THINK TANK: The Evolving Landscape Of Canadian Radio Ownership

Now that the dust has pretty much settled on the Bell Media acquisition of Astral and final CRTC approval is all that’s stopping the transfer of ownership for the various divested properties, we thought it would be helpful to look at what these ownership conversions may mean to their respective markets.

In the markets where they had to shed stations, Bell kept the four top-rated properties (be it a Bell or Astral branded signal) and then put the “For Sale” sign out on the rest.  The potential multi-million-dollar price tag meant that smaller broadcast operators wouldn’t be able to get in on the play, but it opened the door for mid-tier companies to expand and develop a greater national profile. While we can’t predict exactly what’ll be happening over the next few months, we can make a few educated guesses, all based upon the fact that — relative to market conditions — media companies traditionally stay close to the formats they’ve had experience and/or success with elsewhere, as well as having an affinity for any sort of in-house branding they’ve spent time developing (or licensing outright).  So, with that in mind, let’s gaze into the crystal ball…

In Ottawa, Corus Entertainment will be expanding their Ontario footprint, entering the market by purchasing active-rocker “The Bear” and classic-hits “Boom 99.7”. Corus has experience with the active rock format, so aside from a few tweaks, things at The Bear should remain status quo, though we wouldn’t be surprised to see wholesale changes in store for Boom 97.7 — Corus has been seeing success with “Fresh FM”, their Hot Adult Contemporary brand that’s been introduced in various cities across the country. Strictly from a sales perspective, rolling out a more female-focused format to complement the male numbers generated from The Bear only makes sense.

The Toronto landscape will soon have a new player in the form of Newcap Radio, which’ll be making the leap into Canada’s largest media market once they take possession of “Flow 93.5” and “Boom 97.3”. Ratings-wise, Flow has been an under-performer for a number of years, so the question arises as to whether Newcap would be willing to stay the course with the current hyper-niche “Rhythmic Top 40” sound, or go in a more mainstream direction and battle it out directly with KiSS 92.5, Z103.5 and Virgin. Newcap has plenty of experience with the format, having Top 40 stations in Ottawa, Sudbury, Calgary & St. John’s, so if they do decide to revamp the sound of Flow, they’ll have a pool of talent that can be tapped into for both programming and on-air.

The old cliche of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” really comes to mind for Boom 97.3, with the recent PPM’s revealing a top-3 showing for F25-54 (8.7 share) and a #6 placement for M25-54 (7.1 share). Keeping the same format but blowing up the existing branding and introducing a new name / image simply for the sake of putting their own mark on the station would serve no real purpose, as the confusion created at the listener level would have a negative impact. It’s probably safe to assume that Newcap will try to come to an agreement with Bell regarding the long-term use of the Boom name in Toronto.

Yet another new corporate entity is entering a market, this time in Winnipeg with the Jim Pattison Broadcast Group set to take over classic-hits “Fab 94.3” and country “QX104”. With a growing number of radio holdings in BC & Alberta, Pattison has generally kept a low profile, mainly due to the fact that, being a privately-held company, they don’t have to deal with the media hype & speculation regarding share prices and quarterly financial reports. Operations at QX104 should remain stable, as the station is a solid performer in the market, but the outlook for Fab 94.3 may not be as certain. Even though Fab remains middle-of-the-pack ratings-wise, the aging of the ‘classic hits’ format and continual erosion in listenership may necessitate something new on the frequency. While there’s already Active and Classic Rock being served up in Winnipeg, Pattison’s AAA-based “The Peak” brand has found a loyal audience in Vancouver and could easily be replicated here.

Pattison also opened up their wallet to purchase Calgary’s “101.5 Kool FM”. The company had been a rumoured front-runner to buy the station ever since they won the license to launch a new signal, “95.3 The Peak”. Simply from a sales perspective, buying Kool was a smart strategic move, as it’s advantageous for your account execs to have options to present to clients, especially when you’re the new kid on the block taking on already-established competitors. Since the station launch in 2007, Kool, in its various incarnations, has struggled to find an audience, which opens the door for Pattison to consider a serious overhaul. Industry speculation has Kool flipping to Country and going head-to-head with Corus’ “Country 105”, which is currently drawing a market-leading 13.0-share for the W25-54 demo.

Finally, in Vancouver, three properties will be swapping hands, with “Virgin 953”, “The Shore” and “650 CISL” all going to Newcap Radio. Much like the situation in Toronto, Newcap is a new entrant, so it may take them a while to get their bearings in the market. One thing is for sure, there’ll be some changes happening of one sort or another. Virgin continues to post solid ratings, with numbers landing in the upper-third of the overall pack, but unless Bell is allowed to sub-license their existing agreement with Virgin Radio International, Newcap will be forced to completely rebrand the station, which could affect listener retention. The Shore has found a small but loyal audience, though the ratings they provide may not be enough as the station battles it out with “The Peak” and, to a lesser extent, “99.3 The Fox” for a finite number of Alternative ears.  As for CISL, in a market where there are already dominant Talk, News and Sports signals on the AM band, the options for success are limited. While the current “All Time Favourites” format may engage a niche crowd that enjoys music in mono, the long-term outlook for music on AM is limited. With many of Vancouver’s ethnic communities underserved by media, embracing third-language content may be an idea Newcap will have to explore in the foreseeable future.

As mentioned off the top, these are all just educated guesses, but based on the markets and the trending among corporate entities, they all like feel pretty safe bets.