THERE ARE FEW THINGS I love as I love Montréal. My family. My friends. August and September of 2005. The Silver Jews third and fourth albums, American Water and Bright Flight. The second ‘l’ in ‘llama’. The writings of Padgett Powell. 5am. An unnamed inlet tucked beneath the rainforest on Costa Rica’s Peninsula de Nicoya. A girl I met at a club in Copenhagen in 1995. A small scar on a forgotten cheek. Most of these things I can carry with me. They travel well. They are memory and fingerprint, inspiration, late night recollection at familiar tables soaked in drink and freckled in ash. Montréal is the hardest to transport, the most difficult affection to keep in my pocket, reveal in anecdotes, break silences. Montréal is a complicated love.
I know that when I am in Montréal, I feel very much at home. I feel safe. I feel true. And when I left Montréal in early October of 2011, there was nothing I loved that I could tangibly take with me. I could not pack my friends. I could not ask her to follow. I could not convince them to come with me, to Toronto, to the enemy. I had my memories, but Montréal memories are tainted in drink, and painted in rich hues of nostalgia and fiction. While away, while separated from my love, trapped in an adulterous long distance relationship, I was always able to turn to the therapy of radio, and feel at home in the comforting tones of TSN 990, Montréal’s all-sports radio station. This past week came news that TSN 990 will likely be shuttered, a victim of CRTC regulations and media avarice. Looks like I’ll have to move home.
I don’t understand the exact reasons for 990 transitioning from English to French all-sports radio. Bell bought Astral, I guess. The CRTC regulates that any one company may only own three English language radio stations in the Montréal market[i]. The easiest, most financially viable switch was to throw the RDS banner over the TSN one, and call it a day. It’s simple, really: a big company bought another big company, and then people lost their jobs. This is not a unique story in 2012, unfortunately. Bell Canada Enterprises Inc. recorded $574 million in profit in this year’s first quarter, on revenues of $4.9 billion[ii]. You can see why they’d need to buy Astral Communications. Who can live on $4.9 billion a quarter? But I get it. We live in a capitalist society. More is more. A lot is never enough. I’m not naïve. But Montréal lost another Anglo media outlet, and I lost my long distance relationship. And in the long run, neither of those things are any good.
My memories of TSN (formerly The Team) 990 are staggered, but plenty. It’s likely that I listened to the station more in absence of Montréal than in residence—the gift of technology. But when I did live in Montréal, 990 was on in my office, in friends’ cars, in cabs, flittering across warm June evenings in anticipation of a Habs playoff game. Whenever I would leave town, I would listen to 990 as long as my Honda’s twisted and tired antenna would hold the signal. Usually Long Sault, sometimes Brockville, never further. And then that feeling that, yes, I was no longer home. When returning, I’d listen to the crackle and fade of the distant signal nearing, knowing I was home not by mile markers, but rather by crisp reception.
In 2009 or 2010, Dave McGimpsey and Arpon Basu had a show on 990. Hump Night with Dave and Arpon. When Arpon was covering the Habs, I was asked on two occasions to fill in as Dave’s co-host. I’ll admit here what I didn’t admit then: it was a big moment for me. I felt like I was stepping into the world of celebrity, to be a voice like those I had listened to. It was thrilling. I’m sure I was horrible. I know I was nervous. I messed up a fact about Don Cherry never revealing who the seventh man on the ice was (it was Stan Jonathan) in ’79 and was quickly corrected, scolded, by the producer. Dave and I argued about new country versus alt-country, a discussion that continues to this day. McGimpsey, a veteran of many a medium, schooled me. Later, Arpon joined us by phone, and dismissed my post-game opinions. I was kind of crushed.
But Dave invited me back, because McGimpsey’s a get back on the horse kind of dude. I recall meeting Conor McKenna briefly, who I would go on to really appreciate as a radio personality, and was disappointed when he didn’t get a full-time slot when one opened up, 990 opting for CTV’s mustachioed Randy Tieman instead. Before the show, Dave and I may or may not have hidden an egg in Mitch Melnick’s mail box. On air, I claimed to be a former professional Noodler[iii]. We argued about mustard versus ketchup (I won, ketchup ain’t got no sense), and the show went smoothly. It felt good. And although I never hosted again, every time I listened in I felt a little bit closer to the medium.
In early spring of 2010, Jon Fiorentino and I were driving back from Brooklyn. We were tired, of the road and each other. There was a girl I wanted to get back to. Jon wanted his bed. We were both hungover, crammed into Jon’s Saturn. For the last hour or two, I spoke only in my Tony Marinaro impression. It was not a good impression, nor a funny one. But it kept us going for those final kilometres, and on the many occasions that followed in which Jon and I sat in his Saturn, idling our way through a Montréal 1pm traffic jam listening to Marinaro, we’d smile in pleasant reverie of a beloved road trip of yesteryear.
That spring, 990 was our home. As the Habs made their improbable run to the Conference Finals, 990 kept us attached to the pulse of the city, a city alive and invigorated as it hadn’t been in so long, as it so desperately wanted to be. The station’s hosts weren’t homers for the Habs, as so many sports journalists have become, but rather homers for Montréal. They were vessels for our excitement. They were at the centre of something special, and the way they covered it was a tribute to their professionalism and enthusiasm for a city that is, at best, complicated. From the morning crew of Shaun Starr, Eliott Price, and Denis Casavant, through Marinaro in the afternoons, the support of Sean Campbell, Mitch Gallo, Rod Francis, Andie Bennett, and McKenna, (apologies if I’m missing or misplacing anyone) and the station’s true marquee talent Melnick anchoring the drive-time show leading up to game time, 990 held the city’s (Anglo and Franco) emotions in check, allowing us to remain at our desks, even though we so desperately wanted to be in the pub hours before puck drop. If it wasn’t perfect community radio, it was damn near close.
And therein lies the rub. Community. Isn’t that the CRTC’s mandate, for the medium to represent its market and foster cultural discourse? I believe so, but don’t take my word for it. In the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission’s own words:
Reflecting Our Canadian Values
Canadian attitudes, opinions, ideas, values and artistic creativity are shaped by our history and geography, our institutions and our linguistic and cultural diversity. They’re part of our shared experience and our Canadian identity.
The Broadcasting Act (Section 3.1 (d)(ii)) recognizes this and declares that the Canadian broadcasting system should encourage the development of Canadian expression by:
- providing a wide range of programming that reflects Canadian attitudes, opinions, ideas, values and artistic creativity;
- displaying Canadian talent in entertainment programming; and
- offering information and analysis concerning Canada and other countries from a Canadian point of view.
Reflecting Canadians to Canadians
As much as they contribute to shaping our common values, our history, geography, our linguistic and cultural diversity also make Canadians different from one other. Differences exist within communities and from region to region across the country.
Canada’s Broadcasting Act (Section 3.1 (d)(iii)) recognizes these differences and declares that the Canadian broadcasting system should, through its programming and the employment opportunities arising out of its operations, serve the needs and interests, and reflect the circumstances and aspirations, of:
- Canadian men, women and children, including equal rights,
- the linguistic duality and multicultural and multiracial nature of Canadian society, and
- the special place of aboriginal people within that society.[iv]
By encouraging the transition of TSN 990 to RDS 690 (a previously-approved move to 690 kHz, a stronger signal—I may have made it past Brockville) the CRTC is actively and maliciously participating in the systematic disintegration of English-language Montréal-based media. In recent memory, we’ve seen the death of both of Montréal’s English-language alternative weeklies, The Hour and The Mirror, and the absence of an English-language forum for the discussion and dissemination of sports in Montréal widens a cultural void that is already a gaping chasm.
The Montréal I love, the Montréal I leave and come back to again and again without fail, or fault, or judgment, out of love and duty, is a Montréal of duality, of a unique dichotomy of solitudes that both defines and divides. It is the chaos and the calm. The beauty and the horror. The French and the English. To take away 990 is not advantageous for the French, but rather a weakening of both cultures, for without its lingual adversaries the discourse is bland and unchallenged, but more importantly the community is not served culturally, intellectually, or creatively. Too often we excuse regulation for regulation’s sake. Too often we forgive the flaws of our social democracy in celebration of it. Too often we allow the Bells of the world to reach into our pockets, our communities, our homes, to fill their own. For once, let’s ask the government to dismiss profit, dismiss legislation, dismiss bureaucracy, and allow a small but integral part of our Montréal to be free to take to the airwaves, to fill our days in conversation of our vicarism, to lead the discourse of sport in the community we love, and to be lead by people who love and understand both.
Radio Free Montréal.
[iii] “Noodling is fishing for catfish using only bare hands, practiced primarily in the southern United States. The noodler places his hand inside a discovered catfish hole. Many other names, such as catfisting, grabbling, graveling, hogging, dogging, gurgling, tickling and stumping, are used in different regions for the same activity.”