CRTC calls Punjabi radio to account
Competitors have complained two Vancouver- area stations are operating without a licence
OTTAWA — The Boat That Rocked, a 2009 comedy starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, celebrated 1960s rebels who defied the snooty British establishment by illegally broadcasting rock music from a ship to thrilled youths on shore.
A modern version of Pirate Radio, as the film was labelled for its North American release, is a far more serious affair that has upset a federal regulator, sparked allegations of racism, and is dividing communities and businesspeople in the Lower Mainland.
The Canadian Radio- television and Telecommunications Commission has ordered two mainly Punjabi- language broadcasters — Richmondbased Sher- E- Punjab Radio Broadcasting Inc. and Surreybased Radio India ( 2003) Ltd. — to appear before commissioners next week to determine whether they’re violating Canada’s Broadcasting Act.
Radio India and Sher- E- Punjab, which have both operated for more than a decade without Ottawa’s permission, were told in a CRTC notice that they must “show cause” at a Gatineau, Que., hearing why they shouldn’t be subjected to orders to “cease and desist” their operations.
The stations target Lower Mainland audiences from studios in Metro Vancouver, but their broadcast towers are in Washington state.
The notice also pointed out that the stations’ many advertisers could, under the Income Tax Act, be denied tax deductions for advertising with these broadcasters.
Radio Punjab Ltd. was also scheduled to appear, but the CRTC issued a notice Friday saying it had reached a “consent agreement” with the station. Neither the CRTC nor station owner Grupal Garcha would go into details of the agreement, which deals with Radio Punjab’s practice of transmitting using facilities it leases in Washington state.
“We can keep our office, keep programming and we don’t have to shut down,” said Garcha said. “But I can’t elaborate on it.”
The provocative open- line programs and other broadcasts on the three stations are popular among South Asians — which has Canadian politicians keen to get on air.
But their presence has also angered competitors who say they’re losing advertising dollars by competing with companies that don’t abide by CRTC rules, including Canadian content requirements.
“All of our members put significant resources into ensuring compliance with the legislation which governs broadcasters in Canada and, while it can be costly and challenging at times, it is simply the right thing to do,” the B. C. Association of Broadcasters told the CRTC in a letter sent last month in connection with the upcoming hearings.
It said the CRTC should take “any necessary steps to protect the integrity of the Canadian broadcast system.”
Meanwhile, a cross- border community group is also upset over the construction of new radio towers by one of the stations, Sher- E- Punjab, in Point Roberts near Tsawwassen.
“They’ve been operating with impunity for years,” said Jim Ronback, a retired engineer and member of the Cross- Border Coalition to Stop the Radio Towers.
The planned construction of five 46- metre towers within 330 metres of Tsawwassen, intended to strengthen SherE- Punjab’s signal, will expose residents to “50,000 watts of harmful electromagnetic radio frequency radiation causing blanketing interference,” Ronback wrote in a letter that included more than 3,600 signatures from upset residents.
The Tsawwassen group has been lobbying two B. C. Conservative heavyweights, Industry Minister James Moore and Revenue Minister Kerry- Lynne Findlay, to pressure the U. S. Federal Communications Commission ( FCC) to pull the plug on expansion plans by KRPI 1550 AM, a former Christian station with an ownership link to the Badh family that broadcasts Sher- E- Punjab’s signal from the U. S. into the Lower Mainland.
Its current facilities are in Ferndale, Wash., but it has received permission from the FCC to install the five new towers in Point Roberts.
If the opponents are successful, they’ll have to overcome significant political support for the stations.
Station managers like Radio India’s Maninder Gill show off to visitors framed photographs of themselves with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Premier Christy Clark, and many other federal, provincial and municipal politicians from all parties.
Surrey- area MPs Nina Grewal of the Conservatives and Jinny Sims of the New Democratic Party, and former MP Sukh Dhaliwal, who is seeking the Liberal nomination to take on Sims in the 2015 election, all told The Vancouver Sun they hope the CRTC doesn’t launch a crackdown.
Gill, Radio India’s managing director, said he’ll go all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada if the CRTC tries to shut him down. He’ll claim discrimination based on race because, he alleges, the regulator ignores Caucasian- owned stations operating in the same “pirate” fashion.
CRTC spokesman Denis Carmel said the agency is aware of allegations about other nonSouth Asian pirate stations but said the commission doesn’t comment on such matters.
Gill said the CRTC has rejected attempts by his station and Sher- E- Punjab to obtain licences. He said his own bid for a licence in 2005 was stymied for political reasons — his station championed the Conservative party when the Liberals were in power.
“How they call us a pirate radio? We have an office here, all the federal and provincial ministers know about us,” Gill told The Sun. “We pay all our taxes in Canada including employee deductions. Our ( business) licence is issued by city of Surrey.”
Next week’s hearing is linked to a similarly controversial matter. In August, the CRTC granted South Fraser Broadcasting Inc., one of a number of applicants, an FM licence to serve the Surrey area with a new English- language station called My Surrey.
The CRTC’s 2- 1 decision included a scathing dissent by Raj Shoan, a former CRTC lawyer appointed by Industry Minister James Moore last year as Ontario’s representative on the commission.
Shoan said the ruling in South Fraser’s favour was a “travesty of regulatory fairness” because of the business and family link between the company’s owner, Sukhvinder “Suki” Badh, and Badh’s parents and siblings who own and run one of the pirate stations, Sher-EPunjab.
The Canadian system requires broadcasters to play by the same rules, and failure to do so not only violates the law but “destabilizes the marketplace and undermines the regulatory regime presently in place,” Shoan wrote.
“Licences should not be granted to individuals who may be involved in or have ties to those involved in activities which do not respect the basic requirements.”
The Badh family, responding to the CRTC’s concerns, recently promised to sell its interests in ethnic radio at an unspecified date in order to “remove any suggestion of impropriety.”
“Although we do not believe that ( Sher- E- Punjab) has violated any provision of the Broadcasting Act or the Commission’s regulation of radio, we desire to remove any doubt that has arisen and to put an end to the innuendo, threats and abuse our family and friends have endured,” Jasbir Badh, who like other Badh family members would not agree to an interview with The Sun, wrote on Sept. 22 in a letter to the CRTC.
On Monday, meanwhile, CRTC secretary general John Traversy issued a notice to interested parties that a Surrey resident, Amarjit Buttar, had formally submitted a petition asking the Harper government to reconsider its decision to grant South Fraser the licence.
Buttar cited Shoan’s “travesty” comment and argued the two commissioners who supported South Fraser’s application shouldn’t have overlooked the link between Sukhvinder Badh and Sher- E- Punjab.
Badh, the winner of the August CRTC decision to create My Surrey, was general manager and an on- air broadcaster on Sher- E- Punjab when it began operations in 2002.
He is also 80- per- cent owner of BBC Holdings Ltd., a U. S. company that owns 40 acres in Ferndale, Wash., where KRPIAM is located, pending the move to Point Roberts.
Buttar noted that Badh’s mother Surinder is listed in corporate records as Sher- EPunjab’s owner, his father is chief executive officer, brother Dale is chief operating officer, and brother Jasbir is general manager.
The parents and all three brothers, according to online public records, live with other family members in the same $ 1.4 million Ash Street residence in Richmond.
The Badhs, like Radio India’s Gill, allege they are being targeted by two Punjabi- language rivals that won a 2005 battle with them for licences — Red FM 93.1 and RJ 1200, an AM station that just rebranded itself as Spice Radio.
Spice Radio owner Shushma Datt, a former British Broadcasting Corp. journalist, said she hasn’t been able to meet her CRTC obligations to invest in Canadian talent due to the drain of advertising dollars to her unlicensed competitors.
She also took a shot at the three ( Radio Punjab didn’t respond to interview requests) for their style, saying she takes a more “old school” approach to broadcasting.
But the Badh family, in its letter to the CRTC, suggested that Spice Radio’s problems were more related to their own “poor programming and marketing decisions.”