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Sports Montreal’s English-speaking sports fans rally for their radio team

When word came down that Montreal's only English sports radio station would be closed and replaced with a French version of itself, the phone lines at TSN 990 lit up as hosts and callers lamented the loss.

It didn't last long – within 24 hours the outspoken radio personalities were told to keep a lid on their outrage or they would be thrown off the air before the English home of the Montreal Canadiens officially changes languages sometime in the fall.

"It was a sad day yesterday. I know it and feel it as much as all of you," station manager Wayne Bews wrote in an internal memo. "Now, it is vital that we do not talk about it any more. Even if callers want to talk about it you have to change the subject. Bluntly, if you can not you will not be given the privilege of staying on the air."

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It may have worked on the employees, but Bell Media's reach doesn't extend to the station's listeners. Since the announcement earlier this month, they have organized online and are planning a rally to try and save the station in its current format, and have submitted an unprecendented number of protest letters to Canada's broadcast regulator hoping to have the change blocked.

"TSN990 fills an important void in English Montreal radio. I have listened to this channel for the past 11 years, and see no viable alternative that will fill my needs as a consumer," reads one of the hundreds of letters submitted by listeners to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.

While many hope Bell Media will simply change its mind, the company has been forced into action by ownership rules that restrict the number of stations any one company can own in a city.

Its recent $3-billion takeover Astral Media has put it over the cap of two FM and two AM stations in any language in a market. Rather than sell the station, it has applied to the CRTC to change the language. The CRTC will rule on the requested change in early September, as it examines BCE Inc.'s purchase of Astral.

Montreal media blogger Steve Faguy outlined the possible outcomes in a recent post: The entire Astral deal could get tossed and render the format change irrelevant, the CRTC could open the station's slot up for bidding, or it could deny the language switch or issue an exemption.

Bell Media thinks the most likely scenario is it gets its way, and the station makes the switch in the fall. It isn't giving interviews on the decision, but said in an earlier in the Globe and Mail that after 11 years it would rather have kept the station English but understood the concerns about ownership concentration.

"These are not market forces that make this happen," said Chris Gordon, the president of radio and local television for Bell Media. "But these are the rules now so it's not the time to worry about that. It's simply a case of having to do it."

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The station's fans have created a Facebook group to help encourage others to write to the CRTC ahead of the Aug. 9 submissions deadline, and are in the midst of organizing a rally in one of the city's sports bars in support of English sports broadcasting.

It's not that they don't think the city needs a French sports station – which it currently lacks after the one full-time French sports station converted to a traffic station last year – they just want to preserve the station they've grown accustomed to listening to over the last decade.

They also worry it will mean less coverage for amateur sports in the city, a major focus on the station's broadcasting.

"The people listening and calling in are just average Joes who are given a chance to have their own soapboxes and this is robbing them of a chance to have their voices heard," said Concordia University student Andrew Maggio. "If we lose it then we are losing a lot of local talent and local content. This isn't ESPN where they talk about Kobe Bryant all day – it's about Montreal and I'd hate to lose that."

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