This spring, without warning, Kelowna radio station Soft 103.9 went off the air in what was described as Canada’s first broadcasting casualty linked to the COVID-19 pandemic.
As the microphones fell silent, journalists lost their jobs, businesses lost an advertising vehicle and a community lost an important voice.
In the months ahead, I fear this story will repeat itself in communities across British Columbia.
COVID-19 wasn’t the only reason for the closure of this station. But the pandemic delivered the death knell – and it is threatening to do the same to other private radio and television stations British Columbians depend upon.
It is a difficult position for broadcasters, especially considering our role during the COVID-19 crisis. Our stations have played a vital role for British Columbians, providing a trusted source of news, public health information and acting as a community hub for fundraising efforts. Many stations have used their traditional and social media platforms to broadcast live coverage of the daily health briefings from provincial and federal officials keeping citizens informed during this unprecedented time.
Viewership and listenership of our radio, television and digital platforms are strong. But at the same time, advertising revenues have fallen by up to 70 per cent. Stations that have always been considered the lifeblood of their communities are now fighting for survival. Many newspapers are facing similar troubles.
In a small town, the loss of a media outlet can be devastating. For many B.C. communities, local broadcasters are the only mainstream communications tool. Want to buy a car, find the best deal on groceries or advertise a community fundraiser? Turn to your local radio station or television broadcaster. Even more important is the immediacy broadcasters offer during a crisis whether it is a flood, wildfire or an Amber Alert.
In a large urban centre like Vancouver, where there are many broadcasting choices, the loss of a single station may not seem like a big deal. But what if that station broadcasts to an ethnic audience? In a multicultural province like British Columbia, where 30 per cent of the population immigrated from another country, ethnic radio and television stations act as a cultural lifeline broadcasting in Punjabi, Mandarin, Cantonese and a host of other languages. If one of these broadcasters is displaced, an entire ethnic community will be affected.
Last month, a sobering economic report issued by the Canadian Association of Broadcasters predicted a wave of cuts and station closures over the next three years.
The report, compiled by Communications Management Inc., projects the closure of 50 Canadian radio stations in the next four to six months followed by many others. In addition, it suggests 40 or more private television stations will fade to black in the next 12 to 36 months.
If these projections are realized, thousands of Canadians will lose their jobs, further eroding Canadian journalism.
Reduced advertising revenue sparked by COVID is a significant reason for the economic decline of this industry. But inequitable taxation and the regulatory treatment of online media giants also plays a role.
Those giants – such as Google and YouTube – are eating up a larger share of advertising budgets and yet they don’t pay provincial taxes, they don’t employ British Columbians and they won’t be sponsoring your child’s sports team.
Broadcasters have a number of proposed solutions including regulatory reforms and a tax credit for the creation of made-in-B.C. content. But even more basic, we are asking government, Crowns and other public agencies to dedicate more of their advertising budgets to local media and make longer-term commitments.
And we are encouraging consumers to shop local. If you spend your money in the local sports store rather than on Amazon, that store is more likely to stay in business, employ people in the community and yes, advertise. This is how we can help our communities rebound.
There are more than 100 television and radio stations from Cranbrook to Port Hardy and Penticton to Prince Rupert directly employing more than 1,100 British Columbians who bring us the news, promote local businesses and host community events.
Those jobs, and the diversity of editorial voices, strengthen our communities. If they are lost now, they will be lost forever.
Rob Bye is President of the British Columbia Association of Broadcasters, the voice of private radio and television broadcasters across B.C.