Ten years after coming to the airwaves on the strength of a politically charged campaign, Toronto’s first commercial black radio station has been assumed by a corporate behemoth.
CTV concluded its $27 million purchase of The New Flow 93.5 FM this week with a pledge to retain the station’s name and urban music orientation, however that is defined.
“It’s kind of hard to say, ‘What’s urban?’ and ‘What’s rhythmic?’ and ‘What’s hip-hop? Dance? What’s crossover?’” said CHUM Radio president Chris Gordon, who will oversee operations. “All I can tell you is that we’re committed to being a very rhythmic radio station.”
The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission’s approval of the sale binds CTV through 2017 to the terms of Flow’s initial licence, which dictates an urban music format without specifics.
The deal makes CTV, which own 33 radio stations across the country, level with competitors such as Rogers, Astral and Corus, which already have FM duopolies in Canada’s biggest market.
“As successful as CHUM FM is and as successful as The Flow is, the two stations separately are not nearly as strong as the two stations are together,” said Gordon. The Flow is a great fit for CHUM FM, he added, with its tendency to attract younger, female listeners.
The transaction brings to a close Flow owner and Milestone Inc. CEO Denham Jolly’s run as the first black person in Canada to receive a radio licence. It took the nursing-home owner and former community newspaper publisher 11 years, $400,000, three different applications and 12,000 signatures to win approval from the federal broadcast regulator.
But it’s been an uneasy tenure.
While the station made respectable gains, eventually becoming profitable, it raised the ire of members of the black community who supported Jolly’s bid.
Within three months of its launch on Feb. 9, 2001, some listeners were calling for a Flow boycott over its predominantly hip-hop playlist. They wanted programmers to adhere to Milestone’s promise of a “modern-day reflection of the rich musical traditions of black musicians and black-influenced music over at least the past century” with a broader mix of reggae, soca, jazz and R&B.
“Flow catered more to the below 30, the hip-hop kind of North American vibe, so it alienated a lot of us,” said Brampton-based 50something Allan Jones, who supported a rival black bid for the frequency. “People felt it sold out a long time ago, so the sale of Flow means nothing really. What was missing then is still missing now. What we needed was a mainstream voice that reflected our culture, our music, our thought leaders.”
“What you do to get a licence and what you do with a licence are two different things,” said radio consultant David Bray, president of Bray & Partners Communications, of Flow’s slide “from world music, or urban music, to a more CHR (contemporary hit radio) format.”
“They had to move more in that direction because you’ve got to get enough ad base to be able to get enough revenue. That is the reality of radio in Canada. It’s always a balancing act: making sure that your conditions of licence are fulfilled, while at the same time becoming sufficiently commercial that you can actually make some money.”
The station maintained a strong community mandate, supporting organizations like the Jamaican Canadian Association and the Black Business and Professional Association, as well as a minority-focused scholarship at Ryerson University. Its efforts also boosted the careers of local black talent such as singers Jully Black and Divine Brown, CP24 reporter Nathan Downer and former Canadian Idol judge Farley Flex.
While the terms of the Flow licence require CTV to continue financial support of new and emerging artists, Toronto concert promoter Keith Baker wanted the company to have obligations, such as “80 per cent black/urban music” and “devote at least 50 per cent of advertising airtime to black businesses.”
He unsuccessfully lobbied the CRTC to attach those conditions to ensure that 93.5 FM would “keep the urban format in Toronto for years to come.” The commission declined.
One of only three interveners, Baker’s has an outstanding lawsuit with Flow over concert support.
“The urban need is going to be here long after myself, it’s not a personal gripe,” said Baker, citing the need for an R&B, hip-hop and soul music outlet for businesses to “access a vital demographic.”
This weekend, Flow will move from 211 Yonge St. to new studios at CTV’s 299 Queen St. headquarters. Nicole Jolly (Denham’s daughter), Milestone’s VP of operations, is gone, but music director Justin Dumont and program director Wayne Williams are still on board.
“We do like a lot of the talent that’s at the radio station,” said Gordon. “So if you’re a listener you’ll notice some (changes), but hopefully they’ll be good things.”
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