Source : Globe & Mail
Star Ray headed for hearing over its illegal airing of community programming
by Keith Damsell
Jan Pachul, the grinning renegade of the broadcasting airwaves, is ready for a showdown with Ottawa.
"The CRTC is after us," says Mr. Pachul from the cluttered headquarters of Star Ray TV in Toronto's east end. "And we will fight them to the max."
On Sept. 19, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission will hold a public hearing to consider the fate of 47-year-old Mr. Pachul and Star Ray TV. Against the wishes of the federal regulator, the rogue TV channel has been broadcasting an eclectic mix of community programming across Toronto for the past year – without a licence.
Mr. Pachul is spoiling for a fight. He plans to bus a group of supporters to the hearing in Hull, Que.
"If they want to run a kangaroo court, then we'll act like a bunch of kangaroos," he says with glee.
Mr. Pachul's foray into broadcasting began seven years ago when he was granted an experimental broadcasting licence by Industry Canada. The TV signal forgoes cable, broadcasting via an ultra-high frequency (UHF) wireless band across a small area. About 130,000 homes across Toronto's Beaches and Riverdale neighbourhoods can access the channel signal with the aid of a TV antenna.
But the experimental licence expired. Two years ago, he asked the commission for an over-the-air low-power television (LPTV) licence to broadcast to the community. The proposed station was a modest affair with projected first-year revenue of $478,000, barely covering costs of $451,000. By year seven, sales and costs would climb to the $1-million range.
The application caught the attention of some of Bay Street's biggest communications companies, including network CTV Inc., Rogers Communications Inc. and broadcaster CHUM Ltd.
They shared a long list of concerns, questioning the station's commitment to programming and the appropriateness of issuing a rural LPTV licence to an urban broadcaster. In addition, there were concerns an existing channel may have to get bumped higher on the TV dial to make room for a new service.
Despite the support of 43 private citizens and community groups, the CRTC said no to Star Ray TV on Aug. 21 last year. The process, however, helped push the regulator to rethink community programming and its LPTV policy. New guidelines are expected in November.
A frustrated Mr. Pachul took the matter into his own hands. On Sept. 9, Star Ray TV began broadcasting – illegally.
From its grey studio space off of Toronto's Gerrard Street, Star Ray TV offers an eclectic stew of community news, local sports and the bizarre. Every weekend, video producer Ray Neilson dons white goul makeup and a black widow's peak, transforming himself into Creature Feature host Count Ray. Mother Angelica is a talk show hosted by an aging nun. Mr. Pachul's frisky German shepherd is regularly seen on camera. In between programming, viewers can catch psychedelic computer graphics and bargain-basement advertising. For example, 200 text-only ads for hemp-fed chickens cost a local poultry producer just $100.
While Star Ray TV's wacky local flavour makes it sound like a real-life SCTV, the industry is not amused.
"The issue is the integrity of the licensing process and ensuring that it is absolutely foolproof. So it's up the commission to call him [Mr. Pachul] to account," says Peter Miller, CHUM's vice-president of regulatory and business affairs.
Despite its strong support for diverse Canadian voices, The Friends of Canadian Broadcasting argues Star Ray TV's maverick attitude sets a dangerous precedent.
"If we allow this man to set up this transmitter, why not allow Ted Turner?" said lobby group spokesman Ian Morrison.
In recent months, the CRTC has sent two cease-and-desist letters to Mr. Pachul, culminating in next month's hearing. Continued defiance is threatening to push the case before the courts, where the station may face fines of up to $20,000 a day. Mr. Pachul is adamant Star Ray TV will stay on the air, claiming it is the only voice in Toronto that listens to and reflects its community. "There's only one way the station is going off the air: A SWAT team's got to cease the transmitter and I go out in handcuffs."
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