Feds aren’t to blame for BCE’s plans to cut 4,800 jobs, sell 45 radio stations

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Bell Media says it lost $140-million in advertising revenues last year while its new division suffered more than $40-million in operating costs. 

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on February 12, 2024.

OTTAWA—BCE Inc. is selling off almost half its radio stations and eliminating 4,800 jobs as so-called heritage media continues to lose advertising revenue to social media outlets.

According to The Canadian Press, it was the second round of cuts in less than a year as the company closed nine radio stations and laid off six per cent of their employees last spring.

In an open letter, chief executive Mirko Bibic said employee departures would be met by natural attrition and unfilled vacancies as much as possible.

The company raised its quarterly dividend as profits plummeted.

Internally, the move was characterized as a “significant divestiture.”

According to Bell’s chief legal and regulatory officer Robert Malcolmson, “it’s just not a viable business any more. We will continue to operate ones that are viable, but this is a business that is going in the wrong direction.”

Malcolmson saved his severest criticism for the federal government, claiming the slow pace of promised financial aid to news outlets was a factor in the decision.

An overview of the 45 radio stations being sold indicates not a single station is in a major provincial or federal centre.

The seven buyers for the stations, Vista Radio, Whiteoaks, Zoomer Media, Arsenal Media, Maritime Broadcasting, Durham Radio, and My Broadcasting Corporation are spread from Atlantic Canada, through Quebec, Ontario, and British Columbia.

Some, like Zoomer, are open about targeting a certain age demographic, while others are moving rapidly into technology. Vista advertises itself as the first broadcaster in Canada to embrace cloud-based music distribution.

Meanwhile, Bell Media says it, too, is investing in digital transformation, but whether that can be made profitable remains to be seen.

It also says that it lost $140-million in advertising revenues last year while its new division suffered more than $40-million in operating costs.

One can expect that the vast majority of layoffs will be in news.

The company’s decision to blame the government for its woes is confusing.

If there is no viable business case for running radio stations, why would the government step in to fill the gap?

And, as the 45 radio stations have been sold to other radio conglomerates, somebody must think there there is money to be made somewhere.

Malcolmson says the company cannot wait another year for the financial help promised by the introduction of Bill C-11, federal legislation designed to charge social media broadcasters a fee for repeating news gathered by traditional media outlets.

He also criticized the amount of prospective payments saying it simply would not be enough to stem the losses.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission hopes to be ready to make payments by the end of this year.

Complicating that picture is the promise by Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre to trash the proposed financial help. Consistent with his general hate-on for the media, Poilievre has promised: “We will repeal this anti-speech censorship law and restore freedom of expression on the internet.”

Maybe Bell needs to do a little more housekeeping at the top of its food chain by ushering in some innovation to an organization that appears sadly stuck in the last century.

Women are still smarting over the 2022 decision to dump national anchor Lisa LaFlamme as one senior manager attacked her for her choice to go naturally grey.

In the notice of current layoffs, there doesn’t appear to be a single woman involved in the announcement.

One of the things that the pandemic taught us is that the new workforce is nimble.

Millennials can be very creative, and heaven knows Bell is in need of some creativity, but younger workers are also seeking workforce flexibility. Companies need to be able to react to that.

The regulatory affairs office at Bell doesn’t see it that way.

In the thick of the pandemic, when many employers were allowing housebound workers to do their jobs from warmer climes for a few freezing winter weeks, Bell’s legal department said ‘no’.

Maybe the company has simply grown too big to be able to innovate in the areas where it needs innovation.

If the company isn’t sure it can make money from digitization, it needs to take a look around it at the outside world.

From online shopping, to music selection and media streaming, digitization is where the profits lie. Being able to reach customers virtually is a huge advantage.

If the regulatory team at Bell is leading its innovation charge, no wonder the place is in fire-sale mode.

It is not the government’s fault.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.