Thoughts after the Canadian RCI/CBC Senate hearing

CBC-RCI-HearingLast night, I listened to a live stream of the Canadian senate hearings regarding last year’s Radio Canada International cuts to shortwave radio. CBC president Hubert LaCroix and RCI director Michelle Parent met remarkably little criticism or resistance in the hearing, and it appears the report to the senate will be nothing short of cheerleading for the CBC. Indeed, the hearing’s tone overall was one of self-congratulation.

The decision to cut RCI in this manner is a prime example of a few officials with all-too-limited knowledge making decisions in the absence of experts’ input.  The business decision seemed to them essentially sound, and yet the impact of the decision has far-reaching negative consequences–for Canadians and as well as the rest of the world–that these officials may never fully comprehend.

Notes from the hearing:

  • All but one senator patted CBC and RCI management on the back for becoming more innovative in the wake of devastating budget cuts; only one suggested that such innovation could have been achieved prior to them
  • No one asked if the CBC explored the possibility of scaling back shortwave services without closing the Sackville, NB transmitter site and eliminating shortwave broadcasts altogether, which would have been a much better use of funds as well as maintaining foreign relations and domestic security
  • Hubert LaCroix basically suggested that people living in oppressed regions could gain access to RCI via mobile platforms (sadly, this is not the case)
  • When asked how cuts to shortwave have effected their listenership and demographic, LaCroix basically shrugged his shoulders and pointed out how difficult it is to judge how many people listen on shortwave.  (My response: What areas of our world lack a power grid infrastructure? Fully 1/4 of our planet.  These are the underserved who rely heavily on shortwave)
  • No one inquired about the impact upon their Chinese audience, as RCI’s website is blocked in China; meanwhile, shortwave continues to be comparatively impermeable to firewalls and is untraceable in restrictive countries

Monsieur LaCroix made it clear that the primary CBC mandate is to be a creative, innovative media force within Canada. For him, and most of CBC management, Radio Canada International must have felt like a leech to their dwindling budget. Were I in his position, with limited information and a mandate to protect his main “client” set (Canadians living in Canada)–I might have made the same decision.   And yet…it was the wrong one.

What would have solved the problem in the first place?  Radio Canada International should have been its own entity, with its own budget to manage, however modest–and if anything, funded through the foreign office rather than the domestic public news/entertainment body. After all, what RCI accomplished on shortwave was far more humanitarian and diplomatic in nature.

I’ve written at length about the RCI cuts and will not go into them further on this post. But I do believe RCI Sackville could have been a more efficient and productive operation if it employed some sensible changes. Sackville had just finished installing a (paid-for) technology infrastructure to remotely operate the entire transmitter site. Moreover, Sackville management told me they had planned to cut their staff to a skeleton crew (of three people, if memory serves), only to be there if something mechanical on site needed service. These new adjustments were not even tried.

Additionally, using a market model, RCI/Sackville could have offered their relay services to more broadcasters at competitive (even market) rates. Their hourly rate to broadcast on shortwave was simply too high, thus potential customers sought more efficient cost-effective transmission sites. Sackville was never given the tools to become a self-funding operation like so many private broadcasters have become.

Sackville’s infrastructure was an incomparably valuable resource in which many millions in taxpayer money was already invested and paid in full; sadly, these cuts have destroyed this investment.  The Sackville site, moreover, had the potential of a sleeping army, both in foreign affairs…and in Canadian security.  But it’s gone.  Simply because a few politicians doing their near-best didn’t have all the relevant information.

RCIFor what it’s worth

RCI still has some great talent on board. Canadian expats living abroad, and those  who are connected to the web, can still enjoy RCI via the website or on mobile platforms. That is an audience that may actually expand through a social media presence–something they could have done more effectively prior to the budget cuts last year.

I was also encouraged to hear that there is a serious effort to distribute RCI’s online audio content–free of charge–to broadcasters in local radio stations around the world. This is very positive: FM, though not as accessible as shortwave in Africa, has a strong community following and stations are appearing everywhere. I hope RCI has a dedicated employee whose sole focus is to identify and build connections with these local outlets for their content.

Barring a takeover or drastic re-organization, it sounds like Radio Canada International over shortwave is now destined for the history books. To honor this history, I sincerely hope the new RCI innovates and penetrates new markets. And I hope RCI employees, many of whom have long memories, find challenge and renewed confidence going forward. We certainly appreciate all of the years during which they graced the shortwaves, and wish them all the best.

RCI Action: Stop CBC from dismantling our transmitters to the world

A few of RCI Sackville’s curtain antennas–soon to be dismantled

October 31st is quickly approaching and the CBC has requested that the remaining employees at Radio Canada Internationals Sackville transmission site begin dismantling antennas and transmitters that are not currently being used for their remaining three broadcaster clients (NHK, KBS and the Voice of Vietnam) and the CBC North Quebec Service. To be clear, once this transmission infrastructure is dismantled, there will be no going back.

RCI Action posted a plea on their website with a request to contact Canada’s Heritage Minister James Moore james.moore@parl.gc.ca and tell him to stop CBC/Radio-Canada from dismantling the Sackville transmitters:

(Source: RCI Action)

In the next few days the transmission lines that allow Canada to broadcast to the world will be taken down one by one. For more than 67 years Radio Canada International’s shortwave transmitters have guaranteed that Canada’s voice would be heard despite the Cold War, despite natural disasters, and Internet blocking. Now this efficient, cost effective communications tool will be dismantled by Canada’s public broadcaster CBC/Radio-Canada.

Those of us who understand how important this lifeline to the world is to world communication are sick to our stomachs at the rapidity with which the broadcaster wants to make the transmitters disappear. Shortwave broadcasts of Radio Canada International ended on June 24, 2012. Other countries’ use of our transmitters will end on October 31.

But CBC/Radio-Canada has already started the process of dismantling unused transmitters, and will start taking down still functioning transmission lines very shortly.

[…]The transmitters are there, they don’t cost much to maintain. Why do we want to cut ourselves off from being able to communicate with the world? Who should be making these decisions?

Please contact Canada’s Heritage Minister James Moore james.moore@parl.gc.ca and tell him to stop CBC/Radio-Canada from dismantling our transmitters.

And please send us any suggestions you may have rciaction@yahoo.ca

Thanks!

The above is a clip for RCI Action’s post, read the full message on RCI Action’s website. Please, if you feel strongly about the value of RCI’s Sackville site, contact Canada’s Heritage Minister James Moore james.moore@parl.gc.ca and tell him to stop this process.

CBC News: RCI looking for Sackville transmitter site buyers

The vast, open Sackville site will most likely become a wind farm.

Just posted by CBC News:  a breaking news item which focuses on the closure of the Sackville RCI transmitter site and reveals the fact that site owners are now looking for buyers.

During my recent visit to the Sackville site, I spoke with their Transmission Operations Technologist, Marcel Cantin; we both agreed that the most likely future of the transmitter site is to become a wind farm, much like one visible from the site in neighboring Nova Scotia. Evidently, the province has been talking with farmers whose property borders the Sackville site in hopes to procure more land for wind farm development. The Sackville site’s 280+ acres would represent a great portion of the land they wish to procure. The only obstacle I see to this not becoming a reality would be local opposition–and they may have good cause. The two main arguments against wind farms are the noise they produce (not really a problem where RCI is/was located) and the fact that they can harm migrating bird populations. The site is very close to the Sackville Waterfowl Park, a local bird sanctuary which is home or host to innumerable varieties of water birds, and which I also had the good fortune to visit when in Sackville. Opposition in this regard may be substantiated.

(Source: CBC News)

After decades of service, the transmission towers outside of Sackville, N.B are no longer broadcasting Radio Canada International to the world.

The international broadcasting service ended its shortwave transmission Sunday night.

“I find myself, on behalf of all of us, saying goodbye to 67 years of radio,” said host Marc Montgomery, breaking down on air.

[…]”There’s no denying the importance of the internet. There’s also no denying that it can be and is regularly blocked by authoritarian regimes. Shortwave broadcasts on the other hand, almost always get through to people hungry for information,” said Montgomery.

Martin Marcotte, director of CBC Transmission, said he’s now looking to sell the New Brunswick towers and land.

He said he’s focussing (sic) on selling the site to other shortwave broadcasters or wind farm companies.

“It will be fairly costly to dismantle and as a last resort we would dismantle the facility, return it to bare land as it was when we first acquired that site,” said Marcotte.

As for broadcasters, the only one of which I am aware who has both the funds and ambitions to purchase such a transmissions site, is China Radio International.

Of course, I would hope that a broad-sighted private purchaser or even non-profit could keep the site running much as it has been, recognizing its vital relevance to Canadian international relations and to the developing world generally–especially in light of the recent addition to the site of a remote operation system.

Too bad, the Canadian government couldn’t recognize this in time.

RCI’s Sackville towers to be featured in film

(Source: CBC)

A Moncton artist is now working against the clock to film the Radio-Canada International shortwave towers in her latest film project.

Budget cuts at CBC announced last week mean the towers, near Sackville, N.B., will soon be shut down, but it’s not known exactly what will happen to the towers themselves.

Amanda Dawn Christie said she remembers coming and going from Moncton and the towers signifying that she was almost home.

“Whenever I would drive in, I would just be filled with this exhilaration and I don’t know if it’s the high voltage. Like, some people get headaches and nauseous; I would get exhilarated,” she said. “So I don’t know if it was my interest or if it was the high voltage, but I definitely had this sense of ‘wow.'”

She said she’s heard similar stories as she’s started interviewing people for her feature film.

Christie’s been studying the towers for years.

She even created a sculpture on the marsh near the towers — a kitchen sink designed to catch radio waves — a phenomenon often reported by locals.

Now she’s collecting stories of people who call the towers their landmark, or a tightrope school because of the wires, or the connection to Africa or the Arctic.

Christie said she’s particularly fond of the sight at dawn and dusk.

“The sky’s kind of pink and blue, and the lights are on but you can still see all the towers and the wires. It’s very magical,” she said. “If you don’t know what it is, you’re filled with wonder. And the thing is, if you do know what it is, you’re still filled with wonder.”

Instead of the shortwave towers, RCI will broadcast internationally online.

In truth, even when RCI’s Sackville, NB site is decommissioned, I doubt the towers will be brought down immediately. It’s actually quite an engineering feat to dismantle these. I would hope RCI offers other broadcasters the opportunity to dismantle and use them. VOA (or the IBB) had success doing this at their Greenville, NC transmission site (Site A).

All In A Weekend: Bon voyage to David Bronstetter, from an unlikely listener

Dave Bronstetter hosting All In A Weekend at the CBC studio in Montreal. (photo: CBC)

I believe it was in the fall of 2007 that I first tuned to the enlightening CBC Montreal program, All In A Weekend, with host David Bronstetter. Unlike listeners in Montreal, or anywhere in the province of Quebec, for that matter, I didn’t hear the show on FM radio, nor streaming over the internet–it was on a shortwave radio.

You see, each Saturday and Sunday morning at 7:00 EST (12:00 UTC) Radio Canada International turns on a shortwave transmitter at their Sackville, New Brunswick site, and broadcasts CBC Radio One Montreal programming on 9,625 kHz for North Quebec. They’ve done this for years.  That means that many of us south of the Canadian border can catch the “back side” of this broad signal quite easily.

When I first heard All in A Weekend, I was favorably impressed by the program’s host, Dave Bronstetter. When I landed on his voice the first time, he was in the middle of an interview, and even in that brief interval of tuning I could tell that this was an insightful interviewer. Returning to hear the following half-hour segments of the show, I learned that his keen intelligence was manifest not only in intimate, articulate, and adaptive interviews with his guests, but also in an absurd wit.

In short, I was hooked.

From that day forward, I joined thousands of Quebec listeners, right here from my home in the southern US, as we tuned in All In A Weekend. Dave and his Montreal crew became my weekend morning coffee companions.

Dave chats with host Sonali Karnick, Elias Abboud, and Nancy Wood. (source: CBC Radio One)

In my many years of listening to radio, I’ve heard hundreds of hosts from around the world, but this guy stood apart. Dave Bronstetter’s hosting was fueled by a quick wit, which he wove into his interviews with an eloquence that would make any comic green with envy.  Moreover, this fun, catch-’em off-guard approach resulted in better interviews with his diverse guests, all excellent listening, such as with famous jazz photographer Herman Leonard, singer Emilie-Claire Barlow (and many other Canadian artists like her, whom I’ve since learned to appreciate), and a stand-out interview with a Palestinian that I haven’t forgotten, nor am likely to.

And more than once, while reporting weather, in the midst of listing all the towns and cities across the vast province of Quebec, Dave slyly inserted the tiny town where I then lived.  This always made me start, and brought a chuckle. Of course, I couldn’t help thinking that this caught the attention of many other listeners, too, but leaving them scratching their noggins–Sylva, Quebec? Where on earth’s that–?

Radio Canada International's Sackville, New Brunswick shortwave transmitter site. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

How could Dave have known about Sylva? Well, he interacted with his listeners, and I was no exception. It didn’t matter if listeners were sending him a compliment or complaining about the fact that he was reading off the wind speed in Baie-Comeau and Kuujjuaq, he paid attention. I would dash off an email to request songs, play along with his contests, or brag about our lovely Southern-states weather when Montreal was having a brutally chilly day. Many of my emails were sarcastic, and Dave’s rebuttals, two-fold.

Once, Dave actually made a call to my home in Sylva and interviewed me on the air.  A couple of days prior to the interview, he called to ask my permission and to, well, just chat. We probably talked for an hour–even in that casual conversation, I noted his interviewing talent: I felt like I was talking with an old friend, one who understood me and appreciated my offbeat sense of humor.

Many times while listening to All in a Weekend, I reflected, this is what I love about radio. The footprint is vast–it jumps national borders with ease, and offers an instant level of interaction that’s hard to replicate even in our internet-driven age.

To my dismay, Dave recently announced that he was retiring after 33 years with the CBC. Last Saturday’s show was his last.

At least, so he says.

Regardless, I can tell you this:  I will miss my buddy, Dave Bronstetter, on the air. I know of no replacement, and I can only imagine how difficult it may be for the charming Sonali Karnick to follow his tough act. I hope it will be by carving her own unique personality into the show. That’s what gave the unassuming All In A Weekend its moxie in the first place, and drew me in regularly to listen.

My hat’s off to you, Dave; may you enjoy whatever you do going forward. You are unquestionably one of a kind. And please–keep in touch!

Want to hear what the send-off broadcast All In A Weekend sounded like on shortwave radio? Try this: