BUSINESS

Pulling the plug at CKO

After 13 years, a radio network shuts down

JOHN DALY November 20 1989
BUSINESS

Pulling the plug at CKO

After 13 years, a radio network shuts down

JOHN DALY November 20 1989

Pulling the plug at CKO

BUSINESS

After 13 years, a radio network shuts down

It was a broadcast experiment that teetered on the edge of failure for almost its entire 13-year history. Even the staff of the money-losing CKO all-news radio network frequently joked morbidly about its inability to attract enough listeners and advertisers, scrawling "CK-Zero" on a washroom wall in its Toronto headquarters and suggesting that its slogan should be "The sound of no one listening from coast to coast." But when the end finally came last Friday, its suddenness shocked even the most hard-bitten cynics. Managers in the nine CKO newsrooms across the country gath ered employees together simultaneously just after noon eastern time on Nov. 10 and an nounced the network had just shut down. The decision immediately put the 225 staffers at CKO stations from Halifax to Vancouver out of work. Said David Sieger, a Toronto-based CKO reporter: "Some people were angry, some people were crying, and some headed straight for the bar."

At a hastily called news conference two hours later in a downtown Toronto hotel, Robert Dittmer, executive vice-president of

Saskatoon-based Agra Industries Ltd., outlined the main problems facing the radio network: staggering losses of $55 million since 1976. He said that Agra, which sold CKO and several cable television systems—with about 200,000 subscribers—to Montreal-based Cogeco Inc. in September for $270 million, continued to manage the network pending approval of the sale by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). Dittmer said that Agra sought the opinion of

Cogeco directors before the

closure. He insisted that CKO, which lost $1.5 million over the past two months alone, simply could not be saved. And although CKO’s audience, which has rarely amounted to more than four per cent of adult listeners in any of the cities in which it operates, was

growing, Dittmer said he had concluded that CKO could still not break even. Said Dittmer: “Given that reality, we have decided to cease operations.”

Still, CKO president Stanley Stewart said that the network’s all-news format “was a concept that was ahead of its time.” And many broadcast executives and industry analysts said that

restrictive CRTC regulations contributed to the station’s demise. Last year, the CRTC rejected a plan that would have allowed CKO to switch from an FM signal to the AM band in Toronto.

Still, many CKO reporters said that network disorganization and overreliance on inexperienced news staff added to its woes. Said former television news anchorman Harvey Kirck, who left CKO in September after two years as a commentator: “There was a tremendous opportunity there, but nobody quite got a handle on how to put it together.” And as CKO’s em-

ployees start their search for new jobs and opportunities, many will undoubtedly be more wary of participating in another broadcast experiment.

JOHN DALY

DAVID TODD