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Traffic Woes Revive Storied AMs

The medium-wave frequencies selected for the project are 690 kHz and 940 kHz

MONTREAL — This city is legendary for its traffic jams, and the problem is about to become worse. Deteriorating highways and bridges are forcing the Ministère des Transports du Québec to make major repairs over the next few years.

About 1.3 million drivers will be affected at choke points such as the Turcot Interchange — known locally as “Spaghetti Junction” due to its many levels of ramps — and several bridges that connect to the shores of the St. Lawrence River. This is why Ministère des Transports has struck a deal with Quebec broadcaster Cogeco Diffusion to provide all-traffic radio broadcasts in English and French, using two currently dark AM radio stations.

Quebec Minister of Transport Sam Hamad, left, and Vice President of Cogeco Radio Broadcast Richard Lachance

“The Ministère des Transports had planned to install special low-powered transmitters and antennas in the affected areas,” said Richard Lachance, senior vice president at Cogeco Diffusion. “But since our company currently has two dormant AM transmitter plants and studios available, we can provide much better coverage and deliver it to AM radios that everyone already has in their cars.”

“Cogeco providing diffusion, coverage and content will allow MTQ to keep drivers informed about detours and work areas not just in the city itself, but right down to the Canada-U.S. border,” added Ministère des Transports spokesperson Mario Saint-Pierre.

Frequencies & equipment

The medium-wave frequencies selected for the project are 690 kHz and 940 kHz. Both are AM clear channels previously used by public-service broadcaster, Canadian Broadcasting Corp. (CBC), in French and English.

In order to deliver better audio, the francophone Radio-Canada station CBF moved from 690 kHz to 95.1 MHz and the anglophone CBC Radio CBM from 940 kHz to 88.5 MHz in the 1990s.

The frequencies were then used by Corus Broadcasting, which put all-news French station CINF on 690 kHz and all-news English station CINW on 940 kHz.

CINW’s history can be traced back to Dec. 1, 1919, when Montreal’s Marconi Wireless Co. launched XWA. Short for “Experimental Wireless Apparatus,” XWA was one of the world’s first commercial radio broadcasters.

Lack of listeners convinced Corus to pull the plug on both stations in January 2010, with the licenses being returned to the regulator, the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). Corus subsequently sold all of its Quebec radio properties to Cogeco Diffusion, including the dark CINF/CINW AM transmitter plants and studios.

Once the CRTC grants Cogeco Diffusion’s request to revive 690 and 940, these old facilities will transmit and house the province’s all-traffic radio stations.

At a cost of $3 million (Canadian) a year until 2014, Ministère des Transports will pay Cogeco Diffusion to program and transmit live traffic broadcasts in English and French daily, from 04:30 (06:00 on weekends) to 01:00 at night. The broadcasts will be live, with the hosts using the Ministère des Transports’ extensive network of roadside cameras to provide up-to-date reports.

“We will cover traffic conditions on the major highways and bridges,” said Lachance. “We will tell our listeners which roads to avoid, what the road conditions are like, and where work is being done right now.”

Late at night

The all-traffic stations will also provide highway safety tips and weather information. Lachance estimates that a total staff of 15 people will be needed to operate the two stations together.

So why will the stations operate well into the night?

“People think that rush hour is the only time when roadwork matters, but given how many truck drivers travel in and out of Montreal, night times also count,” said Saint-Pierre. “Besides, in our efforts to minimize the impact on rush hour drivers, we do the majority of our work during off-hours. That’s when truckers and other off-hour drivers need our information most.”

As clear-channel 50,000 W stations, the former CINF and CINW transmitters have the ability to reach west into Ontario, east into the Maritime provinces, and across the southern border into much of New England at night. However, Lachance does not expect the services to operate at full power.

“We will exist to serve the Montreal market and outlying areas,” he said. “It will be useful to go as far as the Canada-U.S. border [about 44 miles due south], but we won’t need 50,000 W to do that.”

Assuming the CRTC greenlights this proposal — and there are no pressing reasons why it would not approve it — Montreal’s two all-traffic stations will go live later in 2011.

“We have all the equipment in place, and can get both stations up-and-running in short order,” said Lachance. “When this happens, life should hopefully become a bit easier for Montreal’s 1.3 million drivers — even with all the road construction under way.”