The flood of wonderful memories, fueled by the old and not so old photos of Radio Canada International’s 70 years, is now, as I write this, suddenly mixed with regret, lost opportunities, and missing colleagues.
In a way I dreaded this anniversary, not knowing how to deal with this important milestone.
RCI has survived all these years since its first broadcast on February 25, 1945, as Canada’s Voice to the World. But now, almost three years after an 80% budget cut that took us off shortwave radio, cutting us off from our listeners, how do you celebrate? How do you not look with some exasperation, regretfully, wistfully, at how little people, even colleagues, know about RCI’s proud achievements, and its path-breaking innovations?
The contradictions of how some viewed us and the reality is almost too much to bear. People say we used outdated technology, weren’t moving with the times, and no longer needed to explain Canada to the world.
Yet none of this is true.
Using shortwave radio we reached every corner of the globe. Using satellite, LPs, tape cassettes, CDs, Facebook, Twitter, partnerships with local stations in other countries, we reached the world’s citizens. People who, surprising as some might find, were very curious about this huge democracy called Canada, that tried to carve out its place in the world, beside the huge super-power to the south.
The other day a colleague asked me about a service referred to in French as “Transcriptions” and had no idea what it was about. As I talked about RCI’s record label that recorded Glenn Gould, Oscar Peterson, and a host of other classical, jazz and pop musicians, I saw my colleague’s eyes widen in surprise.
“We had a record label?” Yes, a respected catalogue of records which won Juno music awards, and was part of RCI’s mandate of telling the world about Canada, along with so many other services. Imagine, we broadcast live election night coverage of federal elections around the world, created an election website with instantaneous results in seven languages, sent out radio lessons to teach English and French, and produced area specific programming for Africa, Europe, Asia and the Americas, in English and French, in addition to all the other languages we broadcast in.
I shake my head as I hear people saying we need to change with the times, really get on board with the Internet. I shake my head because some of us were putting RCI on the web before there was a web.
The list of RCI’s achievements and all the talented people who worked for it could be the stuff of a television documentary series. But sadly, no one seems interested now.
A death by a thousand cuts, such an apt description, such a horrible process.
You’d think we would appreciate the experience of 70 years, the achievements of generations of journalists, producers, and technicians. And this week we trot out the old photos, say how great it is that RCI has been around for 70 years. Then we’ll roll up the posters, the displays, and put the awards we’ve won back in the cupboard.
We should have been allowed to think and work for the future. Because, our mandate to tell the world about Canada in a contextualized way, understandable to anyone, even someone who’s never been here, hasn’t gone away. Nor has the need for the honest journalism that many of us believe in, a journalism so necessary for those listening to what a country like us had to deal with and has to offer.
Wouldn’t it be incredible, if after the celebrations, we could concretely renew Radio Canada International? Build on our strengths and our experience, and not be limited by false constraints? Lovely dream.
Wednesday (May 15, 2013) Radio Canada International launched a mobile version of its website, after RCI director Helene Parent convened staff to a late morning meeting to showcase the new version, and to bring employees up-to-date on RCI news.
The presentation was almost cancelled, since the RCI website was off-line after the server hosting it (the server of our French-language public broadcaster Radio-Canada) crashed. Service on the RCI website was off and on throughout the day.
The mobile version is something a number of employees were calling for, even before last year’s 80% cut of RCI’s budget, and the elimination of shortwave radio broadcasting.
In her presentation to staff Parent said a mobile version had been a priority, to make up for the loss of shortwave. This version comes only weeks after RCI radically changed the appearance of the website to better highlight the material posted by the English, French, Spanish, Mandarin and Arabic language services.
Parent emphasized how well the new website was being received by staff and administrators in the national public broadcaster CBC/Radio-Canada, and also by senators in Ottawa.
Parent said she accompanied CBC/Radio-Canada president Hubert Lacroix to a senate committee presentation on May 1, where they presented the website, and Parent said numerous senators came up to the two after the meeting to congratulate them for their success with RCI.
We’ll have more on the senate testimony of Parent and Lacroix, as well as the questions and comments made by the senate committee members, in a future post.
On May 1, 2013, the director of Radio Canada International (RCI) Hélène Parent and her boss Hubert Lacroix, the president of Canada’s national radio and television public broadcaster CBC/Radio-Canada were before a Canadian senate committee to explain the 80% budget cut to RCI.
Lacroix made the opening statement before the Senate Standing Committee on Transport and Communications. In the statement he addressed the question of why CBC/Radio-Canada, which manages RCI, cut 80% of the international broadcaster’s budget as part of the larger CBC/Radio-Canada cuts in 2012.
What’s striking is the use of studies by Graham Mytton, formerly with BBC audience research, as justification for eliminating shortwave broadcasts at RCI as of June 25, 2012 in favour of the Internet.
What’s also striking is the emphasis that both Lacroix and Parent put on the “new” website, almost as if there had not been one before, and conveniently not mentioning RCI was a pioneering leader on the Internet in addition to its shortwave, satellite and partnering with local broadcasters.
Also surprising was the insistence that the Internet now gave RCI access to a bigger audience around the world.
Most disturbing was the belief expressed by both Lacroix and Parent that RCI’s shortwave broadcasts could not be heard in Canada – they most certainly were.
What was also disturbing was the overall sense from the testimony and the reaction of the senators that did speak, that the 80% budget cut was perhaps the best thing that happened to RCI, given this new website which only started in April, ten months after RCI has shutdown its shortwave radio broadcasts.
The entire testimony of the two before the senators can be found on line here. The video of the testimony is here.
Below are a few excerpts of the testimony. Please bear in mind that we are not in agreement with some of the interpretations, or even some of the facts presented to the Senators.
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From his prepared speech CBC/Radio-Canada President Hubert Lacroix:
Our decision to end shortwave broadcasts of RCI and move the service to the Internet was not an easy one, The reality is that the use of shortwave around the world has been declining since the end of the Cold War. That, combined with the growth of cellular phones, Internet, traditional radio and television, has led broadcasters around the world to cut back on their shortwave services, if they do maintain them at all.
The trend is clear. While it is difficult to measure worldwide audiences to shortwave, a 2009 study by former BBC shortwave expert Graham Mytton identified a significant drop in shortwave listeners to Radio Canada International, beginning in the 1980s and continuing through the 1990s. He attributed the decline to the limited types of content offered and the very limited number of broadcast hours. In fact, that is one of the key advantages of moving RCI to the Internet.
Because RCI did not provide round-the-clock programming on shortwave, listeners had to tune in at the right time during the day or night in order to catch the one hour of programming each day in English or French; the 30 minutes a day in Arabic, Mandarin, Spanish and Russian; and the 30 minutes each week in Portuguese. We would repeat these programs depending on the market.
On the Internet our programs are available anywhere, at any time. They can also be downloaded and listened to later. We believe that transforming RCI into an interactive, Web-based service actually increases its value for Canadians at a lower cost.
Furthermore, in countries where governments attempt to block access to foreign websites or shortwave transmissions, our local partners can download free audio content from a dedicated server. RCI also offers a daily cybermagazine available by email. You will find samples of these cybermagazines in your folders.
From Senator Stephen Greene question and answer:
Senator Greene: Tell me if this impression I have is right or wrong. You cut 80 per cent of the budget of Radio Canada International, but my impression is that the cut of 80 per cent has not diminished the service by 80 per cent because you have skilfully been able to expand your Web presence, et cetera. In terms of service delivery of Radio Canada International, where is it now, if you could estimate, in percentage terms with respect to where it was?
Mr. Lacroix: You are absolutely right. I will ask Ms. Parent to come in here in a second. We think we are a much more relevant service because now, through social media and the Internet, we can actually know who the audience is. We can count clicks and we can count the presence. It was nearly impossible to do that in the shortwave world.
Ms. Parent: What we want is to have a greater international presence, because Graham Mytton’s study told us that in 2009, Radio Canada International was no longer a relevant player over shortwave, and even recommended that we go over to the Internet. A few years later, especially given the cuts, this change had to be implemented faster.
Ms. Parent: On the Radio Canada International website, you will note — and this is important for us — a link for our listeners. We are appealing to Internet users. On the right hand portion of the screen they are invited to share with us their comments as well as photos they take of Canada. As you know, our mandate is to raise Canada’s profile around the world.
Mr. Lacroix: To answer your question, Senator Greene, you heard we are more connected to the audience in order to have the ability to follow the audience, to understand and connect with them so that we get feedback. When you transmit shortwave, there is no way in the world to know whether people are actually listening and whether they are on their little set at the exact time that your 30 minutes or hour is going through. We think this is a neat way to transform RCI, not to have made it disappear but to have transformed it into something that is easy to access, vibrant and in tune with the digital virage.
From Senator Art Eggleton question and answer:
Senator Eggleton: It is very impressive what you are demonstrating to us, but I want to go back to the topic of shortwave. I notice that a number of other broadcasters are reducing their shortwave, but some of them are keeping some of it, and I sense that it might be because there are people you cannot reach through these means. You pointed out, Mr. Lacroix, in your comments that in Africa, Internet access is only about 3 per cent. Then there is the question of oppressed countries, where people are denied Internet access. Throughout history, certainly modern-day history, one associates the ability to get to these people using shortwave means as being very important in expressing what Canada is about by getting Canadian stories and messages through hopefully to many of these people living in oppressed situations.
Mr Lacroix: You talk about reaching people in these countries. We think that through the ability we have of delivering stuff through mobility and partnerships with local radio programmers in those countries — I will ask Ms. Parent to tell you more about this as well as the famous dedicated server. The numbers we have right now indicate that 3,000 hits — I am going to look for my number. People are coming to our site and downloading — here it is. Between September and November of 2012 on this famous dedicated server — which is a server available to our partners. If you are a partner of ours, let us say an organization in another country, you can come here, it is free, you download it and add it to the program that you have in your own country as programs coming from CBC/Radio-Canada. To show how relevant we are, we had 3,000 clicks from our partners where they downloaded this and incorporated that programming in their own stuff.
Senator Josée Verner question and answer:
Senator Verner: Thank you for your opening statement. It was clear and removed the drama which could have come with the cutbacks which were announced in the supplementary estimates for Radio-Canada and Radio Canada International.
What happened to you almost constitutes good news. I don’t want to exaggerate, but what you have achieved is fairly extraordinary. My question follows on those asked by my colleagues.
We know that in Africa mobile phones really are the best way to connect with others. In your opinion, do you reach more people this way than the traditional way?
Ms. Parent: That is our objective and we firmly believe that we are going to reach more people. We also broadcast on the FM dial. Our partners broadcast on local radio stations. BBC and Voice of America can confirm this. But what is very important in Africa today is to be a presence on local FM radio. These radio stations broadcast our productions, and, for us, the fact of being available on mobile phones is really a significant step forward.
Senator Verner: The fact that you were asked to make cutbacks in your budget in fact accelerated the process, because ultimately, when you look at what came of that, we could almost be tempted to ask you whether it should not have happened earlier.
Ms. Parent: I believe the team from Radio Canada International was thinking about this thing for many years. Moving to the Internet, on the recommendation of Graham Mytton, was something we had started to do. This is not without precedent. We did have a website before, but it was a complement to our programming. But sometimes it is important to resort to creative thinking.
Senator Betty E. Unger question and answer:
Senator Unger: Thank you for your presentation. I would like to know a little bit about the audience that RCI had in terms of numbers, composition, age, region, country, et cetera, and how that has changed. You have been the voice of Canada for years, so I am just wondering about who these people are that will now be served by this new technology that, quite frankly, at my age, I would never be interested in.
Mr. Lacroix: I will ask Hélène to tell you about our current listenership.
It is difficult for us to tell you what it was before because we could not count. It was very difficult to count the number of people picking us up on shortwave because there was no connection. We had to rely on data that came and was delivered to us in a very incomplete way.
With this technology, we can actually count now, and Ms. Parent will tell you who the audience is and whom we speak to. About 55 per cent are Canadians in Canada, and about 45 per cent are outside of Canada. Perhaps Ms. Parent can elaborate.
Ms. Parent: Forty-five per cent of our listeners are abroad. We have not identified the profile of our Canadian listeners. People who listen to Radio Canada International are between 50 and 65 years old. They are educated. In fact, they are basically the same people who listen to CBC/Radio-Canada, but to be precise, 31 per cent of Canadians are aware of Radio Canada International, which is excellent, given the fact that Radio Canada International was not very wellknown and did not have a deep penetration rate in Canada in the past.
It should said that with shortwave radio we were not broadcast in Canada and Canadians from diverse backgrounds did not have access to RCI content; now, we focus on people who know little or nothing about Canada, no matter their background.
We focus on citizens of the world because with the Internet there are no borders. We still target the same audience, people around age 35 and older, people who want to educate themselves and learn, who have that ability to reach us. We are aware that for some, it is important to have a certain level of income, especially for Internet lines, except for wireless where now, in Africa, it has become accessible.
We are targeting a much larger audience and we are targeting a Canadian audience, in addition. We did not have access to Canadians.
Senator Leo Housakos question and answer:
Senator Housakos: Congratulations on the initiative and the presentation. I have mostly a comment to make, which you can speak to, and then I have a question.
It is amazing how you have become innovative and efficient with 80 per cent less money and one third of the employees. You have managed to reach out using modern-day technology and technology that, over the last decade, has established itself as the way of the future. The question is, though, why did it take so long.
The other question is that, as parliamentarians and as taxpayers, we would like our Crown corporations to be looking for initiatives to be able to become more efficient and the most cost-effective possible without having to have governments send down draconian envelopes to force our Crown corporations, be it the VIA Rails of this world or the CBCs of this world, to take cost-saving initiatives. This is an example of how a major, drastic cost cut has spun out to great innovation and positive results. That is a comment from my point of view.
The other question I have, and forgive my ignorance, is how many shortwave radios were sold in Canada in the last year? What would be the number of shortwave radios that Canadians would possess living in the Middle East or Eastern Europe or wherever?
Mr. Lacroix: Frankly, I have no clue. I cannot answer that question.
Senator Housakos: The last time I walked into Future Shop or any one of the electronic stores, it does not seem that they sell shortwave radios anywhere
Mr. Lacroix: They could not pick us up here, so that would not be helpful.
Again, the entire testimony of the two before the senators can be found on line here. The video of the testimony is here.
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See updates below – 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.
Why are they in such a hurry?
CBC/Radio-Canada has never understood the importance of international broadcasting, and is betting that Canadians will ignore the fact that a web-only service has limited impact while shortwave radio can reach more than 800 million radio receivers around the world.
The short sightedness of administrators obsessed with web page clicks fails to take into account that shortwave not only transmits radio broadcasts, but has been used for teletype and data transmission. Recent experiments reveal that with free software, shortwave signals could transmit texts where the Internet is not available. A tool that once again would get past Internet blocking, natural disasters, and wars.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org and tell him to stop CBC/Radio-Canada from dismantling our transmitters.
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UPDATE: October 23, 2012 – Five transmission lines have already been taken down! Two are in the process of being dismantled. By next week almost all of the 28 lines will be dismantled. Only two will remain temporarily for the Quebec Northern Service.
UPDATE: later on October 23, 2012 – U.S. listener Thomas Witherspoon has started a petition to stop the dismantling of Sackville. See the post on our website, the petition is here http://tinyurl.com/sackvillepetition