The final on-air program from Radio Canada International aired Sunday, June 24. (Photo: RCI Action Committee/Facebook)
World, say goodbye to Canadian shortwave radio.
As part of the cuts announced in April’s budget, Radio Canada International has shut down its shortwave transmitters and moved to an online-only Internet stream. But there are some who are continuing to fight for shortwave radio in the Internet age.
Radio Canada International’s program Masala Canada aired its last show on Sunday, June 24. Wojtek Gwiazda not only hosts and produces the show — he is a spokesperson for the RCI Action Committee, a union-supported group that is trying to salvage the service. When J-Source spoke with him he had just finished lobbying with the committee outside of the CBC/Radio-Canada building in Montreal. When asked what will change after June 24, he took a deep breath and sighed.
“Basically everything,” he said. “We stop being a radio station. Our only presence will be on the Internet, but when we say presence on the Internet, all our programming is going to disappear.”
In response to the Conservative government’s cuts, CBC slashed 80 per cent of Radio Canada International’s budget — from $12.3 million to $2.3 million — and will change the 67-year-old shortwave service to an internet radio station. The ‘Voice of Canada’ broadcasts will no longer be accessible from countries like China, where the website is blocked, as well as developing countries where Internet usage isn’t as widespread and people depend on radio for national and international news.
In addition, 30 of 45 permanent employees are being laid off, as well as more than a dozen contract workers and regular freelancers. In 1990 RCI had about 200 employees and broadcasted in 14 languages. On June 25 it will broadcast in five languages with only a fraction of the staff it once had.
“Financial considerations were not only the factor in our decision to update RCI,” Marc Pichette, a spokesperson for Radio-Canada said by e-mail. “Other important factors have dictated this move. Above all, shortwave radio audiences have been in constant decline for years.”
Gwiazda says he understands why RCI is a lower priority for the CBC — CBC’s mandate is to serve Canadians, while RCI’s is to serve people outside of the country. Because of this, Gwiazda is calling for financial autonomy from the CBC and Radio-Canada. Gwiazda is afraid that without financial autonomy then anytime cuts are to be made, RCI will be at the top of the chopping block.
“I understand why CBC’s priorities are not with us, but that’s exactly why they should not have control of our budget,” says Gwiazda. “We’ve done an amazing job with very little money and now I honestly don’t know how we’re going to do it.”
But CBC is not able to give RCI the autonomy it desires — such a move would have to come from the federal government. Gwiazda and the RCI Action Committee have sent an e-mail (in some cases, spoke personally) to each Conservative Member of Parliament outlining their situation and asking for financial autonomy. Gwiazda says that the reaction the committee has received points back to the CBC. MPs say that they tell the CBC how much to cut and the broadcaster is best suited to do this.
James Maunder, a spokesperson for Minister James Moore and the Department of Canadian Heritage, said via e-mail that the cabinet “has no plans to move in this direction.”
Gwiazda admits that the realities of financial autonomy is a long-shot, but “there’s always hope,” he says.
RCI used to have two rules it had to follow: it was legally obliged to provide shortwave services and it had to regularly consult with the Department of Foreign Affairs. There was a proposed injunction on behalf of RCI employees but fell through when RCI’s lawyers discovered that changes to these two rules had been approved on June 7. Heritage Minister James Moore recommended an order in council that got rid of both requirements and Gwiazda says that this information was not broadcast to anyone. After sending a letter to Moore, he is waiting on a response.
As Kim Andrew Elliot, a U.S. broadcast specialist, told The Ottawa Citizen, changing the shortwave service to an internet site only, will effectively be removing Canada from international broadcasting altogether. Shortwave service is a “wonderful medium,” he said.
“It can get through when the internet is blocked by a dictator, cyber war or a natural disaster like an earthquake — or extreme weather events that seem to be increasing,” he said.
However, CBC stands by the decision and Pichette says that streamlining RCI on the internet is the best way to make sure that it still has an existence and remains relevant in the 21st century.
“In its renewed formula, RCI can take full advantage of the potentialities of the web, becoming an interactive and dynamic instrument to reach the world,” said Pichette.
Although Gwiazda will keep his job, he says he’s saddened of the lack of public discussion about the service and the treatment it has received.
“We’ve always been a badly understood orphan,” he said.
And to him, it goes farther than just budget cuts.
“It’s a question mainly of who should decide how strong or weak Canada’s voice of the world is.”
Gwiazda’s voice is clear and strong — but an unmistakable sense of disappointment can be heard.