Nothing funny about replacing local sports talk with comedy filler

The TSN 1040 we have known broke from its morning show around 9:30 last Tuesday. That TSN 1040 never returned.

A monotone corporate message announced the station’s sport talk format was no more, that it was “unavoidable.” What it didn’t say was that its employees were that moment in shock, many packing their personal effects to leave the building ASAP.

Someone, somewhere had thought it was apt to tag the corporate message with a song, which turned out to be titled Good Riddance.

Someone else, somewhere else, had thought it was apt for the mass, undignified, mid-program firings to be scheduled days after its annual Let’s Talk effort that sheds light on mental health.

Bell Media chose not to walk that talk. The firings shed quite the light.

Its new president emailed the surviving staff that “there’s never a right time to make these kinds of changes,” but did not add there are more wrong times than others.

Three times in the last month, Bell Media has shed salaries in its executive suite and television and radio ranks, more than 210 in all – shuttering talk shows from the once-invincible CFRB Toronto and CJAD Montreal, even thinking the unthinkable at TSN by keeping Jay and severing Dan.

Beyond the top-level cuts, it is clear Bell has lost faith generally in talk radio, which in news or sports is a labour-intensive and star-driven business model more affordably replaced with formats like the all-comedy one that replaced TSN Friday.

It did not matter that 1040 was clobbering Sportsnet 650 in the Numeris radio ratings, or that its valuable morning show was nicely on the rise in the market. The ratings just weren’t strong enough to attract sufficient advertising to float the boat.

Now 1040 will run its Funny Format, recorded standups that could come from anywhere instead of live local sit-downs that could only come from here. For the comedy, it pays royalties; for the talk hosts, it pays royally.

Someone else, somewhere else again seemed to have thought this unavoidable change was inevitable last October when the URL was registered for funny1040.ca.

Even if there are fewer listeners, even if there is no interaction or topicality or local focus, it will be much cheaper and more viable for Bell – which, like many businesses, accepted wage subsidies to support jobs in the pandemic, but unlike many businesses, increased its most recent shareholder dividend in announcing sizable year-over-year Q4 profit gains.

Still, Bell wasn’t wrong in deciding on the basis of what was before it as data. Even profitable businesses are reworking their fundamental premises because the firm ground has turned into an open-pit mine when it isn’t merely an open manhole. In radio’s case, people aren’t in their cars to listen as much, particularly in the pandemic. Digital disruption is only now truly kicking in for audio as apps rupture the local broadcast monopoly of listenership in offering access to stations and sources anywhere and as podcasting proliferates and relentlessly atomizes the advertising market.

Over at television, live sports remain about the only non-time-shifted appointments we still make in large numbers to deliver us to advertisers. Even then, conventional broadcasters dependent on that revenue are slowly but surely losing event rights to streaming services underwritten by subscriptions. It won’t be long before broadcasters are returning the licences of over-the-air, advertising-only stations.

The federal regulator has been a forgiving regulator in recent times, holding haplessly to domestic content requirements in a borderless digital world and aligning its licensing with what broadcasters believe in their version of magical thinking will survive in the following seven years. If their plans don’t work, they are free to abandon them – to trade sporty for funny, in 1040’s case.

Journalism is a business, and the first role of any business is to make a profit. But journalism is also a business with a soul, with a distinct purpose in defining and strengthening a community’s identity. Sport talk is journalism, in that it chronicles human achievement, struggle, purpose, competition and social justice. It is also vicarious and delicious escape like little else. Journalism has made macro-mistakes that played out in microcosm at 1040, including systemic exclusion of voices and insufficient reflection and validation of the audience it can serve.

Quality sells, and people will pay for it if they are treated respectfully, but quality is an investment that costs long before they will read, watch or listen. In these circumstances it has been common for many media to harvest instead of plant, to outrace the revenue decline with operating cuts.

TSN will be a sad loss in our market, as is any loss of competitive local media. Many of its hosts had something to say about our profound escape hatch from the pandemic and its intersection with the integrity of our systems, quite starkly evident as its competitor thoughtfully explores Black History Month with a sports lens. It was obviously its own community, albeit too small to produce a practical business model.

But Bell Media wasn’t wrong in walking away from what would have been a 20th anniversary of the format in April. Someone, somewhere was wrong in deciding this was how to go about it. •

Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor-in-chief of BIV and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.