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Local Quebec radio groups want more gov’t ads

News | 09/12/2019 5:25 pm EDT
Photo via Pxhere.

Two local Quebec radio groups representing around 60 stations in the province are asking the provincial government to shift more of its advertising budget to their members.

The Association des radios régionaux francophones (ARRF) and the Association des radios communautaires du Québec (ARCQ) have been teaming up to lobby the Quebec government for many months about an alleged neglect to spend more ad dollars on smaller regional stations. The groups claim that the majority of government ads, ranging from public health to local elections, go to BCE Inc. and Cogeco Inc. — both of which own sizeable numbers of stations in the province. 

An ongoing issue for the groups, the lobbying registration was renewed on Monday and has achieved added relevance over the past couple of weeks. In late August, the Quebec National Assembly held hearings about how to buoy journalism in the province. ARCQ director general Martin Bougie was at the hearings.

“Any information campaign by the government is a public interest, and it’s the responsibility of the government to make sure that, in their media strategy, they reach the maximum citizens on the widest territory possible,” Bougie said in a phone interview.

Bougie said the groups haven’t yet had a formal meeting with new premier François Legault. 

Bougie said the vast majority of the groups’ stations — which get between five and 10 per cent of government ads — largely serve areas outside of major urban markets, where about half of the Quebec population resides. Often, Bougie said, those are the only local radio stations in those markets.

To put those figures into context, Bougie estimates that social media companies like Facebook Inc. and Alphabet Inc. — the overwhelmingly dominant players in the digital ad space — get about 12 per cent of Quebec’s advertising. 

The concentrated attention on spending in urban markets, according to Bougie, has not only upset the broadcasters’ balance sheets as smaller stations struggle financially, but it has also deprived the stations’ ability to deliver relevant ads to those citizens. 

“There’s a need to change the way the government approach[es] advertising,” he added. 

The associations say they don’t want to increase the government’s advertising budget to accommodate those smaller stations; rather, it wants those budgets to be better distributed, according to its lobby registration.  

The ARRF has initiated meetings with the Quebec government since 2016, as it disseminated awareness to government authorities about the importance of regional radio stations, their registration adds. In February 2018, the ARRF joined the ARCQ, combining their membership and bolstering their voice on the issue. 

Julie Champagne, spokeswoman in the communications department for the National Assembly, did not respond in time to specific questions about whether the commission is exploring that shift in ad resources to independent community stations and how much it spends on different platforms, which she said is the domain of the treasury.

Champagne said the assembly does not know when the report will be released. Bougie said he hopes the assembly’s report on the future of media will be released before the end of the year. 

If so, it would come before the release of a report in January 2020 by a federal government-appointed panel studying changes to the telecommunications and broadcasting acts.

The federal government has also recognized the struggles of the journalism industry lately. Late last year, it announced nearly $600-million in tax breaks for the industry over five years. The problem for broadcasters? It currently only really benefits newspapers. 

“This is the message we’re sending: we have to have a global strategy that goes beyond any [media group] because this is something that concerns all of us — and yes radio also,” Bougie said. Broadcasters including Corus Entertainment Inc. and Cogeco have been lobbying the federal government to make that class of media eligible for the tax breaks.  

“We urge the government to stop reacting to urgent matters and adopt a global policy on how to handle this local news problem in Canada so that we can react in a more organized way,” he said. 

Publisher TC Transcontinental also submitted to the Quebec hearings on the future of media, saying in a late August press release that the government must “act quickly to support all owners of local and regional newspapers in the province.” 

In June, CRTC chairman Ian Scott told a broadcasting conference that the regulator is prepared to get ahead of new challenges for radio — reaching younger demographics and streaming service challengers, for example — with whatever regulatory direction it takes, as it’s set to review its approach to commercial radio. 

With reporting by Ahmad Hathout at ahathout@thewirereport.ca and editing by Michael Lee-Murphy at mleemurphy@thewirereport.ca 

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