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Canadian broadcast regulations limit radio operators to owning two FM and two AM stations in each market and each official language.

iStockphoto

BCE Inc.'s planned purchase of Astral Media Inc. will further concentrate Canada's radio industry, but second-tier operators also stand to gain as BCE is expected to divest some FM stations.

Canadian broadcast regulations limit radio operators to owning two FM and two AM stations in each market and each official language. That means a combined BCE-Astral will likely have to sell eight FM stations in Calgary, Ottawa, Toronto, Vancouver and Winnipeg to satisfy the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.

"It's likely that we're going to have to divest a small number of radio stations," BCE chief financial officer Siim Vanaselja acknowledged in an interview. "If we're required to make divestitures, [we'd look]to divest the smallest of those. The radio business is a great business. There would be a very, very high level of demand and interest in those assets."

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The deal comes just months before an expected review of ownership rules by the CRTC, which it last changed in 1998. That paved the way for years of consolidation, which helped the industry more than triple earnings from 1997 to 2010.

Large broadcasters hope the CRTC lets them hold more FM licences. That will meet with opposition from smaller operators, who say it is already difficult to compete against BCE, Astral, Rogers Communications and Corus Entertainment, who had a combined 60 per cent of industry revenues in 2010 and can offer better deals to advertisers across multiple stations in many markets.

"It really would be game over for a number of smaller companies," said Carmela Laurignano, vice-president of Toronto-based Evanov Communications, owner of 14 radio stations. "There would be no way you could compete."

The CRTC has also been trying to strike a balance between consolidation and increasing diversity of ownership, but on several recent occasions it has awarded licences to independents only to see them turn around and sell them for big profits to larger companies within a few years.

But another factor will influence the expected CRTC review: There appears to be no shortage of potential bidders for the stations BCE have to divest. "We see it as a great opportunity, for sure," said David Murray, chief operating officer of Newfoundland Capital Corp. , presently Canada's fifth-largest radio broadcaster, with 83 licences. "[We're interested in]all the ones we can buy, at the right price." He added that Newcap wouldn't be interested in Ottawa, where it already has two FM stations.

Jim Pattison is likely to be interested in Western Canadian stations outside Vancouver, where he owns two FM properties. The billionaire entrepreneur, a past director of BCE, has been in the radio business for 47 years and recently told The Globe and Mail that he would "buy more stations if the opportunity presented itself."

Cam Cowie, general manager of Regina-based Harvard Broadcasting, with 11 stations in Saskatchewan and Alberta, said he's also interested in the stations in Winnipeg, Vancouver and possibly Calgary, "but it will depend on pricing ... We've maintained over the last 10 years it would be a desire to have stations in all western major markets," Mr. Cowie said.

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Industry consultant Peter Fleming, a former CRTC official, said other smaller bidders who are "looking for crumbs that come off the table" will likely come forward as well.



With files from reporter Susan Krashinsky

--------------------------

The FM stations BCE is most likely to divest following the purchase of Astral Media:



City

Call letters/frequency

Station name and format

Share/Rating

Vancouver

CHHR/104.3

Shore-FM, in transition

1.6/16th

Vancouver

CKZZ/95.3

Virgin Radio, adult contemporary

7.2/5th

Ottawa

CJOT/99.7

Boom, classic hits

1.5/14th

Ottawa

CKQB/106.9

The Bear, active rock

3.5/11th

Calgary

CKCE/101.5

Kool, adult contemporary

3.4/13th

Winnipeg

CHIQ/94.3

FAB, ’60s/’70s hits

4.9/10th

Toronto

CHBM/97.3

Bloom, classic rock

5.7/7th

Toronto

CFXJ/93.5

Flow, hip-hop

1.4/19th

Source: CRTC website; BBM Canada

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