‘Not a viable business anymore’: Bell Media selling 45 radio stations amid layoffs

'Not a viable business anymore': Bell Media selling 45 radio stations amid layoffs
Bell Canada signage is pictured in Ottawa on Wednesday Sept. 7, 2022.

BCE Inc. is cutting nine per cent of its workforce, including layoffs at its media division, where it is selling off 45 of its 103 regional radio stations.

The affected stations are in British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada.

The company announced Thursday in an open letter signed by chief executive Mirko Bibic that 4,800 jobs “at all levels of the company” would be cut.

Some employees have already been notified or were to be informed Thursday of being laid off, while the balance will be told by the spring. Bibic said the company will use vacancies and natural attrition to minimize layoffs as much as possible.

It marks the second major layoff at the media and telecommunications giant since last spring, when six per cent of Bell Media jobs were eliminated and nine radio stations were either shuttered or sold.

In a separate internal memo, Bell Media president Sean Cohan said the company intends to divest 45 radio stations to seven buyers: Vista Radio, Whiteoaks, Durham Radio, My Broadcasting Corp., ZoomerMedia, Arsenal Media and Maritime Broadcasting. The sales are subject to CRTC approval and other closing conditions.

“That’s a significant divestiture. It’s because it’s not a viable business anymore,” said Bell chief legal and regulatory officer Robert Malcolmson in an interview with The Canadian Press.

“We will continue to operate ones that are viable, but this is a business that is going in the wrong direction.”

The company said fewer than 10 per cent of the total job cuts were at Bell Media specifically.

Malcolmson said Bell Media is in the midst of a “digital transformation” for both entertainment and news.

But whether or not prioritizing digital growth is viable for the company in terms of generating profit remains to be determined.

“We’re investing in it; we’ll see,” said Malcolmson. “Without some form of regulatory supports, it’s tough.”

He blamed the federal government for taking too long to provide relief for media companies as well as the CRTC for being too slow to react to a “crisis that is immediate.”

That extends to two pieces of legislation intended to help Canada’s struggling media sector: Bill C-18, also known as the Online News Act, meant to force tech giants to compensate Canadian news outlets for their content, and Bill C-11, which updates the Broadcasting Act to require digital platforms such as Netflix, YouTube and TikTok to contribute and promote Canadian content.

Ottawa remains in a standoff with Facebook parent company Meta over C-18, with the company continuing to block news links on its platforms. Meanwhile, the federal government capped the amount of money broadcast media can get from Google’s $100 million annual payments at $30 million, with the remainder to go to print and digital news outlets.

“In practice, it’s not going to do anything. It’s underwhelming to say the least,” said Malcolmson.

“We’ve been advocating for reform for years. It’s not coming fast enough and when it does come, it doesn’t provide meaningful help.”

Thursday’s job losses at Bell Media are also directly tied to regulator direction on Bill C-11, Malcolmson said.

The CRTC held a hearing late last year exploring whether streaming services should be asked to make an initial contribution to the Canadian content system to help level the playing field with local companies. The commission hopes to implement new rules in late 2024.

But the Bell executive said the company needs immediate relief, which could come from a fund it has proposed that would see streamers subsidize local or national news.

“We hope they do that but we can’t wait two years for that to happen, so then you see actions like this today,” he said.

Bell has fought other regulatory decisions over the past year that it says makes things harder for its struggling broadcast division.

That includes an October application to the Federal Court of Appeal seeking to overturn a CRTC decision that renewed its broadcast licences for three more years. It argued that decision was made without a public hearing and could result in the regulator prejudging its requests last June to waive local news and Canadian programming requirements for its television stations.

Bell Media’s advertising revenues declined by $140 million in 2023 compared with the year before, and the company’s news division is seeing more than $40 million in annual operating losses, Bibic stated in his letter.

On Thursday, Bell said it could also further scale back network investments on its telecom side as it remains at odds with the CRTC over what it calls “predetermined” regulatory direction.

Asked about the company’s image in light of continued cuts, Malcolmson noted the size of Bell’s executive team has been reduced in recent years and executive salaries remain frozen.

“We have a duty both to our shareholders and to our employees to make sure we manage the business in a rational way,” he said.

List of divested Bell Media radio stations (New owner)

CHOR, Summerland, B.C. (Vista Radio)

CJAT, Trail, B.C. (Vista Radio)

CKKC, Nelson, B.C. (Vista Radio)

CKGR, Golden, B.C. (Vista Radio)

CKXR, Salmon Arm, B.C. (Vista Radio)

CKCR, Revelstoke, B.C. (Vista Radio)

CJMG, Penticton, B.C. (Vista Radio)

CKOR, Penticton, B.C. (Vista Radio)

CJOR, Osoyoos, B.C. (Vista Radio)

CICF, Vernon, B.C. (Vista Radio)

CHSU, Kelowna, B.C. (Vista Radio)

CILK, Kelowna, B.C. (Vista Radio)

CKFR, Kelowna, B.C. (Vista Radio)

CKNL, Fort St. John, B.C. (Vista Radio)

CHRX, Fort St. John, B.C. (Vista Radio)

CJDC, Dawson Creek, B.C. (Vista Radio)

CKRX, Fort Nelson, B.C. (Vista Radio)

CFTK, Terrace, B.C. (Vista Radio)

CJFW, Terrace, B.C. (Vista Radio)

CHTK, Prince Rupert, B.C. (Vista Radio)

CKTK, Kitimat, B.C. (Vista Radio)

CKLH, Hamilton, Ont. (Whiteoaks)

CHRE, St. Catharines, Ont. (Whiteoaks)

CHTZ, St. Catharines, Ont. (Whiteoaks)

CKTB, St. Catharines, Ont. (Whiteoaks)

CKLY, Lindsay, Ont. (Durham Radio)

CKPT, Peterborough, Ont. (Durham Radio)

CKQM, Peterborough, Ont. (Durham Radio)

CFJR, Brockville, Ont. (My Broadcasting Corporation)

CJPT, Brockville, Ont. (My Broadcasting Corporation)

CFLY, Kingston, Ont. (My Broadcasting Corporation)

CKLC, Kingston, Ont. (My Broadcasting Corporation)

CJOS, Owen Sound, Ont. (ZoomerMedia)

CHRD, Drummondville, Que. (Arsenal Media)

CJDM, Drummondville, Que. (Arsenal Media)

CFEI, St-Hyacinthe, Que. (Arsenal Media)

CFZZ, St-Jean-Sur-Richelieu, Que. (Arsenal Media)

CIKI, Rimouski, Que. (Arsenal Media)

CJOI, Rimouski, Que. (Arsenal Media)

CFVM, Amqui, Que. (Arsenal Media)

CIKX, Grand Falls, N.B. (Maritime Broadcasting)

CJCJ, Woodstock, N.B. (Maritime Broadcasting)

CKBC, Bathurst, N.B. (Maritime Broadcasting)

CKTO, Truro, N.S. (Maritime Broadcasting)

CKTY, Truro, N.S. (Maritime Broadcasting)

By Sammy Hudes, The Canadian Press

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 8, 2024.

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