Sports  Cogeco killed the radio star

Montreal's only Francophone sports radio station becomes a bilingual traffic station

Two weeks ago, Quebec lost a veteran player of the sports radio game. CKAC 730 AM, Montreal’s only all-French sports radio station, has definitively changed hands and direction. The 90 year-old institution – which had served as the main broadcaster of Canadiens, Alouettes, and Impact games for the last half decade – is now devoted exclusively to traffic reports. This change officially took place on Tuesday, September 6 at 4:30 a.m. The beloved sports station is now “Radio Circulation,” Montreal’s first radio station devoted entirely to traffic and weather. They will broadcast in both English and French.

In April 2010, Cogeco Inc. paid $80 million to Corus Quebec in exchange for numerous radio stations in the province, including CKAC, the oldest francophone AM frequency in North America. Cogeco assumed ownership at a time when there was a serious decline in radio audiences, especially on the AM air waves.  While the move away from sports broadcasting could possibly have been foreseen, it still comes as a shock to Quebec sports fans, many of whom were loyal listeners to the station.

It comes as no less of a shock to Quebec residents that their government was involved in the change. This past May, the Quebec Transport Department signed a deal with Cogeco to establish two radio stations – one in English and one in French – that would provide Montrealers with non-stop traffic information. Due to a conflict with competitors Bell Media and Astral Media, Cogeco has only established one bilingual traffic station.

Richard Lachance, the executive vice president at Cogeco Diffusion, told The Gazette, “It’s not with a happy heart that we change the vocation of CKAC. At the same time, we think we’ve made the best decision given the circumstances because Montrealers desperately need continual up-to-date information of traffic and roadwork. So it was urgent that Radio Circulation get on air by early September.”

Since the station has ended all sports broadcasting, many of its top announcers, like Michel Villeneuve and Ron Fournier, have decided to move to CHMP (98.5 FM), which will now serve as the main French broadcaster for Montreal sports teams.

CKAC’s airwaves did not always exclusively broadcast sports. The station saw some important historical and cultural moments before “bumper-to-bumper on the 20 West” took over. Major events of the October Crisis of 1970 unfolded in the studios of the station. René Lévesque, Prime Minister of Quebec from 1976 to 1985, even co-hosted a show at the end of his career. During the Ice Storm of 1998, CKAC offered news coverage in the greater region of Montreal, when battery-powered radios were the only option for accessing news.

In 2005, Corus Quebec shut down the newsroom at CKAC. This marked its shift towards an all-sports station. The move seemed reasonable. CKAC was able to compete with FM frequencies during and after Habs games. However, it proved hard for the station to attract audiences, and the revenue they generate, during hockey’s off-season.

Before 2004, CKAC hadn’t experienced much difficulty attracting listeners. In 1972, Major League baseball came to Montreal in the form of the Expos. CKAC immediately picked up the rights to their games, and Jacques Doucet began his long career as the play-by-play commentator during the games. His voice still resonates in the hearts of baseball fans around the city. For the 32 years the Expos played, CKAC carried almost every game. While some games were broadcast on television, it was common practice to mute the TV and listen to the radio during those games. My grandfather did it all the time.

The thing about baseball is that it’s made for radio. The pace is slow and there is no time limit. Between each pitch, there is a lot of time to talk about stats, history or anecdotes. Doucet had the baseball knowledge, and the linguistic ability, to fill these time slots extremely well. He captivated his listeners and turned them into Expos fans. During hockey’s off-season, Jacques Doucet held the CKAC sports fort.

In 2004, as many AM frequencies were already losing listeners, Montreal lost baseball. This was probably the beginning of the end for CKAC as an all-sports station. Coverage of the Alouettes and the CFL did not offer a real alternative to baseball on the radio: a football season is 18 games long; a baseball season is 162 games long. The multitude of sports talk shows aired at the end of CKAC’s life simply did not cut it, it seems.

The death of CKAC sports puts into question the place of sports on the radio and, perhaps more upsettingly, the place of francophone stations on the radio. The very possibility of streaming live games on the internet seems to undermine the necessity of live radio coverage, especially to students like us who don’t get around by car. The availability of the image may decrease the importance of the sound. Hopefully, the shift away from the radio will not lower our standards for commentators. It would be nice to have a few more Jacques Doucet’s around for Montreal sports fans, whether on television or radio.