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Peter Vogel

Radio struggles to find an audience

Voices May 23, 2018

A shakeup in Vancouver radio stations illustrates how broadcasting is facing the same issues as the newspaper industry has over the past two decades, writes Peter Vogel. (Pexels.com)

In a time when we see newspapers struggling to stay relevant and financially viable, the field of AM and FM radio continues to plod along, more or less as it has for several generations.

Occasionally new stations appear, although generally speaking, the spectrum in both the AM and FM bands is nearly full for the Vancouver area.

Certainly stations change format on occasion but it’s relatively unusual for a station to go silent.

Such was the case recently with Roundhouse Radio 98.3, the vision of well-known Vancouver broadcaster Don Shafer.

Roundhouse was one of the first stations to be licensed by the CRTC, Canada’s broadcast regulator, with a hyperlocal signal pattern. In essence, Roundhouse was to be a sort of neighbourhood radio station, focused strictly on Vancouver city.

That meant a low-power operation and an antenna system that essentially ensured the signal didn’t stray much beyond Boundary Road. I can attest to that; I found it difficult to tune the station along say Hwy. 1 in Burnaby.

Roundhouse was a first-class operation when it went on the air. State of the art technology, a terrific lineup of on-air talent, people with years of experience in the broadcasting field. However, it was an experiment that didn’t work and early this month the transmitter was switched off.

The lifeblood of a radio station is advertising, and advertising goes where there is an audience. Roundhouse wasn’t able to nurture a big enough audience with its small footprint signal and the station investors weren’t seeing signs of a turnaround.

One of the last gasps for the station was that it acquired the rights to legendary radio show Coast to Coast AM, a syndicated show that runs 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. (Pacific Time) on hundreds of stations across North America.

Those rights were transferred by the Canadian rights holder, Bell Canada, from major station CKNW to Roundhouse. That caused an uproar as effectively it meant that most Lower Mainland fans of the Coast program could no longer receive it on radio, unless they were in the small Roundhouse footprint.

That left CKNW, the station that for decades billed itself as the Top Dog, but is nowadays mostly No. 3 in audience metrics, scrambling to fill the overnight void. One of the station’s program hosts, Justin “Drex” Wilcomes, along with Corus Entertainment, a spinoff from Shaw Communications that runs numerous broadcasting outlets, came up with the notion of running a national late-night radio talk show.

Thus was born The Shift with Drex, running in the same 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. slot as Coast to Coast, and serving cities across the land from Vancouver to Toronto. However, live shows only run Sunday through Thursday (Vancouver time), in reality Monday to Friday Toronto time.

Early going for the new late night talk show was less than smooth, but once longtime radio producer Bob Addison came on board, production problems faded away and the program seems to have found an audience. Corus has added a dedicated national news reader to the four-hour slot. Don’t expect to hear anything too local on those newscasts, even though they originate from the Global studios in Burnaby.

There has been a bit of a shakeup across a number of Vancouver area stations, mostly on AM. Longtime cellar-dweller when it comes to ratings CTFE 1410 (at one time known across much of western Canada as pop music powerhouse CFUN) recently dropped its sports format and rebranded itself as BNN Bloomberg Radio 1410.

That set off a chain of events that saw two of the more popular shows sent over to sister station TSN 1040. However the time slots of those two programs, The Jim Rome Show and The Dan Patrick Show, have been moved, and that has seen listeners looking elsewhere for them.

Prior to the format change at CTFE there were three AM sports stations in this market, the third being Sportsnet 650, a frequency that for many years had been home to oldies format station CISL. Three sports stations was overkill, and there is an argument to be made that two is still too many. In some ratings periods the sports stations draw smaller numbers here than religious broadcaster Praise 106.5 from Lynden, WA.

As for that Coast to Coast program, it resurfaced on the BNN 1410 station two weeks ago.

In some countries, analogue radio such as we have here on the AM and FM bands is disappearing, being replaced by digital radio. The Spotify generation, if it listens to radio at all, does so mainly via mobile phones. That rules out AM radio due to antenna requirements.

Certain broadcasters see the writing on the wall for the AM band. They have begun carrying their AM station feeds in sidebands on their FM signals, using a technology called HD (nothing to do with high-definition) Radio. For instance, the Corus-owned Rock 101.1 FM station also carries CKNW and traffic station AM730 on the FM signal. However you won’t be able to decode the signals unless you have an HD-capable tuner, typically in your vehicle.

Longer term, broadcasting in general faces the same issues as the newspaper industry has over the past two decades. Two major American broadcasting conglomerates, iHeartMedia and Cumulus Media, are in bankruptcy protection and their future remains highly uncertain.

Want to keep tabs on the local broadcast scene, for radio and TV? Check out RadioWest (radiowest.ca), Northwest Broadcasters (nwbroadcasters.com) and Puget Sound Radio (pugetsoundradio.com).

Follow me on Facebook (facebook.com/PeterVogelCA) or on Twitter (@PeterVogel).
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