Blackburn Radio Inc.
In the early days of radio broadcasting the industry frontier was largely comprised of independents that spread their frequencies across wide geographic regions as a means of communicating with people. Over many decades the industry has become much more commercially monetized and as such the competition factor has been ramped up significantly. The result of that intense competition has led to widespread convergence whereby the Canadian landscape is largely dominated by just several substantial corporations. However, there are still a few exceptions that have managed to buck the trend.
Blackburn Radio Inc. has enjoyed tremendous broadcasting success in Southwestern and Midwestern Ontario for nearly 170 years and continues to operate independently from the major broadcasting companies in this country. In reflecting back to 2014 when we last highlighted the company, Blackburn and its network of 14 radio stations in six markets was producing incredibly strong results led by a team of executives including Richard Costley-White – a fifth generation member of the family that started Blackburn. It was his great, great grandfather Josiah Blackburn who founded the family franchise in the newspaper business after leaving England in 1850 and that business eventually evolved into broadcasting.
Blackburn Radio was motoring down a prosperous roadway when the company was dealt a major setback in 2015 when Costley-White succumbed to Central Nervous System Lymphoma at the young age of 48 after being diagnosed only a year earlier. His untimely passing shocked the entire company, but after a time of mourning the broadcasting team has since gotten back on track and is now doing exceptionally well under its President Ron Dann, who was a close confidante of Costley-White for many years.
The Canadian Business Journal recently spoke with Dann about Blackburn’s ability to carve out a niche market in the very competitive radio broadcasting industry, which is most often dominated by large corporate players.
“I’m definitely happy with what we’ve managed to achieve,” begins Dann. “Richard set a good foundation for our footprint and growth into digital and the continued growth of our news portal – Blackburnnews.com – which has been very positive for the company. It gives us a stable platform to use in promoting digital.”
“It’s certainly never the way you want to take over a company but I’m very pleased with how we’ve grown over the past couple of years and managed to make it through some bumpy periods and still maintain a good rate of return for the company,” he continues.
Costley-White served as the Director of the Ontario Association of Broadcasters and was President of the Walter J. Blackburn Foundation based in London Ontario. Additionally, he was a Director of the York Club of Toronto and on the board and campaign cabinet of the London Health Sciences Foundation. He was a member of the Board of Trustees of the St. Andrew’s College Foundation, the John P. Roberts Research Institute Council and the Royal Patron’s Circle Committee of the Royal Ontario Museum Board of Governors. In 2006, Costley-White joined the Board of Governors of the Stratford Festival where he chaired the marketing and communications committee and the nominating committee for seven years.
Blackburn Radio is the leading independently owned broadcasting company in Southwestern and Midwestern Ontario, with a deep commitment to the regions and to the local communities in which it operates in, namely Leamington, Windsor, Chatham, Sarnia, Wingham and London. Since the early days of Blackburn Radio, it has established a tradition of marrying state-of-the-art technology with high quality local programming and community service.
The dramatic digital transformation of all media continues to demonstrate the vital importance of local radio and its power to engage listeners and activate audiences. The mission is to connect people and build communities with an innovative blend of over-the-air, online, interactive and mobile media services.
The primary goal is to not only meet but exceed stakeholder expectations, which is something Blackburn Radio has a tradition of accomplishing exceptionally well. With a strong on-air presence, Blackburn Radio sees the change in communications trends and realizes that mobile media and the Internet must be two major components of a successful corporate business plan moving forward.
The family-owned network of stations has always cut its teeth on being community oriented with the entertainment component being crucial along with channeling public safety techniques and making it a productive offering while also providing the local news and community events that people have come to expect.
The technological change in terms of how radio is delivered to the end consumer has been fast and furious. No longer is the only option via over the air transmission (OTA) terrestrial radio. Now listeners tune in from a variety of methods including smartphones, tablets and laptops.
“It’s certainly been interesting over the past couple of years. I recently read a report that said 17% of radio tuning is now taking place on Smart speakers,” reveals Dann. “We partner with some of the largest broadcasters to be on the Radio Player Canada app.”
Dann and the executive team at Blackburn realize that local news, information and community events and participation in the community drives the key to success. That, combined with programming the best on-air formats for each market will keep listeners tuned in.
“Our focus is local and it’s going to stay that way,” Dann states emphatically.
There may be no better example regarding the commitment and success of providing local information than the BlackburnNews.com news portal, which is specifically tailored to each of the markets. In being precisely accurate in its geo-targeting it allows even the first first-time browser to easily identify the community they are from and the lead stories for that community and surrounding area would go to the top of the news rankings.
“The growth of BlackburnNews.com in the past few years has been a pleasant surprise for us,” says Dann. “Right now, year to date, we’re at 25 million page views and all of that news is local. There might be reflections from some at a local level about a national story but for the most part it is local news coverage and certainly weather and traffic conditions.”
As president of a radio network with 14 stations Dann’s time can oftentimes be stretched thin, especially given that he’s so involved in other aspects of the industry as well because he’s also the President of the Ontario Association of Broadcasters, and he sits on the Canadian Association of Broadcasters CEO Radio Council.
“I try to get out to each of the markets once every two weeks,” he reveals. “On a weekly basis I’m usually either in Sarnia or London, where our head office is located.”
The Blackburn brand has done exceptionally well in the small markets for many decades with the likes of Chatham, Wingham and Sarnia being at the core of the company’s foundation. In more recent times the London operation has prospered in what is a very large, competitive market.
Dann says a fundamental key to success is listening to what you’re being told.
“We do quite a bit of market research in the larger markets to make sure we are providing something that is of value to listener when it comes to the format,” he remarks.
Radio broadcasting at its core has remained much the same but the delivery methods have certainly broadened with the advent of digital channels. Dann says it’s hard to predict what the future holds, but Blackburn Radio is nimble and ready to take advantage of any and all opportunities that may arise.
“I think there will be opportunities to do more podcasting and things of interest at the local level,” he says.
As far as technology goes, Dann believes HD radio is a distinct possibility, although it’s still at the experimentation stage right now.
“As far as any great technological leaps I still think it’s going to come down to the content,” states Dann. “We’re always going to be looking at the tools but if you’ve got something worthwhile listening to, the audience will find you.”
According to Dann, the ability to serve local communities is not only a duty but a great privilege and is something that each of the executives at Blackburn Radio wholeheartedly endorse.
The annual Healthcare Heroes Radiothon in Wingham is held in October and has now been a staple in the community for the past 18 years. The CKNX Radiothon helps local hospitals buy crucial new equipment and deliver the best local healthcare possible.
“We’ve raised more than $10 million for the hospitals in Midwestern Ontario over the last decade,” Dann proudly says.
Every community receives something back from Blackburn Radio, whether it’s Sarnia’s work with Inn of the Good Shepherd food bank or the Salvation Army or Christmas toy drives and Teddy Bear tosses at local hockey games.
Various community initiatives are undertaken throughout the entire year. It never really stops because there is always something worthy of promotion to try and help the people in the community, whether it’s a hospital or a children’s charity – the list is endless.
As of January, 2020 Blackburn Radio will enter into a strategic planning phase and will be setting a number of business goals for the future. Dann says the entire broadcasting family has gotten to the point where everybody is comfortable following the difficult transition of not having Costley-White at the helm and is now focused solely on moving initiatives in a positive direction.
“We went through a period following Richard’s passing where it was very difficult, because it was so unexpected. It took us a bit of time to get the company moving forward and we’ve gotten to a really good place as far as our success,” declares Dann.
“In each of our markets and excellent relationships with business partners in the communities,” he concludes. “We want to provide a good rate of return for the company and finding new ways for our business and our staff to grow, including the ability to build their own personal skillsets.”