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.

CRTC extends broadcast license for Sackville’s North Quebec Service until Dec 1

View of the western cluster of curtain antennas from the roof of RCI Sackville’s transmissions building. (Photo: The SWLing Post) –Click to enlarge

According to this article (see clipping below) the CRTC “mistakenly” listed the end date of RCI Sackville’s (call sign CKCX-SW) shortwave service to North Quebec as November 1, 2012. The CRTC has now amended the decision with an end date of December 1st, 2012.

Thanks to Kim Elliott for bringing this to my attention.

(Source: All Access Music Group)

[T]he official revocation of the license of the CBC’s shortwave CKCX-SW/SACKVILLE, NB has been amended to DECEMBER 1st.  In an initial ruling on the requested revocation, the CRTC mistakenly listed the end date as NOVEMBER 1st.  The station is being shut down because of the grant of low-power repeaters for CBC RADIO ONE station CFFB/IQUALUIT, NUNAVUT at PURVIRNITUQ, KUUJJUARAPIK, INUKJUAK, SALLUIT, and KUUJJUAQ, NUNAVIT, all on 103.5 FM with 50 watts each.

Have you singed our petition to save Sackville from being dismantled? Now would be the perfect time:

Sackville still broadcasting CBC North Quebec Service on 9,625 kHz…for now

The remaining curtain antenna faithfully broadcasting the CBC North Quebec relay

I just received confirmation that the Sackville, NB transmission site of Radio Canada International will continue broadcasting the CBC North Quebec service on 9,625 kHz until all of the FM relays in North Quebec have been tested and placed into service.

To be clear, contrary to the implication of the recent CRTC ruling, the Sackville site may continue broadcasting for a few more days or weeks, depending on progress with the FM relays’ implementation.

The remaining staff at Sackville have converted the site to run two transmitters and two antennas (for redundancy) for the North Quebec Service on 9,625 kHz via remote operation. Nothing else is being broadcast our of the Sackville site.

Have you singed our petition to save Sackville from being dismantled? Now would be the perfect time:

 

Cabinet silences Canada’s international voice, RCI Action responds

Yesterday, as I toured Radio Canada International’s Sackville, New Brunswick transmission site, the Canadian press discovered that the Cabinet approved an order that paves the way for RCI to be dismantled. The Metro News reported:

Heritage Minister James Moore recommended an order in council, approved on June 7, that deleted a requirement for RCI to maintain a shortwave service.

That change removed an obstacle to the steep cuts the CBC had announced for RCI in April — $10 million of $12.3 million budget will disappear along with at least three-quarters of its work force.

RCI had planned to file an injunction this past week to prevent CBC from shutting down its shortwave broadcasting facilities, but the new order thwarted their lawyers.

“I don’t know how this happened. I’m just shocked that it did happen. I’m shocked that the minister would make this decision two months after CBC announced the budget cut, two months after the CBC announced they were cutting shortwave,” said Wojtek Gwiazda, spokesman for the RCI Action Committee, a union-supported lobby trying to save the international service.

The Ottawa Citizen quoted RCI Action spokesman, Wojtek Gwiazda, extensively:

“As of June 25, most of the original content will disappear,” he said, “because we won’t have the people to do it.”

Thirty of 45 permanent employees are being laid off, along with a dozen or more contract workers and other regular freelancers.

Gwiazda, spokesman for a group inside RCI attempting to salvage the short wave service and its original programming, said a proposed injunction on behalf of RCI employees was thwarted last week when the Conservative cabinet quietly and quickly changed two key rules under which RCI operates.

Under previous rules, RCI was legally obliged to provide a shortwave service and to consult regularly with the Department of Foreign Affairs.

The government, in its June 7 rule change, has dropped both those requirements.

A spokesman for the Department of Canadian Heritage confirmed the change had been made, but refused to say why.

The Department of Foreign Affairs did not respond to questions about the issue.

[…]NDP Foreign Affairs critic Paul Dewar accused the CBC and the Conservative government of “taking Canada’s voice off the world stage.

“It is sneaky,” he said in an interview with the Citizen. “They are pretending they aren’t killing it, but they are. Our Commonwealth cousins and others in the G8 have made a commitment that the world should hear their voices. Why not Canada’s?

“How will we keep people in other countries informed about Canada and how will Canada’s voice be heard by the international community.”

Dewar says he’s hearing negative reaction to the RCI cuts from MPs in all parties, and the NDP has written to both Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird and Heritage Minister James Moore urging a reversal of the decision.

“We are appealing to them to find the money and put this essential service back where it belongs,’ added Dewar. “Canada needs its voice heard and we have to figure out a way to do it. It’s not a lot of money. Let’s find it. Let’s not leave RCI orphaned.”

The Metro News also quoted me:

Thomas Witherspoon, founder of an American non-profit organization called Ears to Our World, said it is shortsighted to cut RCI’s shortwave service because it represents a cost-effective way of showing Canada to the world.

Witherspoon, whose organization distributes shortwave radios to communities in the developing world, recently wrote an impassioned opinion piece defending RCI.

“Here on the overly-lit, information-saturated North American continent, it’s easy to forget that an estimated 1.6 billion human beings — a full one quarter of us — still lack access to reliable power and to the Internet,” he wrote.

“In remote, impoverished, often war-torn regions, radio has become a familiar voice in the darkness. Without radio broadcasters such as RCI — and the light of information they can relay — the night can become very dark, indeed.”

RCI Action formed a response to the Cabinet’s decision:

Hon. James Moore,

A little more than 24 hours ago we at the RCI Action Committee found out that on June 7, 2012, you changed the Order in Council that directs CBC/Radio-Canada in its obligations under the Broadcasting Act in dealing with Radio Canada International.

You have eliminated CBC’s obligation to provide programming on shortwave, depriving almost all Chinese listeners of uncensored news from Canada, since the website of RCI is blocked by the Chinese authorities. And you have made it impossible for most listeners in the world to stay abreast of what’s going on in Canada via radio, because most people do not have easy access to the Internet.

You have also abolished CBC’s obligation to consult with Foreign Affairs about the geographic target areas and languages we broadcast in. Letting it continue in the slashing of services to the Ukraine, Russia and Brazil.

And you have done this after two months of CBC being in contempt of the 2003 Order in Council. Just as we were preparing an injunction to stop the shutting down of shortwave transmissions.

You have cleared the way for the CBC’s destruction of a 67 year old institution. An institution that CBC/Radio-Canada has never understood. It does not understand international broadcasting, the importance of it, and the impact of the 80% cut you are letting them get away with.

It is ironic.

Chinese authorities block RCI’s website. They have not jammed the shortwave frequencies of Radio Canada International. So you’ve done it for them, by shutting down RCI’s Chinese radio programming.

Why have you done this?

Yours truly,

Wojtek Gwiazda

Spokesperson, RCI Action Committee

rciaction@yahoo.ca
rciaction.org/blog

Follow our tag, RCI Cuts to follow these developments.

The Link talks about the politics of saving RCI

On Friday’s edition of The Link, Mark Montgomery spoke with Amanda Pfeffer about how international radio is being cut around the world and, more specifically, Canada. They discuss how this happened, who is aware of it and if there is any way to save the service.

It’s an informative segment (though see my correction below).

Since this is one of several features in the show, I’ve recorded this specific segment and posted it for listening below.

You can also listen to the segment by downloading the mp3 here.

Please note that Amanda is a little mis-leading about the bureaucratic structure of US international broadcasting. It is rather confusing.

The BBG (Broadcasting Board of Governors) is the governing body of US international Broadcasting. The IBB (International Broadcasting Bureau) is over all of the broadcast/transmission facilities, engineering functions, human resources, finances and other agency support services. To be clear, the Voice of America, Radio Free Asia, Radio Free Europe, Radio Marti and the Middle East Broadcasting Network all take direction from the BBG, not the IBB.

The organizational chart (below) can shed some light on this.

The BBG Organizational Chart as of May 2012 (Click to enlarge)

The Toronto Star publishes my thoughts on the cuts to Radio Canada International

As many of you know, I find the downsizing of major shortwave broadcasters around the world deeply concerning, especially since so much of the world still relies on the medium as a source of news and information, and for some the only source of potentially life-saving information.

The recent cuts to RCI, however, were particularly painful. In one stroke of a pen, many people lost their jobs, and RCI’s already-skimpy budget was reduced to virtually nil. What’s more, their only international transmitting station–in Sackville, New Brunswick–is slated to be shut down, meaning there is no intention to continue the service, ever.

The Toronto Star has kindly published my thoughts on the matter.  You can read the full article here.

 

RCI Cuts: pink slips – no clear strategy for Internet

(Source: RCI Action)

April 25, 2012:

Facing the reality of job cuts in any workplace is hard enough. When you’re an employee at Radio Canada International – it’s more than a job. It’s more than just a job loss.

Most of us have worked several decades for RCI. It may be an  under appreciated service in Canada. But in the last few weeks, since the April 4 announcement that we would be cut by 80% and stop being a radio station, listeners around the world have rallied to our cause to stop the cuts. They have also told us how much they appreciate what we do, and are astonished that our national public radio and television broadcaster CBC/Radio-Canada would hit us with such a huge budget cut, much more then any other service under their control.

Strangely, even when we say an 80% per cent budget cut, it sounds sort of theoretical. When the letter is given to you that you no longer have a job, that your decades of service to Canada’s Voice to the World are redundant, well, that’s something else.

Today that happened to most of us.

About 15 permanent staff have been told they still have a job, 30 have been told they don’t. Three contractual webmasters will remain, but about 10 to 20 contractual employees (researchers, interviewers, hosts) will lose their jobs. Another 10 or 20 people who fill in for staff will have little or no work.

More importantly to us RCI has been almost made to disappear, no more radio programs, just a website, that is yet to be conceived, with little support. How much three employees in each of the five language services: English, French, Arabic, Mandarin and Spanish can do, even with the best of intentions, remains to be seen.

Management is saying we’ll be putting up text, photos, audio, maybe even video. But details are scarce. In fact, that’s the most surprising thing of all. There’s little information on how the website will look or function, there’s no real lead up time to prepare it, we’ll all be busy doing are regular programming until June 24. Then the new website is supposed to be up and running and those of us left, will have to somehow magically make it work.

[…]Next week we are promised a blueprint of the new RCI. Today it’s hard to believe in that future.

I will be very interested to see the blueprint for RCI’s internet future.  Frankly, it will need a strategy to delineate itself from the hundreds of thousands of well-established Internet media sources out there.