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B.C.-based Vista promises no layoffs after buying 21 Bell radio stations

Pledge comes as politicians slam Bell Media for slashing after being granted $40M in relief
Canadian Heritage Minister Pascale St-Onge speaks to reporters on Parliament Hill after Bell Media announces job cuts, in Ottawa on Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Patrick Doyle

The president of the Vancouver Island company buying 21 B.C. radio stations from Bell Media says there won’t be any closures or layoffs.

Vista Radio president Bryan Edwards says the stations — mainly in the Okanagan and provinces’s northwest, northeast and southeast corners — have a total of about 80 employees and he believes some are understaffed.

Bell Media’s parent company BCE earlier announced widespread layoffs and the sale of 45 of its 103 regional radio stations across the country, as well as ending multiple television newscasts and making other programming cuts.

British Columbia Premier David Eby responded by calling Bell “corporate vampires” who had overseen the “encrapification” of local news by laying off journalists.

Edwards says his company, based in Courtenay, pays attention to the needs of individual markets with local staff that live in the communities, and it doesn’t use centralized programming.

He wouldn’t say how much Vista is offering for the radio stations that include broadcasters in Kelowna, Penticton, Fort St. John and Prince Rupert, and CRTC approval of the sale could take a year.

READ ALSO: Radio tuning to Vista as Bell broadcasts sell-off of 21 B.C. stations

Meanwhile, as Bell Media blamed regulators and policymakers for its decision to announce a fresh round of layoffs Thursday, federal and provincial politicians accused the company of unnecessarily killing off local journalism.

Heritage Minister Pascale St-Onge decried the company for breaking its promise to invest in news after it was granted more than $40 million in annual regulatory relief.

That’s the same amount the company said its news division, which includes CTV News and BNN Bloomberg, is losing annually.

Facing $40 million in annual operating losses, Bell Media is cutting 4,800 jobs. That comes amid across-the-board cuts at parent company BCE Inc., which has an operating revenue totaling $6.7 billion, up from $6.44 billion a year earlier.

“They are not going bankrupt. They’re still making billions of dollars. They’re still a very profitable company,” St-Onge said Thursday on Parliament Hill.

“And they still have the capacity and the means to hold their end of the bargain, which is to deliver news reports.”

St-Onge said the government has worked to help the news industry, and at some point companies have to chip in, too.

The Liberals’ update to broadcasting law, the Online Streaming Act, came into effect last April. It abolished certain licensing fees, which St-Onge said will save the company some $40 million a year.

Bell Media is also expected to receive money because of the Liberals’ Online News Act, which came into effect late last year.

Broadcasters are expected to receive $30 million through a side deal the government struck with Google.

It agreed to pay news outlets $100 a year to avoid being regulated under the new law, which requires tech giants to compensate news producers for content that is shared on their platforms, and from which they financially benefit.

Still, Bell Media is blaming its cuts on the federal government, saying Ottawa took too long to provide relief for media companies.

It also blames the Canadian Radio-television Commission, saying the regulator is too slow to react to a “crisis that is immediate.”

The CRTC is expected to release final regulations aimed at helping the news industry in the coming months. Until then, St-Onge said, “we need everybody to hold strong.”

Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan, a former journalist, said Thursday that the layoffs are “atrocious” and it’s “hard seeing journalists being treated as rounding errors in what I think are healthy profit margins.”

Eby said the layoffs — along with the sale of 45 of the company’s 113 regional radio stations — is “catastrophic.”

“Bell and corporations like Bell have overseen the assembly of local media assets that are treasures to local communities. They bought them up. Like corporate vampires, they sucked the life out of them, laying off journalists,” Eby said Thursday.

The federal NDP said this should serve as a wake-up call for Ottawa and its relationship with corporations.

“The federal government needs to start showing leadership, first off, and any funding that is going to Bell or any other corporation needs to come with the key guarantees in terms of jobs and maintaining professional journalism,” NDP House leader Peter Julian said.

When St-Onge was pressed on the cuts by the Bloc Québécois during question period, she stated in French that the Liberal government would not be giving any more money to billionaire companies.

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre responded to the cuts on Thursday by placing blame on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

He said high taxes, burdensome red tape and an uncompetitive business environment “is driving our jobs and our money out of the country to foreign nations that are prospering at our expense.”

READ ALSO: CBC to get no more than $7M, private broadcasters $30M under Google deal

READ ALSO: Bell abandoning all-sports format at radio stations in Vancouver, Winnipeg, Hamilton