Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Media: Changing Branding in Toronto Radio

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The big media story this week in Toronto has been that what was once the city's premier radio station, CFRB, will be called that no longer. In conjunction with a schedule shake-up that amongst other things places possible mayoral candidate John Tory on afternoon drive, what has been "Newstalk 1010 CFRB" will now become simply "Newstalk 1010," not using its heritage call letters.

Calls letters are not nearly the big deal in Canada that they are in the United States. Whereas the Federal Communications Commission requires US stations to give an identification strictly formatted with the call letters and city of license (e.g. "WCBS, New York") once an hour, Industry Canada does not enforce similar rules here (though apparently they do exist). As long as the station is clearly identifying itself in a way that it can be identified, they look the other way on the format and frequency of the identification. On what has been CFRB, "Newstalk 1010 in Toronto" will likely draw no sanction.

The change in branding is no more than that--a change in branding. To Canadian Radio-television Commission and Industry Canada, the station will still be CFRB (at least until it applies for a change in legal call letters, which seems unlikely). However, owner Astral Media has decided that brand of "CFRB," once the strongest in Toronto, no longer matches what they want to do with the station.

The change has attracted so much attention because the "FRB" does stand for something. Once owned by the Rogers media empire, the call letters derived from "First Rogers Batteryless" for the new outlet-based radio that the Rogers Vacuum Tube Company was selling at the time the station went on the air in 1927. (The "F" was not really a choice but a convenient coincidence, as "CF" was one of the codes assigned to Canadian stations.)

Ironically, the station named after Rogers was sold after Edward Rogers Sr.'s death in 1941. It had been owned by Standard Broadcasting until that company became part of Astral Media in late 2007. Ted Rogers, of the current Rogers media empire, had always wanted CFRB to once again become part of the family's holdings, but he died in 2008 without having achieved that goal--but also without hearing the call letters dropped from the station branding.

In the large scheme of things, a change in branding without a change of legal call letters is not all that uncommon. Any multitude of examples could be given; one of my favorites was KPLZ in Seattle. Branded for most of my youth as "K-PLUS" (KPLS was already taken), it became "Z 101.5" in the mid-1980's, and then "STAR-FM" in the mid-1990's, still retaining the KPLZ calls to this day.

For those that remember the Rogers founding of CFRB, though, the current branding change seems like a big deal for Toronto radio.

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