Blackburn Radio Inc.
In an era when monumental conglomerates dominate a substantive percentage of the broadcasting industry in Canada, it is immensely refreshing and reassuring to bear witness to a family-owned entity such as Blackburn Radio Inc. not only competing with much larger corporate players, but often equalling if not surpassing them.
The Blackburn family has been in the Canadian media business for more than 160 years and operates 14 radio stations in Southwestern and Midwestern Ontario, including: Sarnia, London, Chatham, Wingham, Leamington and Windsor, employing about 220 people. During the course of five generations the family has played a pioneering role in newspaper publishing, radio, television, database marketing and digital media.
Roots of the Blackburn enterprise actually precedes the advent of radio in the London area where Blackburn Radio Inc. President Richard Costley-White grew up. It was his great, great grandfather Josiah who founded the family franchise.
“I’m the fifth generation,” Costley-White says. “Josiah Blackburn was born and raised in London, England. One of his older brothers emigrated to Ontario in the 1830s and got into the newspaper business. My ancestor Josiah followed him some years later and acquired The Canadian Free Press, which was the precursor to the London Free Press in 1851.”
It was Arthur Blackburn who founded CJGC in 1922 during the front end of what would be a large radio boom from 1919 through much of the 1920s and many of the brands established then are still in existence today. The original CJGC studios were located inside the Free Press building with 200 watts of emanating power. By 1931, the station had increased its power load to 5,000 watts. The station’s last three call letters also changed in the 1930s to CFPL – standing for Free Press London. It was the primordial station for Blackburn Radio Inc. and also one of the first radio broadcasting licences awarded anywhere in Canada.
“Arthur Blackburn was my great grandfather and he was the publisher of the newspaper who tried various diversification strategies,” Costley-White states.
“Radio came along and he realized that there was a broad companionship of the two media.”
Since the early days of Blackburn Radio Inc., it has established a successful tradition of marrying state-of-the-art technology with high quality local programming and community service.
Blackburn Radio Inc.’s vision is to be the leading independently owned broadcasting company in Southwestern Ontario, with a deep commitment to the regions and to the local communities in which it operates.
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 region of southwestern Ontario has been a very successful one for Blackburn Radio Inc., with a number of repeaters that greatly extends the market and geographic reach of the stations within the network. The most recent addition to radio broadcasting family was 98.1 Free FM in London, which hit the airwaves in July, 2011 after receiving CRTC approval in the winter of 2009. Blackburn had been out of the radio market in London for a number of years and it was a glorious day for the company when it was able to once again return to the airwaves.
“It was exciting to come back to Richard’s home town and my home town to put a new radio service into the marketplace against the application process which had the biggest competitors in the industry and we were awarded the licence, which was very gratifying for us,” says Ron Dann, vice president of operations for London, Sarnia and northwestern Ontario.
Costley-White credits Dann with quarterbacking that entire process from start to finish, revealing it was his leadership and dedication that got the job done.
“He’s had a chance to create something entirely from inception, bring it to market and develop it and that’s quite a rare experience in this industry.”
With a network of successful radio stations across Ontario, Blackburn Radio Inc. has focused on several different on-air formats, all with successful results.
“Each of our markets has an adult contemporary and a rock station and in each of our larger markets there are country stations along with strong news and information components attached as well, including local sports and those tend to be the AM stations,” remarks Dann. “We do tend to stick to the mainstream music formats for our FM stations.”
There are several key departments that must be working in fine order for a radio station to achieve any degree of success.
“What we regard as very important is that we put out quality content,” says John Weese, vice president of operations for Windsor-Essex, Chatham and Kent Region. “We have bigger newsrooms and we invest a lot of energy and resources to ensure we have good content going out over the air.”
The primary goal is to not only meet but exceed stakeholder expectations, which is something Blackburn Radio Inc. has a tradition of accomplishing exceptionally well. With a strong on-air product, it’s vital to get out into the various communities and generate sales to support the operations.
“We try to put as many well-prepared and seasoned people in a position to be able to exploit the audience that’s generated from the content that we provide,” Weese continues. “Programming, marketing and sales are all key ingredients.”
Costley-White expanded on the topic of news and information and having larger newsrooms than the industry average, which is clearly of primary importance to the company’s success.
“We see ourselves in a different set of competitive circumstances in each of the clusters but it’s important for us to be a go-to medium of local record,” he adds. “We’re really focused on developing local brands.”
A striking dynamic within the Blackburn Radio Group centres on the small town of Wingham, which has three radio stations despite a population of less than 4,000. As Costley-White notes, it’s a very unique and vital aspect of the company. A question many might ponder is how such a small town can economically support three radio stations.
“Wingham’s AM station (920 CKNX) is one of the country’s great heritage properties,” Costley-White proudly states. “The one AM and two FM stations that we run out of Wingham are very high power, so the regional signals can cover five counties and a large cluster of cities. It’s a well established cluster up there.”
When asked if the company has plans to expand beyond the reach of the regions it currently serves with either near or longer term plans, Costley-White led off with this humorous response, tongue firmly planted in cheek.
“I’ve been talking to my bankers and I’ve just about got sign-off from them to make a bid for Astral,” he says, laughing heartily. (There was an attempted $3.4 billion takeover bid of Astral Media by BCE Inc. but it was rejected by the CRTC due to convergence concerns by the federal regulator that one company would wield too much power within the broadcast media).
“My primary focus is Southwestern and Midwestern Ontario because it’s our home turf. I’d like to continue to intensify the company’s position here in this region.”
Such enhancement includes on-air market penetration but also by way of various other communications elements of the corporate product offering, such as interactive website development and marketing. Blackburn Radio Inc. has had a number of opportunities to expand beyond its current scope, including entrance into the large Toronto market, but Costley-White is keenly focused on ensuring his current network is top notch.
“I compete against the big players in various markets and the print media and as far as I’m concerned, we compete quite well,” he remarks, and whose grandfather was confronted with that same question 20, 30 and 40 years ago when federal commissions that came forward to question concentration of ownership. “He would be stunned by the level of it right now. Trends in the industry go in one direction, then ideas shift and they go in another direction. Right now it’s consolidation. My biggest question is whether this company is properly capitalized and the team is motivated and meeting our targets. There are advantages to being a smaller, more nimble competitor.”
“We have tremendous respect for how they run their businesses, but we’re influenced far more by our own compass,” Weese adds. “One of the things that make Blackburn unique is that we have created a very important role within community relations and marketing. We hire and develop and have a specific role at each of our radio stations to have a person who will engage with non-profit organization groups and causes within the city. We also help them with their marketing and so there is definitely a business component to doing that but we dedicate resources for somebody to engage with our communities.”
Blackburn Radio Inc. 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. Within the past year, Costley-White created a new position called director of interactive digital media to really start to take on these issues from an operational standpoint and tremendous progress has been made in that period of time.
“We all use smartphones for business and entertainment as well,” Costley-White says. “We are staying on top of those trends and monitoring how our listeners are using it. We stream over our websites and have seen growth there. We are in the process of grappling with establishing more of a uniform model for our websites to make management and sales a little simpler.”
Since Day One the Blackburn family-owned company 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 surveillance that people need and have come to expect.
Despite a prolonged global economic downturn that first hit Canada in 2008, Blackburn Radio Inc. has shown great resiliency in a time when many industries have been hit hard. But recessionary times certainly make for added challenges.
“Radio is quite dependent on national revenue,” remarks Weese. “We certainly felt the impact that most broadcasters did starting in 2008. We quickly learned we can’t be too dependent on those revenues and that we had to really focus on making sure that our bedrock was formed with local revenue dollars.”
It’s a very interesting and challenging time to be involved with any form of media and it’s something Costley-White and his executive management team aim to face head on especially with the global digital information systems now at the disposal of business enterprise.
“We’re focused on our on-air product being the best it can possibly be and that it’s appropriately targeted and we’ve got a lot of experience doing that. It’s really going where the audience is going – being there for them and obviously through advertisers delivering that audience one way or the other that is going to attract them to us.”
There are several main pillars that elevates Blackburn Radio Inc. to the top of the broadcasting industry, beginning with the close-knit team.
“We have a pretty well established corporate culture and a focus on top-quality service,” Costley-White continues. “There’s that sense of trust and commitment by demonstrating it everyday in the market and delivering results for our advertisers.”
“I think it does give us a bit of an advantage in that we can relate to a lot of small businesses that have staff of 20 to 30 people or less. Part of the Blackburn culture is autonomy at a local level, which gives us the ability to be nimble, flexible and adaptable in the markets that may be an advantage over corporations that are more tightly managed,” Weese states.
Agri-Media is a Blackburn program that grew out of the talent in the Wingham-based stations and the connections from the news team there and also in Chatham. There is a very large agriculture base in much of Midwestern and Southwestern Ontario and so Agri-Media was formed to cater to that segment of the audience an all-digital news product.
“We have the ability not only to serve the market it’s generated from but to spread that broadcast service across all our radio stations,” Weese says.
The digital future of Blackburn Radio Inc. is something Costley-White and his management team are excited to explore as new technologies continue to emerge on a seemingly daily basis.
This past July the company launched a site online called BlackburnNews.com and it’s a networking system in which all the local newsrooms deliver their news on a regional platform and it’s seen very strong growth in a very short period of time. It’s also very geo-targeted in that a first-time browser can 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.
“Our newsrooms were already together on a common back-office platform but this has brought them together on a consumer-oriented website and I’m very proud of that effort,” notes Costley-White. “It’s created in many ways a digital regional newspaper.”
“What I would emphasize more than anything is that we’ve been here for a long time and we’re planning to stick around and as the owner I’m looking at investing in expanding our service to the listeners in our communities by extending the reach of the company and online. I’m excited about the future and there are so many ways in which it can go.”
Serving the community is not only a duty but a privilege and one the executives at Blackburn Radio Inc. completely and wholeheartedly endorse.
“We do a major fundraiser in the Wingham area that includes 16 hospitals,” says Jim Knowles, vice president of finance. “It really engages the community in our Radiothon. It’s a highly successful one day of broadcasting that has been ongoing for a decade now accumulating $8 million.”
“We’ve been able to work with all the hospital foundations in our coverage area to do a one day Radiothon broadcast that on average will bring in $700,000 in a single day,” Weese reveals.
The money raised during the annual October broadcasts goes right back to each of the hospital foundations to support efforts in purchasing new equipment.
Blackburn Radio Inc. was recently recognized by the Ontario Association of Broadcasters with a community service award for work carried out on CKNX in conjunction with the Radiothon.
It’s that kind of community spirit, involvement, dedication and professionalism towards benefitting local citizens that keeps Blackburn Radio Inc. at the forefront of the broadcasting industry.