Montreal Radio Blog

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Evolution of Cable

Once upon a time, some people lived with a handful of over-the-air analog channels. There were even such things as black-and-white receivers. Hard to imagine the way thing have evolved since then!
Back in the 1980s, just having cable was a big deal. Even though you’ve got far more choice today, it seemed you were getting far more bang for your buck back then. Specialty channels were scarce, but all you really wanted was to pick up the border channels anyway. That, and the way the image appeared to be crystal clear with cable. Today, we scoff at anything that isn’t HD, but at that time, it was standard analog cable that was the step up from the old rabbit ears.

There is one thing that is similar now to the early days of cable TV, and that is the necessity for a set-top box. Back in the 1970s and a part of the 1980s, you needed a set-top cable converter. Some rented it from their cable provider, others bought their own. The rented ones tended to be corded models, like the one shown below. It only had the capacity for about 30 channels and you couldn’t control the volume with it, or even turn the set on for that matter. The store-bought models, made by manufacturers like Jerrold and Philips did provide those features, were wireless and looked impressive sitting on top of the TV.

As the 80s drew to a close, most new TV sets had built-in converters, and thus all you needed to do was plug the cable directly into the unit. If you subscribed to pay-TV, it was still necessary to route it though a decoder box provided by the cable company. Keep in mind, unless you had one of those gigantic C-Band dishes or an antenna, you quickly realized that cable companies were monopolies.

The 90s arrived with new decoder technology. In Quebec, Videotron introduced the “Videoway” box with much fanfare. This set-top box introduced us to interactivity several years before the Internet. I’ve mentioned Videoway here before, but it is worth bringing up again, if only to point out how it was a technological sign of things to come. Interactive TV was a new feature of the system, including the ability to chose camera angles during live events and outcomes on pre-recorded TV programs. It never really became as widely used as it could have been, however. There were also interactive program guides, games, news and weather services and so on. But Videoway was still an analog decoder and although it hung around for some up until a few years ago, the technology had become dated by the end of the 90s.

Around the year 2000, digital TV began to appear in earnest. The picture appeared far superior to analog and it became far more customizable. As was the case with early cable, it once again became necessary to hook up an exterior box to benefit from this new technology. At around the same time, Satellite television began to appear in Canada after Grey market dishes began to take business away from the cable companies.

It is ironic that Bell fought against competition in phone services and cable companies against competition for television distribution. Today, they all offer the same services, meaning they all ended up better off and a lot richer by opening up the field. One thing that has significantly changed is the way content distributors are now also content producers.

The final change in cable offerings has been HD programming.
Again, with the necessity of buying or renting a set-top box. The HD set-top box is in all actuality a computer system, complete with a large solid-state drive for its PVR. It will be interesting to see whether in the near future a standard will be developed to allow TV receivers to be designed with set-top box capabilities. If that happens, like in the 80s, all that will be needed from the cable company is the cable.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

There is no respect for Montreal's radio history

It hasn’t been a fun time for fans of Montreal radio in recent years. If one thing has become apparent, it is that history means nothing when it comes to the preservation of Montreal’s “heritage” stations. It began two decades ago when the CFCF call sign disappeared in favour of CIQC. Yes, I know, they were forced to change their letters, but still! At the very least the station continued to exist on 600 under its new name for nearly a decade. The 600 frequency would go silent, but theoretically, the station lived on down the dial at 940. A few years ago, the plug was pulled on the old CFCF's decades and decades of history - good and bad. My car radio’s still programmed to stop on 940 during scans, even though I never listened to it much in its “declining” years. All I hear now is static. Too bad, because supposedly it is a great frequency to have. But the radio “carnage’ didn’t stop there!

CKAC was also hugely significant when it came to Montreal’s radio history. It spent its final years as an all-sports station. I was under the impression they were doing reasonably well with the Habs and all. Their ownership however, hit the jackpot when the Quebec government decided for reasons only they understand, that public money should be handed over to help fund an all-traffic radio station. If it were such a great idea, then it is likely that a private broadcaster would have taken that initiative on their own. Of course, it’s a lot easier when the government is paying your way. So it was bye bye CKAC. Let us not forget that back when CKAC was a hugely popular talk station in the early 90s, their main competitor, the original CJMS was put out of its misery in another odd business merger. At the time, CJMS was actually doing pretty well too.

Now the same folks who turned CKAC in to an all-traffic waste of a frequency wanted to do the same thing in English on the old 940 spot - with the province’s money that is. The CRTC said no.

Which brings us to one of the last classic Anglo radio remnants that is left: CKGM, aka Team/TSN 990. They went through format change after format change right through to 2001 when they went to the all-sports format. It seemed unlikely they could succeed, but amazingly they have held on for more than a decade. Their luck, however, is about to run out. We’ve seen a lot of manoeuvring over the years, but this most recent one by 990’s owner Bell takes things to a new level. This time, they don’t just want to change a format or a place on the dial, they want to change the language of the station itself. 990 was set to shortly move to a new stronger frequency on 690 AM. The reasoning given to the CRTC was that somehow that will allow it to reach a wider English-speaking audience on the western tip of the island and beyond. With them now being the Habs’ rights holders, it might have been a convincing argument. The CRTC bought it. So under the pretext of increasing the reach of the Anglo market, Bell now says they want to use that new frequency as a French-language all-sports station, to complement RDS.

This most recent move seems to have taken the radio world, and more particularly 990 employees totally off-guard. Since the news broke, there has been an emotional campaign launched by the station’s listeners to save it. They are not a huge group by any means, but they have been persistent in their petitions to the CRTC, obligatory Facebook campaign and in their planned rallies.

Will the effort make a difference? You would hope so, but probably not. Canadian media is now owned not by a handful, but by a few fingers worth of massive corporations. All they care about is the bottom line. And if you are able to easily swallow up your competition, you are under far less pressure to respond to the demands of listeners of viewers. Why?  Because you pretty much own everything. If people abandon Station A for Station B and you own them both, so what?

So to summarize, what is clear from the above is that history be damned when it comes to deciding on the fate of long-time institutions. And oh yes, English-speaking radio listeners in Montreal are being screwed.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Remembering Neil McKenty

Neil McKenty was probably the most popular English-language talk show host in Montreal radio history. Whatever you might have thought about his opinions or the way he dealt with callers, the fact is that his legacy is still evident over a quarter of a century after he left the radio business. It was definitely personality-driven radio, as was the case with many of his Montreal contemporaries of the time. There were no e-mails to read and no text messages - it was talk radio in its purest form and it was highly entertaining.

My recollections of the content of McKenty’s “Exchange” are limited, but my memories of his voice are rock solid. When I was young, like in so many other households, the radio dial was set in stone. I was introduced to the medium of radio by hearing the voices of George Balcan, Ted Blackman, Gord Sinclair and Neil McKenty. I can't recall what they were talking about during the early 80s, but I remember their voices as if it were just yesterday. As I got older, I learned that there were other frequencies on the dial and I discovered some great stuff on differing stations local and far away.

Someone who is old enough to remember McKenty’s program told me that at first his tolerance for a caller’s dissenting opinion was pretty limited. It seems that stance mellowed a bit later on however, especially with his online presence. That person also recounted a story of a particular program in the early 1980s where the seal hunt was the topic of the day. Mr. McKenty was aparently very much against it. In the hunt's defence, one caller pointed out that for some native peoples, seal meat was also used for food. McKenty responded that he’d have to try some of that “flipper” meat… Then there was the time a young girl called up and used what McKenty seemed to think were very “big” adult words. He asked her where she had learned them. “From listening to you” was her response.

Neil McKenty hosted a TV talk show for a brief period in the late 1980s, but then seemed to leave broadcasting for good. From then on, he expressed his opinion in print. Less than a year ago, I discovered his relatively new blog entitled - what else - “Exchange”. It was clear that despite being in his late 80s, McKenty had overwhelmingly accepted and embraced the new digital age.

Neil McKenty was another Montreal radio figure who had a lasting influence on others. His passing is another reminder of a time in local radio that has come and gone and can never be repeated.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

More Radio Musings: Texts, talk shows and RCI

Call me old-fashioned, but every time I tune into a radio talk show and hear what seems to be half the program devoted to reading text messages and e-mails, it irks me. The radio talk show was traditionally the only truly interactive medium before the Internet. The tradition is spoiled when someone spends half their time reading comments instead of engaging callers. The conversation between host/guests/callers is what always made radio call-in shows entertaining. The radio talk show as we know it is unfortunately gone forever, replaced with a phone/text/email hybrid monster.

It’s even worse on television, which was never designed to be interactive in the first place. They have too fallen into the Twitter/Facebook trap that has already dumbed down many a newscast with segments devoted to reading tweets and comments. All this is being done to make TV seem like a natural extension of the online world. It isn’t and never will be. You cannot have a two-way conversation between one side and hundreds of thousands or even millions of others. It is difficult enough to have a meaningful, coherent discussion with large groups of people when it is entirely done online.

As for the RCI saga, most of their employees recently found out they will soon lose their jobs. On June 26th, just a few days before Canada Day, Radio Canada International - a broadcaster that reaches far more people than the CBC brass will admit to or even care to know about - will be silenced. The historic Sackville transmitter will be shut down and a “new” RCI will launch as a web-based service.

This decision is wrong on so many levels, particularly because even the budget they had before the 80% cuts was very meager even by CBC standards. CBC brass and supporters like to make a big deal about how important the Corporation is for the country as a national institution. Therefore, it is strange that they would decide to cut the one department that actually fulfills the role of displaying Canada and its news and culture to people who would never otherwise know anything about it. But here lies the problem, the CBC itself. It is a public institution that behaves as if it were a private one. This is not new. They don’t believe in transparency, even when the Feds dare to touch their budget.

It seems funny how within mere days of the announcement of the government’s budget cuts, the CBC already had a list of its cuts prepared. Strange that they seemed to be able to prepare such a detailed list in a matter of a few days… More likely, CBC brass had their chopping block prepared and were waiting for the right pretext to assign blame elsewhere…

The only thing that can save RCI now is direct government intervention, ideally removing it from CBC clutches. It probably won‘t happen though, since there is no political will to save something most Canadians don’t know anything about. Foreign pressure has done little to save international services elsewhere because there is seemingly no money to be made in shortwave. It may seem that way, but the promotional value of having a service like RCI is far greater than governments seem to realize. Furthermore, the vast majority of people who will lose access next month do not have the Internet available to them. For them, Canada will just simply no longer be heard, period.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Axe falls on Radio Canada International shortwave

The axe has fallen on what was once a vital Canadian international communications service. Radio Canada International will soon cease broadcasting on shortwave and be reduced to a web-only format of streaming and podcasts. I’ve written about RCI a few times over the past couple of years and it always appeared as if the service was living on borrowed time. All over the world, shortwave services have been slashed left and right in attempts to save money. Many governments see shortwave as being an obsolete technology now replaced by the seemingly-omnipresent Internet.

As for Montreal-based RCI, I think the CBC has been looking for an excuse to pull the plug on it for years and now have found the perfect opportunity. Is shortwave as relevant as it used to be? Obviously not. At the same time, to assume even in 2012 that people all over the world have equal access to the Internet is absurd. Let’s not forget that the Internet is also being censored in many countries right now. Radio signals can also be interfered with, but traditionally, it was always a good way to get information across to people without having their dictator gatekeepers filter it. It is unlikely that too many governments are concerned with that anymore. It’s all about saving money now and shortwave is seen as expendable because the audience is located abroad.

I listened to RCI during a stay overseas over two decades ago. At the time, there was literally no other way to get news from Canada. Imagine an Internet-free world - well that was the way it was back in the late 1980s… The signal came and went, but it just seemed remarkable that you were listening to something that was originating in Canada.

RCI just turned 67 in February. It had been launched towards the end of the Second World War primarily to keep Canadian military personnel informed of what was going on at home. It then focused on Cold War broadcasting and then as an outlet to promote Canada throughout the world.

RCI’s transmitter in Sackville New Brunswick will be shut down. Several other shortwave services use it to re-transmit their programming. What will become of their usage remains to be seen. Does RCI have a future on the web, or will it simply quietly disappear sooner rather than later?

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Comfort on board buses and in the Metro

The STM has worked hard over the past few years to revamp their image. It’s hard not to notice the new logo, paint scheme and “green” publicity campaign that they have been going with. There have also been many increases in bus service. Whether or not you have or will benefit from any of these improvements depends on where you live. According to Wikipedia stats, Montreal has the 4th most used public transportation system in North America. New York is number one, of course…

Back “in the day”, you waited for the bus and it arrived whenever it arrived. There were no fancy Apps or even signage to indicate when the next bus was coming. Schedules obviously make it a lot easier to plan your trip in advance. It’s also a lot easier, especially in the winter, if you live relatively close to a Metro station. The other biggest change you have obviously noticed is the relatively recent addition of the OPUS card. Gone are the days when you could simply buy a booklet of tickets or a monthly disposable pass. In its place is a complicated system who’s development clearly made some people a lot of money. To be fair, Quebec public transit systems are not the first or the last to migrate to that type of a system, but it is far from user friendly. Now, we learn that these cards only have a four year lifespan.

With all the improvements the STM likes to talk about, the one thing you don’t hear much about is actual comfort. Comfort was never a priority when the Metro was conceived, as it was thought the “masses” would take whatever they were given. Therefore, customer comfort has traditionally been low on the priority list.

Engineers believed that it was going to be freezing cold in the tunnels during the winter and installed heaters in the original Metro cars. They were caught completely off-guard by the sweltering heat that was supposedly caused by the trains. They did what they could to make it more bearable, but the problem of heat in the Metro and on board the cars has never been dealt with. That was true even with a second generation of Metro cars that were delivered in the 1970s. It is likely going to remain the case with the new Metro cars that are to be delivered in a couple of year’s time, since they were ordered without air-conditioning. The STM is promising that the new trains will have a fantastic new ventilation system that will eliminate the need for A/C. They also claim that it would be impossible to have A/C on the Montreal Metro because of all kinds of technical reasons. Somehow, all those reasons don’t seem to exist elsewhere. If riders end up finding the new ventilation system inadequate, they will be stuck in the “heat” for another 30 years.

The Montreal Metro system prides itself on the beauty of its stations. The Metro was also built to run entirely underground and on rubber tires. While there are advantages to this system, when it comes to the actual limitations this all causes for the system’s possible expansion, it probably was a mistake. There could have been a network built with less fancy stations and rolling stock that could run above ground when necessary. This would have solved a great many of the problems that exist today, most notably the incredible and sometimes prohibitive cost of expansion. But there is nothing that can be done about that now, especially since the new rolling stock will not have the capabilities to be exposed to the elements.

Speaking of being exposed to the elements… Montreal’s bus fleet is another interesting contradiction in comfort. The buses that serviced the STM through the mid-90s were basic transportation. They were not fancy and they had stairs. They did however seem spacious and gave you the impression of having a little bit of breathing room. That was true even if they too did not have A/C in summer. In 1995, we began to see low floor buses hit the streets of Montreal. They looked pretty nice on the outside, but the first generation of Nova LFS buses were a disaster from the minute they went into service. Not only was their interior layout poorly designed, but the transmission was so crappy that you had to hold on for dear life every time the thing accelerated. People universally hated these buses, so naturally, the entire fleet has since been filled by future generations of that bus model. Although mechanically, the buses have come a long way since then, they are still uncomfortable and disliked by a sizable number of users.

In the summer of 2011, the STM bowed to pressure and began a so-called pilot project to determine if A/C would be ordered on new buses. A year earlier, opposition Projet Montreal had made a big deal of the issue of adding air to buses and the new Metro cars. At the time, Montreal officials responded with every known excuse. What they couldn’t explain however, was why A/C could and was working elsewhere, like in Toronto and Ottawa and why it couldn’t work here. Back to the pilot-project: The STM sent a dozen or so A/C-equipped buses on various routes and then supposedly asked riders to answer a survey. Among the questions asked was whether people would be willing to pay more to have climate-controlled rides. The project ended and we were told the STM was not done with its test evaluations, including how much extra it would cost in terms of fuel. Either way, they would make an announcement regarding the issue during the winter. And by the way, they would make their own decision no matter what the survey results would show. We are still waiting…

What the A/C survey kind of proves is that the STM is interested in hearing your opinion, as long as your answer already re-enforces their own plans. Most of the time, they ask the public to help determine frivolous things like already-determined colour scheme possibilities for the new Metro trains.

Finally, the increase in ridership in recent years has almost certainly had everything to do with the economy, high price of gas and war on the automobile waged by both levels of government. When users say their ride is uncomfortable, the people in charge should do everything in their power to change that. It is not obvious that either the STM or too many municipal politicians see it that way.

If the STM was really interested in getting people to leave their cars at home, they would make the system as pleasant as possible and make it a viable alternative for those who really have a choice. The plain fact is that the vast majority of people who use public transit do so for financial reasons. The number of people with a choice who will decide to take a jam-packed bus with an interior temperature of 40 degrees Celsius in July is almost null. The number of people with a choice who will switch to public transit because they see an STM pro-environment billboard or corny TV ad is next to null. There are however, many people (with a choice) who would leave their cars at home if the public transportation system was efficient, reliable and comfortable.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

We need a local English-Language cable news channel in Montreal

There ought to be an English-language local, or at the very least regional cable news television channel in Montreal. It’s all good and fine to have local newscasts, however when local news breaks, there is nowhere to turn. Right now, there aren’t any fully functional 24 hour newsrooms in English in Montreal, period - on any electronic medium.

There are nearly 4 million people in the Montreal area and live news events can occur at any time. Whether it’s a major accident, protest or weather situation, you should be able to hear/see it as it happens and not be expected to wait for it to be summarized later on.

You may also notice that local Anglo newsrooms in Montreal almost never interrupt programming for local bulletins or coverage. There was a time when it used to happen with events like this past week’s provincial budget. If you watch American stations often enough, many affiliates will not hesitate to break in with live local events.

In French, there are two channels that cover local breaking news, RDI and LCN. The latter is far and away the place you turn to when something is happening in Montreal.

We can argue about the true population numbers when it comes to the Montreal English-language market, but it should be large enough to sustain one regional news channel. There has to be a way, even if it means that a good portion of its schedule might be devoted to a wider national news network. That it still doesn’t exist is a damn shame.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The health care system in Quebec is broken

The health care system in this province is broken. I can’t speak for the rest of the country, but in Quebec, those who have the financial means to bypass the public system do - and who can blame them? Most can’t, and they are left at the mercy of the system. It is not just the unacceptable wait times, it is the whole mentality of those running thungs that is flawed. Many people are literally being made to feel as if they are being done a favour by being seen by a doctor. There is something terribly wrong with a society where veterinarians are more accessible and compassionate than a high percentage of the people working within the “human” health care establishment.

What the MUHC Superhospital will look like
If you never have to see a doctor, consider yourself lucky. In Quebec, finding a family doctor is excruciatingly difficult. The alternatives are to either head down to an emergency room, walk-in medical clinic or the bureaucratically-heavy CLSC. Whichever one you choose, be prepared to spend countless hours in a waiting room. Once you finally find yourself at the end of the line, you’ll be fortunate if the doctor has five minutes to spare.

The wait times for crucial procedures and tests is also unacceptable, and there is no doubt that people are getting sicker while they wait or even dying as a result. Which brings me to the two-tier system that already exists. People are now being presented with the option to go private for certain procedures or tests. For those who have insurance it may be a viable option, but for those who don’t and cannot afford it, they can do nothing but wait and wait, and wait.

What is the solution? More doctors of course. More money invested in health care? Of course. But the real problem is the way the system is set-up. Too much money is being wasted for things that have nothing to do with actual health care. Money for instance, that is being spent to keep an insanely large bureaucracy in business.

There are now two massive hospital projects being constructed. We hear all sorts of promises about how great they will be. We are being told that once these “super hospitals” open their doors, all will be wonderful. Is that even possible as long as the disconnected mentality of the government and those running the system remain the same?

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

More about online radio streams

Every radio station needs a live Internet stream. It is a no-brainer in 2012. I was blown away back in 1996 when I heard a far away radio station online for the first time. Before that, you had to play around with your AM dial during the wee hours of the night in hopes of hearing a station. If you were lucky, you'd pick up New York or Detroit, or perhaps somewhere even further away. Sometimes the signal was sporadic. "Outside" local newscasts always intrigued me. Of course, they would have to be in either English or French in order for me to understand them. You could at one time pick up French-language newscasts from other regions of the province. I wonder about how much of that exists anymore past midnight.

Back to online streaming, which I’m sure I have blogged about before… During the early years of the Internet, you didn’t have a technological noose around your computer. If you wanted to listen to say, an American radio station, you could do so. The same went for early American video streaming. Basically, if it were out there, you had access to it. All that has changed. Sites now filter you according to your IP. If you find yourself in Canada, forget about watching your favourite shows off the web on their originating American network sites. And now you can also forget about it when it comes to many radio stations. WCBS is a prime example of a station that now bans Canadians from tuning in online.

Some still naively believe that for us in the “West” the Internet is truly a democratic medium. It isn’t anymore. Just look at the proposed SOPA down south, which our government in Canada already appears ready and willing to go along with. All is supposedly based on copyrights, but in reality it is just another mechanism of protectionism and censorship on both sides of the border. If the Internet were truly a free medium we wouldn’t be filtered according to where we happen to be located. They have been doing it with TV for decades. In many ways the CRTC is nothing more than a mechanism of private sector economic protectionism under the guise of cultural protectionism.

Thankfully, most international audio streams are still available to Canadians - for now. And the biggest winners when it comes to streams are small stations who in the past relied solely on their frequency reach to reach their audience. Broadcasters on a station like Radio Centre-Ville for example, could never have imagined they would one day be able to reach an audience anywhere in the world. We see it with podcast statistics that show where the listeners are geographically located. Podcasts and archiving are also hugely beneficial in this new on-demand and portable technological world. Depending on marketing, promotion and of course, the quality of your program, the possibilities are endless. Translating that into any sort of financial profitability is another matter altogether…