Media

Stewing over Stern

Anthony Wilson-Smith December 15 1997
Media

Stewing over Stern

Anthony Wilson-Smith December 15 1997

Stewing over Stern

Media

The dilemma for the people who oversee CHOM FM in Montreal and Q-107 FM in Toronto is clear: dare they not cancel the most popular program on either radio station? Since its Canadian debut in September, the New York City-based Howard Stern Show has aroused intense debate over its content and future. Stern’s profanity-laced language led the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC) to rule in November that he routinely violates the industry’s code of ethics. It gave the two stations a month to respond. Now, a defining moment is approaching in the relationship between radio operators and the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC)—which has the power, among other things, to suspend licences or refuse renewal.

In an industry that has for the most part been a chronic money-loser in recent years, the stakes are enormous. Last week, different sets of measurements in Toronto and Montreal demonstrated that Stern’s show has dramatically increased ratings. In Montreal, Bureau of Broadcast Measurement ratings showed that CHOM’s morning-show audience increased by 20 per cent. In Toronto, confidential polls conducted by the Angus Reid Group and obtained by Maclean’s indicate even more dramatic improvement for Q-107. Between September and November, it moved to second from 10th place overall, increasing its average audience share to 12.8 per cent from 3.8 per cent. That represents a huge potential increase in advertising income in a radio market where annual revenues top $100 million.

By that measure, the gamble to import Stern has paid off for CHOM, owned by CHUM Inc. of Toronto, and Q-107, owned by Western International Communications (WIC) of Vancouver. Now, industry sources say, stations in Vancouver and Edmonton are poised to follow. But everyone awaits the second review of Stern’s show —expected next week—by the CBSC. It could recommend that the program be taken off the air, or moved to another time. Although the council has no formal powers, its wishes have never been defied by member stations. If, however, CHUM or WTC do so, the CRTC’s options include lifting licences.

For now, that is unlikely, but there are other reasons why neither company wants to antagonize the CRTC. The regulator is currently holding hearings to consider radio operators’ requests that ownership restric-

tions and content requirements be changed. They want permission to own multiple stations in the same market.

And sources at both companies concede they underestimated the extent of the council’s criticism. Meanwhile, Stern’s contract

with each station—three years at an estimated $300,000 a year—is guaranteed against cancellation.

For their part, government officials say they hope the issue is settled voluntarily. “We are not thrilled [by the show],” says an adviser to Jean Chrétien. “But to quote the Prime Minister, Who’s Howard Stern?’ Why give him free publicity?” In fact, the shock jock doesn’t need it, and many Canadians will continue to listen—as long as they are allowed to.

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH