The struggle to establish and maintain Christian broadcasting in Canada
From David Spencer's Media Spin : Observations about media in Canada
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Is Anyone Out There? The struggle to establish and maintain Christian broadcasting in Canada
written by Frank Stirk
They had such high hopes.
In January, 1994, The Bridge, Canada's first contemporary Christian music station began broadcasting on the AM dial in Vancouver, confident that it had a bright future. Operations manager Gerry Siemens said at the time they believed the station's format had the potential to appeal to a huge untapped audience. "Something like 80 percent of Canadians perceive themselves to be spiritual, that is, to believe in God. Seventy-five percent believe themselves to be Christians," he said. "That's a lot of people." And along with this audience, Siemens predicted, would come the commercial sponsors: "Christians, like everyone else, eat french fries and buy tires." 
Just four-and-a-half years later, however, The Bridge conceded defeat. At 6:00 in the morning on July 31, it quietly disposed of its Christian format, and switched over-as a news release announced-to "songs that appeal to today's mature adult." 
What went wrong? Siemens, who is now the station's general manager, believes it was not their fault that The Bridge's total weekly listenership, according to the Bureau of Broadcast Measurement, never exceeded 44,000. That left it in last place among Vancouver's 15 radio stations, despite research showing more than ten times as many people in the Greater Vancouver area attend church at least once a month. "We've done everything we can think of to get the word out to the Christian community," Siemens said. "It's the community at large that has not responded."
"A Canadian-style compromise"
Looking back, it's now apparent that the source of its troubles date back a full year before The Bridge even signed on.
On June 3, 1993, the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) unveiled its new policy on religious broadcasting. Although it lifted a decades-old ban on single point-of-view programming, it also reiterated that "the provision of balance by the offering of diverse points of view on issues of public concern remains a cornerstone of CRTC policy...." As then-CRTC chairman Keith Spicer explained, "Our decision rests on a Canadian-style compromise: it strikes the vital, if delicate, balance between supporting freedom of expression and safeguarding against our broadcasting system being used to promote intolerance."
Evangelicals immediately objected to this "balance" requirement. Said Willard Thiessen, co-host of the Winnipeg-based TV program, It's a New Day, "I'm very sad that we can't in a broadcast setting, whether it's radio or television, have a clear, distinctive voice without making it a pluralistic voice."
Over five years later, Thiessen has yet to be granted the television license that he has been repeatedly seeking from the CRTC. In fact, prior to April of this year, it had rejected 15 license applications from aspiring Christian TV broadcasters, while approving only one -- CJIL's Miracle Channel in Lethbridge, Alberta. And even this station, according to one observer, is "in a market area arguably too small to support it." (To add insult to injury, on the same day in July 1997, the CRTC rejected the applications of four aspiring religious TV broadcasters, while approving the Playboy TV Channel.) Radio has also not fared much better. Now that The Bridge is no more, only a few Christian music stations remain, including Shine-FM (CJSI-FM) in Calgary, The Light (CJCA-AM) in Edmonton -- both owned by Touch Broadcasting -- and CHRI-FM in Ottawa.
Don Millar, who founded Canada's first Christian FM station on the campus of Briarcrest Bible College in Saskatchewan, places the blame for this state of affairs squarely on these "balance" requirements. As he said in an interview with Citizen, "It's stupid, it's just ludicrous to have to put these conditions on Christian broadcasters that nobody else has to adhere to. It's like a sports station having to play jazz in order to have balance.'"
"We're only here by the grace of God"
Radio stations like The Bridge have been able to get around this requirement by opting for a mostly-music format. But Millar, who now works for a station in St. Catherine's, Ontario, says that is ultimately self-defeating, because it leaves Christians not getting the kind of balanced programming they expect from a Christian outlet. "You've got to have some preaching and teaching, something behind the music." And, he warns, his experience has been that if Christians do not like what they hear -- even on a Christian station -- they will choose to go elsewhere and never come back.
To make matters worse, unlike their American counterparts, these stations are prohibited by the CRTC from fund-raising.  As Siemens points out, that leaves them dependent on paid advertisers, who will drop them if they fail to attract a sizable audience. "If a Christian station had the ability to solicit their listeners for funds...you might have a chance...to survive," he said. "But as a straight commercial entity, I'm not sure the well is deep enough in Canada." 
The result, according to Millar, is a large number of frustrated, would-be broadcasters and a handful of struggling outlets. "I've talked with a lot of people who've got a lot of plans [for Christian radio]," he said. "But the big problem is raising the money to get it going -- and keep it going." "There's a large market for Christian music," said CHRI-FM general manager Bob Du Broy. "But it's a hard go. We're only here by the grace of God." 
"No one is holding them accountable"
Some pro-family activists question whether this restrictive "balance" requirement is even legal. Canada Family Action Coalition president Roy Beyer notes that in 1991, amendments to the Broadcast Act passed by Parliament deleted the "balanced opportunity" requirement. And yet, he said, the CRTC has continued to impose this very same demand on single-faith religious broadcasters. "They have violated the Charter of Rights and the Broadcast Act at will," Beyer alleges, "and, so far, no one is holding them accountable."
Some Members of Parliament are hoping to change that. On April 27, Reform MP Eric Lowther (Calgary Centre) tabled Motion M-392. It called on the government to review the CRTC's practice "to license broadcasters of pornography while refusing to license numerous religious broadcasters..."  According to Lowther's office, it may be re-drafted as a private member's bill later this year.
"It's the way to go"
But for Christian television, at least, the outlook appears somewhat brighter, thanks to the persistence of Crossroads Christian Communications, the producer of 100 Huntley Street. Last April 9, the CRTC awarded it a license to operate Crossroads Television System (CTS), a 24-hour non-profit Christian TV station with the capacity to reach 6 million people across southern Ontario. On September 30, CTS officially began broadcasting.
What makes CTS unique is that it's Canada's first commercial religious television station. It must still offer 20 hours a week of "balancing" programming, which it plans to accomplish by airing several talk shows as well as several programs produced by Jews and Muslims. But it will also feature a number of syndicated family-friendly shows such as Little House on the Prairie and The Waltons -- and for these, they are allowed to sell 12 minutes of advertising an hour. CTS President Dick Gray told Citizen that the revenues generated will be re-invested in other programs not geared to make a profit, such as children's programming.
"It's the way to go," Gray says. "It's a very expensive business. We frankly don't see how it could have been financially viable any other way than by being a commercial entity. You don't want to be asking for donations in the same marketplace where the [non-commercial] programs on our station are asking for donations."
Gray adds that CTS could well become a model for other would-be religious broadcasters of how to achieve their goals while abiding by the rules set down by the CRTC. "The problem," he believes, "is that no matter how much we think all these things should be there and available to us, the reality is it comes down to finances and being financially viable. So I think in our enthusiasm to get Christian licenses over the years, everybody has assumed these stations will be financially viable, but they're not."
1. Peter Hogben, "It's Rock of Ages instead of rock and roll," Vancouver Sun (January 10, 1994), p. B3.
2. 600 AM The Bridge news release: "Vancouver has a brand new radio station!" (July 27, 1998).
3. Douglas Todd, "Christian station's end raises doubts," The Vancouver Sun (August 21, 1998), p. B1.
4. David F. Dawes and Anne Eapen, "Christian radio silenced in Vancouver," BC Christian News (August 1990), p.1.
5. CRTC news release: "Freedom of expression balanced by tolerance: Cornerstones of new CRTC religious broadcasting policy" (June 3, 1993), p.2.
6. Focus on the Family: Family News in Focus radio broadcast (June 8, 1993).
7. Joe Woodard, "Playboy 1, God 0," Western Report (January 5, 1998), p. 22.
8. Commercial-free "community" stations are allowed to solicit funds, but they are not allowed to broadcast religious programming. Cf. Wes Sutton, "Christian radio: to entertain or evangelize?" BC Christian News (September 1998), p. 4.
9. Dawes and Eapen, "Christian radio silenced in Vancouver," op. cit.
11. Woodard, "Playboy 1, God 0," p.22.
12. Edited Hansard, Number 107, House of Commons Debates (May 15, 1998).
13. According to REAL Women, the CRTC's favorable decision regarding CTS was due solely "to the pressure of Canadians, angered by the CRTC's discriminatory policy of refusing to licence Christian broadcasters..." Cf. "CRTC licenses Christian TV Station," REALity (July/August 1998), p. 16.