Satellite Radio: Lost In Space

Two satellite radio companies have carte blanche to beam U.S Stations to Canadian subscribers - with just 10% Canadian content.

In the universe of Canadian broadcasting policy, nobody (least of all consumers) always gets what they want. That surely applied to the federal government as it contemplated forcing the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission to review its decision to license two American-backed satellite radio services. The feds clearly would have preferred to have nothing to do with the issue.

The CRTC in June gave Sirius Canada Inc. and Canadian Satellite Radio Inc. carte blanche to beam U.S. stations to Canadian subscribers, with just 10% of its lineup devoted to Canadian content. (Both companies have agreed to up that number or contribute more to the Canadian Talent Development fund, if successful.) That's well below the 35% commercial radio stations are forced to play, and had fellow successful applicant CHUM Ltd. and partner Astral Media Inc., Quebec politicians and the recording industry crying foul.

CHUM's complaint was easy to discount–it wanted a licence for a more expensive, terrestrial service, but with little or no competition. But the music industry's reaction seemed from outer space. If you're a fan of Canadiana, commercial radio falls short. Take a trip up and down the dial, and you'll hear the same artists over and over. Nickelback, Bryan Adams, Celine Dion. If they represent our culture, let's get it over with and become the 51st state.

For listeners, the issue isn't CanCon, or its quality: it's the increasing formulization of the radio landscape. CanCon rules were never designed for today's narrow playlists, which are pushing listeners to tune into other outlets, such as Internet radio, where there can be little or no Canadian content at all. Few in the industry seriously believe CanCon rules work to expose distinctive Canadian music anymore, so it was disingenuous of the industry to invoke the sacredness of those regulations now.

Even Graham Henderson, president of the Canadian Recording Industry Association, says CanCon as it is no longer works. (He should know: his wife is the lead singer of the Cowboy Junkies, a band that can't buy radio play these days.) Many artists, desperate for airtime, have come out in favour of satellite radio. “Listening to the Bruce Goods, the Susan Aglukarks and their plaintive, very poignant issues about not getting on the radio and how it affects their sales–it makes you want to cry,” says Henderson. “But this isn't the answer. I don't know what is.”

Henderson claims the CRTC didn't think through its decision to hand out licences instead of holding a full policy hearing. John Bitove, CEO of CSR, says everybody had a chance to say their piece during the hearing; the real reason for the dissent is sour grapes. “You can't compare a service that touches all of North America and the Caribbean with a station in Rimouski on Canadian content quotas,” says Bitove. “Our service gives our artists over 300 million people to expose themselves to.”

Meanwhile, grandstanding by Quebec politicians who want more French content on satellite made the CRTC look positively progressive–a position that must be alien to the regulator. It certainly had the federal Liberals scrambling. They had 45 days to deal with the appeal of the CRTC decision. After a month of dithering, they passed the issue to an ad hoc committee, which decided to hand it back to cabinet, which decided to pass it along to the operations committee, which late on Sept. 9 decided to–do nothing. The CRTC ruling, the feds decided, will stand.

So did all the foofaraw amount to just a tempest in a satellite dish? Perhaps in more ways than one. Because within a few years, new technologies such as web radio and mobile web might make the whole CanCon-on-satellite-radio issue–not to mention the CRTC–irrelevant anyway.