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How does the CRTC pick a winner? Who knows

Doug Bingley’s Rock 95 won the licence lottery, but there’s no objective way to gauge who made the best pitch.

Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

Flash the applause sign for Doug Bingley. His tiny Rock 95 Broadcasting Ltd. from Barrie, Ont., won a coveted spot on Toronto's lucrative radio dial Tuesday, earning the blessing of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission to broadcast from the 88.1 FM frequency.

It would be nice to say that Mr. Bingley outsmarted other bidders, had the best business plan or offered the most benefit to listeners. The fact is, every commercial radio applicant appearing in a competitive process before the CRTC knows the outcome is a crap shoot. The criteria are vague and the CRTC's method for picking winners lacks transparency, coherence and consistency.

There's no objective way to gauge who made the best pitch, and the CRTC provided little explanation for its decision Tuesday. The regulatory policy framework for Canadian radio remains a wall of white noise.

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If winning a radio licence is akin to winning a lottery, then Canadians are right to wonder if the CRTC is acting like a gambling commission.

Consider what factors the CRTC says are relevant to the process: the "quality of the application" (a vague and subjective criterion); the "diversity of news voices" (many industry players assume that means the CRTC wants to keep ownership as diversified as possible, but aren't sure); and "the level of market impact."

The latter turns applicants into contortionists: Everyone in the 88.1 FM bidding process went out of their way to talk up their proposal as a welcome addition – while also minimizing their potential impact on established players, as if competing to win was a bad thing.

Applicants get no better guidance on Cancon. Every wannabe operator must commit to financing Canadian talent development and putting a certain amount of Canadian content on air, but how much is enough? The CRTC isn't clear. Newcap Inc., the biggest of the 88.1 applicants, committed to provide $12-million in Canadian talent funding. Mr. Bingley won by pledging only $2-million.

Meanwhile, applicants were officially obliged to promise to play Canadian content 35 per cent of the time, but unofficially expected to pledge more. Few applicants promised less than 40 per cent, and some went higher (and remember, some Canadian artists, notably Bryan Adams, don't count as Canadian under the CRTC's Canuckiness measurement system). But come in too high, and the application won't look credible.

Meanwhile, the CRTC spends a lot of time fussing about formats. It used to have a hits policy that limited the hits that stations could play. It also forces French stations to limit the amount of English music they play. That led some clever operators to string a bunch of English hits together and claim the montages were a single song (hence the birth of the CRTC's "montage policy").

Times are good in the radio business, yet there are DJs who have to think twice before they spin an English-language record, a hit song or play a Bryan Adams tune. The CRTC has taken timid steps to deregulate the radio industry. It would have a hit on its hands if it went a lot further during its next commercial radio policy review in 2013-14.

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