Less Local Programming, More Syndication!

I’ve written and rewritten this article several times now. A few times it was because it came across as too ranty. When I finally wrote something I liked, the story changed.

Bell Media decided to either cut entire newsrooms or rebrand several stations and dumping all the personnel in the process. Here in Montréal, one of the most storied newsrooms was scorched as CJAD saw nearly its entire news team get laid off.

I’m not even going to try to recap what’s happened because there are people that have done a great job at detailing what’s been happening way better than I ever could (with far less typos). If you haven’t heard the news, I strongly suggest you check out the two articles from Steve Faguy on his blog on the Bell Media cuts, further changes to CJAD, and the rebranding of several TSN radio stations. There was also a fairly good article published by the Journal de Montréal (in French)

It’s never nice to see people lose their jobs, but this felt like much more. If all these radio stations weren’t owned by radio and television stations weren’t owned by the same company, then it probably wouldn’t seem as bad. However, the collective dismissals make it feel like Bell has no desire to make an effort in increasing their audience for local news coverage. Also, the robotic nature of how these cuts were performed makes Bell seem heartless.

To be fair, we may have sentimental feelings about radio and TV stations as they feel like they’re part of the community, but they’re also businesses that are supposed to generate revenue. Media is no longer local as we typically get our news from sources outside of the city we live in. Local news serves a purpose, but we don’t need local news services to deliver us stories beyond our neighbourhood. It used to be that if someone wanted the New York Times, you would need to either visit a specialized magazine store or go to the library (or live in New York) and so getting international stories with our local newscasts made sense. Today, the New York Times actively advertises special subscription plans for their online service to Canadians.

I’m sure the metrics and the advertising dollars told Bell that they needed to make cuts. By using a machete to attack the problem, Bell Media doesn’t try to improve their product, but will try to go with the cheaper option. This would be like a sports team firing half their team and not replacing them with anybody instead of trading for prospects or established talent. Instead of investing in local programming, they made cuts. Peter Anthony Holder being replaced by cheaper talent and syndicated fare was the first domino to fall (although I’m sure there are some CJAD historians that could argue for instances that took place earlier). Even before we got to the current sad state of affairs, we have a syndicated afternoon show, a simulcasted (out of Montréal) evening show, and repeats of shows late into the evening; not to mention the shows littered throughout their schedule where the hosts paid for airtime.

The funny thing is that every move that Bell has done over the last couple of years to change their stations is something that an average listener can do themselves by downloading podcasts. Syndicated shows, non-local chit-chat shows, best-of shows, and any idiot with a microphone are available to anyone who has a podcast app on their phone. Bell has been putting shows on the air that people don’t have actually have to listen on the radio for as they could download it (or a similar show) without even touching a radio dial.

The degradation of local media is cyclical. The people running the property cut costs by reducing local content, which in turn pushes viewers away because the local station doesn’t produce enough content to make it unique. Ratings fall which means revenue drops. These stations reduce local content again to further trim costs. Then it gets to the point where there’s nothing left to cut but everything that’s left.

It’s funny because if you look at mainstream companies that are doing well, they’re doing so because they’ve invested heavily in content. Netflix-created media is widely received to be well done. Apple TV started their streaming service by offering only their self-created content. Letterkenny and stand-up specials aside, Bell seems to be doing the exact opposite with Crave.

Perhaps part of the problem is that Bell is a telecommunications company first and they have media holdings to bolster their services. As much is said about Bell investing in their infrastructure, you very rarely hear about them investing in their radio and television stations, other than to acquire (or sell) them. It happens, but not as often as you hear about cuts to local programming.

The cuts at CJAD (and elsewhere) are sad and it probably won’t get better. However, with limited incentive for large corporations to make changes to how they operate, the only change will continue to be negative. The simple answer would be to tell people to listen and watch these stations to support them, but why should people spend their time with a product that they don’t care for just because they’re sentimental about its history. While we do have the government-owned CBC, perhaps it would be worth looking at having cooperatively-owned stations that are owned by the community. Cable access and university run stations are something, but they don’t quite fill that role. Maybe YouTube or audio streaming is the answer.

I wish I could offer better solutions to finish my rant, but other than telling Bell to spend more money on local programming, there’s not much I could suggest. However, when the Expos come back, I really do hope that they support local by paying lots and lots of money for media rights.

Jamie Gore

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