Back in 2006, something very strange happened. The story was relayed to me by family friend Neal Stoll. At the time Neal was a national account manager for Saputo. His account was Shoppers Drug Mart which was just starting to expand more into food. Saputo was putting a national program in place to supply all the stores with dairy. Stores were being converted from local brands to Saputo’s brands, which in the case of Ontario, was Neilson. They converted roughly nine hundred stores without a problem. All except for one. The folks in Belleville wanted to keep Reid’s Dairy as their dairy supplier. Saputo pushed back saying that there wasn’t any choice in the matter. It was in the contract. After a couple of weeks, the pharmacy called back and said that if they stopped carrying Reid’s, they were probably going to have to close the store. The Reid’s brand was (and still is) so strong there that customers were not only boycotting the store, but they were taking their prescriptions elsewhere.

In the end about a thousand Shoppers Drug Mart stores were converted across the country. Out of that thousand, there were only five outliers. Four were in Atlantic Canada. The other was in Belleville, Ontario. And of course they’re still selling Reid’s today.

SoundWise is based in Kingston, which is roughly an hour east of Belleville. In the last year I’ve developed four brand identities for businesses in the Quinte area. To put that in perspective, in the last year I’ve done zero in Kingston. Belleville has a population of 50,000 versus 136,000 in Kingston. I had to figure out what the heck was going on. Belleville’s deep sense of autonomy and local pride offered a clue.

In most markets today, the local media is owned and operated by a larger corporation such as Bell, Rogers, Corus, etc. This presents many advantages for the radio and TV stations. They’re certainly more efficient. They can pool resources. They’re better able to stay on top of industry trends in tech and programming. But these advantages don’t always translate to benefits to local communities. In the corporate world we also see a lot of downsizing of staff and consolidation of tasks. Positions are eliminated, and staff are let go for reasons that often have little to do with efficacy or public engagement. We all remember in 2022 when Bell suddenly terminated Lisa Laflamme’s contract and the backlash that followed. In addition, format flips become more frequent in the corporate world, making it harder for the media and their advertising clients to build long term relationships with the local public.

The city of Belleville has five mainstream commercial radio stations. Two are run by Starboard Communications, and the other three by Quinte Broadcasting. Both companies are family owned and operated. All stations are fully staffed, some of whom have been there for decades. Out of those five stations, there has been one major format flip in the last twenty years. All of these factors have a direct and profound effect on the local economy.

Here’s an excerpt from a discussion with Paul Ferguson, VP of programming and operations for Starboard Communications.

A lot of businesses seem to advertise for the sake of advertising. They have the budget, and they spend it, but often with little regard for whether or not it’s having any affect. It kind of reminds me of this old joke.

This is not the case in Belleville. Belleville is a surprisingly competitive market. There, it’s not a question of do we advertise, but how. How do we set ourselves apart from the competition? How do we transcend the noise and become part of the public consciousness? How do we build a long-term relationship with the public?

There are surprisingly few generic ads playing over the Belleville airwaves. If you listen to any station you’ll notice an inordinate proportion of not just local brands, but brands that have distinct sonic assets. There are at least four in the real estate sector alone. Now to be fair, not all these sonic identities are created equal. Some are certainly better conceived than others. But regardless, these brands have committed to the medium, and they’ve been able to build a relationship with the public because they have been able to develop an equally deep relationship with the media. Not only do media staff stay in the area, but their livelihoods depend so much more on their client’s success. They don’t have the luxury of falling back on national support and other revenue streams. They’re inextricably tied to the community and its prosperity. In Belleville, the success of the media, local business, and the public are all entwined.

Of course the local media is only one piece of the puzzle. Over the years the area has had numerous campaigns like Buy Locally Owned, and Made in Quinte to promote local products and services, but of course this becomes a chicken-or-the-egg scenario. Is local business good because the people support it, or do people support it because it’s good? I don’t think it’s the kind of mystery that can be completely solved, certainly not by me. But at this point I believe that it’s both, and the local business community has essentially become autocatalytic.

To a national corporation, radio is one part of their greater portfolio. That’s not to suggest that they’re doing a bad job. Some of them are very successful and producing great content. But in a market like Belleville where all the media is independent, the radio stations and the people they serve succeed because they have to, and the benefits are palpable.

A big thanks to Paul Ferguson of Starboard Communications and Cassandra Bonn and Jody Brooker of Quinte Broadcasting for their time in helping me to attempt to solve this mystery. I don’t think I actually did solve the mystery, but I very much appreciate the opportunity to explore such a unique market.

On a more personal note, I did solve one mystery. Through these discussions and through my business interactions with people in the Quinte area I’ve discovered that they’re the ones clogging up the Kingston Costco. Someone please get these folks their own Costco!