Ottawa radio station gets bad rap
Too many hits runs afoul of CRTC protectionist policy
Barbara Shecter, Financial Post

An Ottawa country music radio station has been reprimanded by its industry regulator for playing too many hits.

CKBY-FM, owned by Rogers Broadcasting Ltd., is licensed to play hits just 50% of the time and now faces contempt of court charges and a hefty fine if it continues to violate regulatory rules.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission designed its "hits" policy in 1975 so that FM stations would not compete with AM stations, whose playlists at the time were primarily made up of Top-40 hits.

Yesterday, the CRTC said it was "gravely concerned" by the Ottawa station's behaviour.

The prohibition on playing too many hits, which are defined by industry Top-40 and Top-100 charts, was lifted across most of Canada in 1997.

But it remains in effect in Montreal and Ottawa-Hull because French radio station owners argued that they could not compete against English-language all-hits stations, said Denis Carmel, a spokesman for the CRTC.

"Frankly it's a protection measure to protect the French stations ... It would affect their viability if [English-language stations] were allowed to play 100% hits," he said.

CKBY's owners were called to a hearing in Ottawa in June after the commission did a random check in 1999 and found that during the broadcast week of May 9 to May 15, Top-40 hits were played 51.3% of the time.

Executives from Rogers Broadcasting told the commission that the breach was the result of station staff not looking at a hits chart produced by RPM 100 Country Tracks. They had therefore failed to identify some music selections as hits.

Rogers Broadcasting has since revised its weekly monitoring and reporting mechanisms, and methods for developing playlists, the executives said. A full-time regulatory affairs officer has been hired to make sure the station is aware of all the CRTC's rules.

Despite these changes, the CRTC renewed CKBY's licence for only 15 months -- well short of the usual seven-year licence.

As well, CKBY was slapped with a "mandatory order." This gives the commission the power to file any future grievances about the playing of hits to the Federal Court, where CKBY would be charged with contempt of court. If found guilty, CKBY would face fines and could have its broadcasting licence suspended or revoked.

"The commission's decision in this matter reflects the seriousness with which it views the licensee's repeated failure to comply with this condition of licence," the CRTC said in its decision. "It intends to monitor the licensee's performance closely."

Jan Innes, a spokeswoman for Rogers Broadcasting parent company, Rogers Communications Inc., said the radio station's format remains acceptable, despite the harsh treatment by the commission.

"We believe we can live within the guidelines. We've made some mistakes but we've corrected them and I don't expect them to happen again."

Barbara Shecter, Financial Post