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Bell cutting 1,300 positions, shuttering six radio stations

Company blames cuts on unfavourable public policy and regulatory conditions
Bell Canada signage is pictured in Ottawa on Wednesday Sept. 7, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

BCE Inc. is cutting 1,300 positions, around three per cent of its workforce, and closing or selling nine radio stations as the company plans to “significantly adapt” how it delivers the news.

The company says the job cuts are in response to unfavourable public policy and regulatory conditions that it can no longer outwait.

The plan entails “moving to a single newsroom approach across brands, allowing for greater collaboration and efficiency,” said Richard Gray, vice-president of news at Bell Media, in an internal memo distributed to staff Wednesday morning and provided to The Canadian Press.

In an interview with The Canadian Press, Bell executive vice-president and chief legal and regulatory officer Robert Malcolmson said the company’s media branch “can’t afford” to continue operating with its various brands — such as CTV National News, BNN, CP24, its local TV news stations and radio channels — operating independently of one another.

The eliminated positions include a six per cent cut at Bell Media, which is part of BCE Inc.’s Bell Canada division. Bell Media’s holdings include the CTV television network, specialty TV channels, radio stations and production studios.

“It’s a consolidation of news gathering, news delivery,” Malcolmson said.

“We are combining the news production function in a horizontal way so that you have one common platform that is serving news to the relevant outlet from one management team.”

Employees were also informed that Winnipeg’s Funny 1290, Calgary’s Funny 1060, Edmonton’s TSN 1260 Radio, Vancouver’s BNN Bloomberg Radio 1410 and Funny 1040, along with London’s NewsTalk 1290 would shutter.

Bell Media is also selling Hamilton’s AM Radio 1150 and AM 820, as well as Windsor’s AM 580, to an undisclosed third party, subject to CRTC approval.

Management positions are being slashed by six per cent, according to the company. There will also be 20 per cent fewer executive roles in the company compared with 2020.

In a separate internal memo sent on Wednesday, Bell Media president Wade Oosterman said staff affected by cuts would be informed this week. Around 30 per cent of the positions being eliminated are current vacancies that won’t be filled.

He told employees the company is coping with “the ongoing migration of advertising revenue to foreign digital platforms” such as Facebook and Google, and a shift from cable, satellite and Fibre TV subscribers to digital streaming platforms.

“We are also faced with strong economic and inflationary pressures, a pullback in advertisers’ budgets, and a challenging regulatory environment that has been too slow to adjust,” said Oosterman in his memo to staff.

Media headwinds

In an open letter published online Wednesday, Bell Canada president and CEO Mirko Bibic said Bell Canada expects to lose more than $250 million in legacy phone revenues per year, while its news operations incur $40 million in annual operating losses. He said Bell radio stations have seen profit cut in half since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The job reductions are consistent with but smaller than similar reductions announced by other leading technology and media companies across North America in recent months,” said Bibic.

In 2021, Bell Media laid off 210 employees in the Toronto area.

In the U.S., the media industry has announced more than 17,000 cuts so far this year, the highest year-to-date on record, according to the May 2023 Challenger Report, which tracks layoffs. The second-highest year-to-date for the sector occurred in 2020, when 16,750 cuts were announced through May.

As part of Bell’s shift to a more streamlined newsroom across its brands, Gray said CTV National News executive producer Rosa Hwang is no longer with the company, effective immediately.

David Hughes, Ramneek Gill, Sophia Skopelitis and Jonathan Kay will take on expanded roles within the news division as the company moves from a “vertical” to “horizontal” management structure.

CTV’s foreign bureaus in London, U.K, and Los Angeles are set to close, with all positions based in those locations eliminated, while its Washington bureau “will be scaled back to focus more fully on important news from the USA and the impacts on Canada,” said Gray.

Meanwhile, CTV’s National News team is adding videographers to four new provinces, including immediately in St. John’s, N.L. and Regina, Sask., with others to come later this year in Fredericton, N.B. and Charlottetown, PEI.

Policy concerns

Malcolmson said regulatory challenges affecting both the telecommunications side and media arm simply left the company in an “unenviable place,” with no choice but to make widespread cuts.

“We’re obviously trying to do this in the most humane, least impactful way possible,” he said.

“This thing affects all layers of the company and isn’t targeted at any one band of employees.”

Malcolmson did not rule out further layoffs in the foreseeable future, saying the company will take a wait-and-see approach to the regulatory environment.

He took aim at “relentless regulatory intervention” by the CRTC, under Ottawa’s direction, that has prioritized measures to bring down the cost of telecommunication services.

Noting that the cost of wireless service has declined around 25 per cent and the cost of broadband high-speed internet has gone up by less than one per cent over the last three years, despite Canada’s overall high inflation, Malcolmson said “maybe it’s time to declare victory” for Ottawa.

“I think the government’s sort of populist focus on pricing isn’t necessarily in line with current reality and the government has created an intensely competitive industry structure that they should allow to play out,” he said.

Malcolmson also lamented the process around two pieces of legislation designed to help Canada’s struggling media sector. While Bill C-18 would require companies like Google and Meta to pay Canadian outlets for news content that appear on their platforms, he said it could be for naught if the companies follow through on threats to simply restrict or block news links on their sites.

The other, Bill C-11, aims to force platforms such as Netflix, YouTube and TikTok to contribute a percentage of their Canadian revenue to Canadian production, but Malcolmson said it’s not going to solve the “fundamental problem” that popular American content is being “withheld” by major streaming platforms from appearing on Canadian TV.

Malcolmson said Bell has been waiting for regulatory reform for years and the company decided not to hold back cuts pending the outcome of regulatory consultations on those bills any further.

“The time for waiting for reform is over. Those reforms may never come so we have a responsibility to our shareholders and to our employees to make sure the business can be positioned for future growth and that means we have to make our cost structure make sense,” he said.

“We have to ensure that our business is able to operate in a viable way, and we can’t wait two years and another, for example, $80 million of losses in news to see what the government might do.

“At some point, we have to say to ourselves, ‘Is it worth funding this?’”

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