What is Black Coral Inc. and why should you care about it?
Well, Black Coral Inc., in the words of a cheery little government of Alberta press release published just before the media got down to covering Premier Ed Stelmach’s meaningless cabinet shuffle, “is the successful vendor for the Alberta Emergency Public Warning System Modernization Request for Proposal.”
Sounds great, eh?
According to this particular news release, the provincial government is looking forward with breathless anticipation to working with Black Coral “on the development of a new and enhanced public alerting system.” Furthermore, it says, the decision to enhance the system was made after the government “consulted with stakeholders and media partners on ways to improve and enhance the existing system.” If you didn’t know about this, presumably, it’s because you’re neither a stakeholder nor a media partner.
You should care about it because Black Coral, an Ottawa-based high technology company, has displaced the CKUA radio network as the operator of the Alberta Emergency Public Warning System. In other words, whether you knew it or not, you are a stakeholder!
The emergency public warning system, as you will recall, is the network that interrupts broadcast programming in Edmonton to warn listeners that funnel clouds may have been spotted in the vicinity of Manyberries, Etzikom, Nemiscam, Maleb and Foremost. Because Black Coral is a privately held corporation, it will be extremely difficult to find useful information about it.
Because of the displacement of CKUA from this role, in turn, this decision is a major blow to the proposition that there is civilized life on the Great Plains of Canada.
This is because, whether or not we like to admit such things happen in Alberta, maintenance of the warning system by CKUA amounted to a quiet subsidy of a priceless cultural gem in a great sea of commercial radio dreck. The decision will cost CKUA – which built the system and ran it from Day 1 – $700,000 a year. For an operation that stays alive on listener donations, this is no joke. Nor should it be a joke for those of us who choke on commercial radio or care about Western Canadian culture.
CKUA, founded in 1927, is pretty much the only place west of Toronto other than college radio stations that plays local artists, permits different voices to be heard, supports local cultural events. It’s the only place with live disk jockeys who know what they’re talking about and choose their own play lists. In other words, it’s pretty much the only radio station that plays anything other than the same old homogenized, contemptible crap that’s repeated endlessly on every commercial radio station on this continent.
This decision clearly has serious arts policy implications for anyone in Alberta who isn’t a knuckle-dragging cultural troglodyte, which may explain why the Stelmach government made it in the first place.
The change was pretty clearly a nasty surprise to CKUA. There was a shocked news release, which now seems to have been pulled from the station’s Web site, which said that CKUA would immediately have to close its Calgary news operation and lay off nine employees.
The Edmonton Journal ran a short story in the paper, and a slightly longer one on its Website. But its coverage left the impression this was just a minor news flash involving the comfortable interaction of business and government.
Media coverage left several important questions unanswered. Questions Albertans still deserve to have answered include the following:
- Why did Black Coral win the bid? In what way was their bid superior to that of CKUA, which built the system and has operated it since its inception? What was the difference between the bids? The government won’t tell us, of course. If pressed, they’ll plead business confidentiality.
- Why wasn’t an Alberta company that employs people in Alberta given the contract? The answer to this, of course, is the Stelmach government’s rigid “free trade” ideology, in which local suppliers get screwed while major companies from elsewhere get Alberta taxpayers’ dough. Look to TILMA, and all that.
- What are the details of this contract? How big is it? It’s for “improvements” in the system – so presumably it’s for more than previous years’ contracts. How much more? Does the current system really need improvement?
- Who are Black Coral’s owners? Do they complete jobs on time and on budget? What’s the history of this company? There are a few hints on the company’s Website, but clothed in the usual corporate gobbledygook. So who are they? Who are their friends? Who’s getting our money?
- How many people do they intend to employ in Alberta? Doing what? The smart money’s on “not many.”
- Why didn’t CKUA, the local employer that built the system and ran it from the start, have a hint this was coming? Maybe this could have happened back when the government was consulting with its media partners, seeing as CKUA was the media partner that did all the heavy lifting!
- Does the government intend to do anything to support musical culture in Alberta through CKUA now that it’s cut off a major source of the network’s funding? The answer, probably, is nope.
- Does Ed Stelmach even know what CKUA is? Does anyone in his recycled cabinet have any idea? Do they care? See the answer immediately above.
- What are CKUA’s supporters – tens of thousands of people who voluntarily donate to keep CKUA and its living, breathing, knowledgeable disk jockeys on the air – going to tell Premier Stelmach and his government about this? How about, ‘How do you intend to replace the money you have taken from CKUA?’
What does the Alberta government have to say about questions like these? In the words of the Edmonton Journal’s reporter: “A government spokesman could not be reached for comment.” Too busy shuffling cabinet ministers, maybe. (Helloo Lindsay Blackett, minister of culture and community spirit, c’mon on down!)
The clowns in the Tory braintrust tried to shut down CKUA once before. They almost managed to kill it in 1997, when Ralph Klein was the chief buffoon leaving a trail of needless devastation across this province.
Some of us listened to the silence on our car radios back then, rather than tune in to the corporate garbage spewed out everywhere else on the dial.
CKUA came back from the dead that time, thanks to listeners who forked over the dough themselves. That’s the Alberta advantage – the real one. We hope it can survive this disaster too.