UPDATE: Tues, Sept 11 — Proud FM has lost its bid for a stronger radio signal, a move management had hoped would save the struggling station.
The CRTC declined to comment on why Proud FM did not meet the criteria.
Wed, Sept 5: Toronto’s Proud FM, the world’s first commercial gay and lesbian radio station, is struggling to stay afloat.
Four part-time on-air personalities — Acey Rowe, Paul Bellini, Crystal Lite and Danielle Loncar — were recently handed pink slips. Programming director Bob Willette says the station was forced to make the cuts to save money.
The owner, Evanov Radio Group, is suffering major losses, he says. “We have gone significantly into the hole over our five and half years on the air, so we unfortunately had to eliminate our part-time staff.”
Bellini, who hosted a Sunday afternoon show for about a year, says he was crushed by the news. “I loved doing my show . . . it pisses me off that it’s over. One less fun thing for me to do.”
Willette says if things improve, he hopes to hire them back. “All of them have graciously offered to continue to work for the station on a volunteer basis, which speaks to their character and the brand that we’ve built and the great culture we developed at the radio station. Every single one of them said they want to stay involved, in some way, without pay.
“I hope the community sees that this is just a matter of economics,” says Willette, who will not release specific details about Proud FM’s financial situation. “It’s very expensive to run a radio station in Toronto.”
The problems are not new — Proud FM has been bleeding money and staff for years. “We need to do what has to be done to stay afloat, to stay on the air,” Willette says.
In February, management decided to move administrative staff out of its Wellesley St location because of the neighbourhood’s increasingly high rents. The business side of Proud FM is now located across town, at Evanov’s headquarters at 5312 Dundas St W.
In 2010, Proud FM let go of four popular on-air hosts — Deb Pearce, Patrick Marano, Shaun Proulx and Mark Wigmore. Earlier, in November 2007, the station fired popular talent Maggie Cassella, Richard Ryder and a number of staffers. Ryder was eventually rehired.
Willette says so much depends on the application for university radio station CKLN at 88.1 FM, which was owned by Ryerson University for almost three decades.
CKLN is bidding to get the licence back, but it has stiff competition: 27 groups applied for it last year, and 22 made the first cut in March, including Proud FM.
Since Evanov first won the licence for Proud FM in 2006, the station has been plagued by a weak frequency at 103.9 FM, says Evanov VP Carmela Laurignano.
The problem is Proud FM sits too close to Z103.5 on the dial, so they risk interfering with each other. As a result, Proud FM’s downtown transmission has been limited to 50 watts — too weak to penetrate downtown buildings. That means listeners can’t get a good signal, even in Toronto’s gay village.
“They can’t sell any ads now because of the signal strength,” Bellini says.
A move to 88.1 FM would entirely eliminate the problem, Willette says, noting that 88.1 FM is 128 watts, with a tower at First Canadian Place. “If we get 88.1 FM, then all of a sudden people who couldn’t hear us before can hear us. That means more listeners, so hopefully that equals more money.”
Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) hearings for 88.1 FM were held in May, and a final decision is expected in the fall, Laurignano says.
A lot has changed since 2006, she says. Although Evanov was well aware that Z103.5 bumped into 103.9 FM, they didn’t anticipate Toronto’s condo boom.
“At the time in 2006, 50 watts probably would have been sufficient enough to penetrate the downtown,” says Willette, who presented at the hearings. “As anyone who lives in Toronto knows, the skyline was drastically different compared to 2012. The hundreds of condos that have gone up have drastically affected our ability to penetrate the areas that we would have liked to.”
That has had a direct impact on advertising revenue sales, Laurignano says, noting she doesn’t anticipate that Proud FM’s current financial challenges will affect the bid.
In fact, Laurignano says, it may help. They told the CRTC that there are good reasons for the low revenues.
“We need that stronger signal to bring in more advertisers and grow,” she says.
Laurignano says the CRTC may also look favourably on the Proud FM bid because the station has fulfilled all of its application expectations, which Evanov agreed to when it bid for the licence. “We have fulfilled every single one,” she says.
But Proud FM falls short on programming — seven hours per week of newscasts and 21 hours of talk — which is a result of the staff cuts, she says. The station maintains its commitment to play 40 percent Canadian music.
“We are delivering a vital service to Toronto’s [LGBT] community,” Laurignano says. “We just want to be sure it is being heard throughout downtown. Also, the city’s gay culture has changed since 2006. People are more out. They also don’t just live in the Village. They live everywhere in Toronto, so that service should be available across a wider geographic area.”
In 2011, Proud FM gained a sister station in Montreal. The CRTC approved an application by Dufferin Communications (a subsidiary of the Evanov Radio Group) for a French-language commercial AM radio station.
“The CRTC awarded that station based on the performance of Proud FM. That to me is an indication they they’re quite happy with how we serve the community,” Willette says.
Radio Fierté, 690 AM in Montreal, will feature a mix of spoken word and music programming for Montreal’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community. The station will operate with a hybrid music/talk format, starting at some point in 2013.
Of course, Laurignano says, she would prefer an FM frequency.
“That would be the ideal thing, but, as with all major markets, the availability of frequencies is slim to none. They’re all already owned. There are none available.”
The compromise is that there will be less music, which is not necessarily a bad thing, she says.
“We have to adjust to that,” she says. “By the same token, news talk is the number one format in the country. That’s done on AM. So it depends. [Radio Fierté] will be more news and talk than Proud FM is here.”
In most markets, talk radio is dominated by rightwing personalities who rarely talk about queer issues, she says. “It will be refreshing to offer something else.”
Meanwhile, Toronto’s Proud FM is still alive, Willette assures, but the station is on life support and the future is uncertain. “Proud FM will always be around in one capacity or another. To what extent we can maintain live shows and a presence on the street? That is a valid question. I don’t know.”