Getting it Wrong
Was the CRTC dictating news content? The editorialists thought so...
The Globe and Mail‘s editorial ran under a grave headline: “The State as editor.” The writer insisted the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission had no business imposing a 45-percent Canadian content quota on the news broadcasts of two Windsor radio stations, citing freedom of the media as guaranteed in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. A similar editorial appeared in Ottawa’s The Citizen. It called the decision “an ominous precedent” and reminded the CRTC it had “no place in the newsrooms of the nation.”
The Canadian Radio-TV News Directors Association also accused the CRTC of violating the Charter of Rights. The broadcasters were so incensed they sent a letter to CRTC Chairman Andre Bureau demanding assurances “to make it clear this case will not become a dangerous precedent which could lead to regulation of newscast content being imposed on other broadcasters in the future.” Journalists from Kamloops to Montreal reflected their concern.
The trouble was that all this preoccupation with freedom of the media clouded another journalistic principle-getting the story right.
Doing so in this case requires an understanding that the situation for Windsor broadcasters is unique. Less than 1,000 metres separates downtown Windsor from downtown Detroit. Windsor’s population is 250,000, Detroit’s more than 4 million. Besides the CBC and university radio stations, Windsor has only four stations. Detroit has more than 40. Advertisers wishing to reach Windsor listeners often buy time on Detroit rather than Windsor stations. Two Windsor stations, CKLW and CKEZ-FM, were suffering badly from listener and advertising losses. In an attempt to compete with the neighboring giant, Windsor stations were turning more and more to American programming, according to Bob O’Brien, station manager for both CKLW and CKEZ-FM.
In July of 1984, the CRTC deferred the license renewals for CKLW and CKEZ-FM while it held public hearings into the special problems facing the Windsor area. The formal CRTC decision, dated last March 29, stated that stations applying for renewal should show “how they will meet the particular needs and interests of the Windsor area, and remain a Canadian service.” CKLW and CKEZ-FM each had to submit a Promise of Performance-an outline detailing how they would accomplish this. When the CRTC received their Promises of Performance, each of the stations had voluntarily offered to program 45-percent Canadian content into their news broadcasts.
Pierre Baril, an information officer at the CRTC, calls the Promises of Performance “awkward” but says the editorial writers took the final decision out of context. “We are not imposing or requiring anything.” He explains that the stations had to win back listeners, and as long as they abide by regulations, the CRTC can’t tell them what they can or can’t do. As for the backlash from other news media, Baril says the CRTC isn’t worried. “We will have to live with that.”
Does the quota mean required Canadian content news will replace Detroit news that may be more relevant to Windsor listeners? Keith Campbell, president of CKLW and CKEZ-FM and former executive vice president of CTV, says no. “It shouldn’t happen that you have to stack [Canadian content] news at the end. If that happens the newspeople aren’t doing their jobs.”
Station manager O’Brien says that before the stations drew up their Promises of Performance, they analyzed the past 90 days of their newscasts and found they had been airing at least 45-per-cent Canadian content anyway. That was why O’Brien chose to mention newscasts in his outline.
And according to Campbell, the new quotas have been good for the stations. In less than a year, their ratings have jumped to five per cent of the market from less than one per cent. Eventually, the quotas won’t be necessary. “I don’t see it as a forever circumstance,” he says.
Since those early tirades, the attitude of at least some of the media has mellowed. Don Johnston, news director at CFRB, says little can be done to change the situation. “I feel very strongly that no government body should be in on the handling of any news medium, but they asked to be regulated and we’re not in any position to contest the ruling,” he says. “What’s done is done.”