts and other prizes and merchandise from Canadian suppliers,” he said.
94.7 Hits FM also provides English/French bilingual traffic reports and commercials, an approach that was dropped in Canada decades ago in favor of monolingual broadcasts.
“Montrealers are generally bilingual, so they do not have a problem listening in both languages,” Martz said. “In fact, more than half of our Montreal listeners identify themselves as French-speaking.”
But how does it serve the U.S. cities of license to orient its programming to Canadian listeners?
“Our programming orientation is not inconsistent with our license obligations,” Tim Martz replied.
“For those stations that do have a significant Canadian audience like 94.7 HITS and 101.5 The Fox, we don’t hide the fact that we are American, we’re just not ‘in your face’ about it. Indeed, we use it to our advantage as it’s generally regarded as ‘cool’ in Canada to listen to our U.S. stations, especially since we aren’t the typical ignorant Americans about Canada.
“We air news, weather and local issues about both countries and relate to listeners in both countries. We support local charities in both countries. We provide public service information regarding both countries. We have advertisers in both countries. We employ a lot more U.S. citizens than if we were just the local ‘ma and pa’ station.”
The station airs Montreal and Ottawa traffic reports, he said, “because unlike our U.S. markets, those cities have rush hours and traffic. And since our rating shares are consistently higher in the U.S. than in Canada, our U.S. population has apparently embraced our programming orientation.”
But are these U.S. licenses nothing more than a business strategy to reach a Canadian market?
“Not at all,” he said. “Our strategy is to reach as many people as possible regardless of where they reside, attract the largest audience as possible regardless of where they reside, so that we can maximize revenue regardless of its country of origin. Over the past 18 years, we have honed a strategy to serve our U.S. markets but at the same time attract non-U.S. listeners.
“It’s not all that different than other border markets: Detroit-Windsor, Buffalo-Niagara Falls. In reality, it’s not anything different than any purely U.S. market. I guarantee that we serve our cities of license far better than Infinity’s WPGC or Bonneville’s WWZZ serve their cities of license – wonder how many of their listeners have ever heard of Morningside or Waldorf, Md.?”
Not surprisingly, Canadian broadcasters are not keen on the encroachment by Martz Communications on their turf. However, the U.S. frequencies used by Martz are legal under a U.S.-Canada cross-border frequency allocation agreements.
Martz said the reaction ranges from acceptance to animosity in the form of complaints to the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission.
However, the Canadian company Standard Radio – which owns stations in Montreal and Ottawa, including Mix96 – has dealt with the competition from Martz by buying a 25 percent stake in Martz Communications.
Standard Radio President Gary Slaight explained the purchase, the maximum allowed under U.S. foreign ownership law, as a means for Standard to invest in the U.S. radio broadcasting business.
It also gives Standard a way to profit from the portion of Canadian advertising that ends up on the Martz stations.