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BCE Inc.'s massive radio sell-off includes 5 radio stations in Maritimes

As part of a restructuring, Bell Canada says it's selling 45 of its 105 radio stations, including three in New Brunswick — in Grand Falls, Woodstock and Bathurst — and  two in Truro, N.S.   (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press - image credit)
As part of a restructuring, Bell Canada says it's selling 45 of its 105 radio stations, including three in New Brunswick — in Grand Falls, Woodstock and Bathurst — and two in Truro, N.S. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press - image credit)

As part of restructuring announced this week, the parent company of Bell Canada is selling off 45 of its 103 radio stations, including five in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

Bell is selling all five stations to Halifax-based Maritime Broadcasting Systems, which already owns 24 stations across the Maritimes.

Subject to CRTC approval, MBS Radio will buy CIKX in Grand Falls, CJCJ in Woodstock, CKBC in Bathurst, and CKTO and CKTY, both in Truro.

As part of the cuts announced on Thursday, Bell said it will also cut 4,800 jobs "at all levels of the company."

This round of job cuts is the company's largest in nearly 30 years, and follows the elimination of 1,300 positions last June.

The company said restructuring is expected to save approximately $150 million to $200 million in 2024 and $250 million on an annual basis.

What happens to sold stations?

The Maritime stations' listeners won't notice a difference in the coming months, said David Pace, chief operating officer of Maritime Broadcasting Systems.

That's mostly because the sales are still subject to the approval of the CRTC, the regulatory body.

Once the sale is finalized, however, Bell branding will disappear from the stations, said Pace, meaning the "Bounce 104" tag in Bathurst, for example, can't be used by MBS Radio.

So it's likely the branding will revert back to what it was before Bell Media bought the stations, he said. But ultimately, MBS will "rebrand the stations as ours."

"We're not making any decisions now," said Pace. "We're just excited about the opportunity. We're hopeful that the CRTC will approve these and we can get to work."

Intent not to close

Pace said MBS certainly isn't buying the stations to close them. He said the plan is to improve them and make them even more local than they were under Ontario-based ownership.

MBS, said Pace, is a family-owned, Halifax-based company that focuses on local stations.

"We had a strategy a long time ago that if you want to operate local radio stations, you have to stay close to those local radio stations. … So from a strategic perspective, we always said that we were never going to go over to Newfoundland, we were never gonna go to Quebec or Ontario."

Robert Malcolmson, Bell's chief legal and regulatory officer, said the company sold the stations that weren't viable.

Pace heard that description but "we look at this as a great opportunity," he said.

"The way that they managed was from afar, where we manage close."

David Pace is the chief operating officer of Maritime Broadcasting Systems, which bought five radio stations in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia from Bell Canada.
David Pace is the chief operating officer of Maritime Broadcasting Systems, which bought five radio stations in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia from Bell Canada.

David Pace, the chief operating officer of Maritime Broadcasting Systems, says the company is buying the five stations Bell Canada wants to shed in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. (Nova Scotia Liquor Corporation)

Pace said he also doesn't foresee any immediate changes to local news.

"We have the Maritime News Network, it's based out of Halifax. We've got reporters around the Maritimes, and we'll have to dive into how these stations are operating. Where are they getting their news from now? Do we have to hire more reporters? These are all decisions to come."

He said MBS plans to make "significant investments" in the stations.

"I don't foresee any major changes other than the brands of these radio stations. I can foresee more salespeople, more on-air people. Again, how we operate across the Maritimes is vastly different than how Bell manages right now."

Local ownership might be good news

Closer-to-home ownership doesn't automatically mean good news for the three stations, but it could, said Prof. Jamie Gillies of the journalism and communications department at St. Thomas University in Fredericton.

"If it's closer to home and they're willing to put in resources, I think that's a step in the right direction," said Gillies, noting Bell has been on a "selling spree" in a lot of smaller regional markets.

He said Bell and other companies have been in print, radio, television, digital markets "and sometimes the one-size-fits-all conglomerate doesn't work for different formats."

While he's hopeful the sale "revitalizes maybe some of those stations or at least gives them some life support for a while, there's larger issues besides Bell ownership impacting the radio industry."

He said radio is having a tough time right now.

"Programming has shifted dramatically from what it was in its heyday. There's not as many people listening — apart from morning commutes and offices, and in the Maritimes that tends not to be all that long."

Add to that, Gillie said, the competition from satellite radio and streaming services, and local radio has a lot to contend with now.