Is there a point to Radio Canada International anymore?

In yet another of those bad-news-wrapped-in-good-news announcements, CBC last month said it was going to be “modernizing” its international service through a “major transformation” that would see it add two languages and giving its stories more visibility.

But also cutting its staff in half and shutting down its website.

It didn’t get a lot of media attention at the time, mostly I think because most Canadians don’t know what Radio Canada International is. So I wrote about it in a story for Cartt.ca subscribers, in which I interviewed Crystelle Crépeau, head of digital news for Radio-Canada, Luce Julien, executive director of Radio-Canada News and Current Affairs (RCI, based in Montreal, is managed under French services in the organizational chart) and Wojtek Gwiazda, a former RCI employee who manages the RCI Action Committee.

For Gwiazda, who has been fighting this battle for quite some time, this is just another cut that will eventually see RCI disappear completely. Instead of 20 employees, it will be down to nine — five journalists doing translations of news articles in five foreign languages, three field reporters (Chinese, Arabic and Punjabi) and one chief editor. There will be no original reporting (except for those field reporters) and stories will just be taken from CBC.ca and Radio-Canada.ca instead of being written specifically for an international audience.

For Julien and Crépeau, it’s a necessary transformation because much of RCI’s work is redundant, and their metrics show foreign audiences get more content from CBC and Radio-Canada’s news sites than from RCI. There’s a reduction of staff, Julien admitted, but she’s had to make a lot of difficult decisions in her job. And integrating RCI with CBC and Radio-Canada just makes sense and is more efficient.

I’m sympathetic to the argument from both sides. This is definitely yet another in a long series of cuts to RCI and I would not be surprised if it simply fades away over time. But RCI is not a success right now and a transformation is warranted.

Or maybe they should just pull the plug entirely. And maybe they would do that, except they can’t.

Radio Canada International is part of CBC’s mandate, expressly referenced in the Broadcasting Act. CBC has to keep it running.

Unti 2012, RCI was a shortwave radio service, with an impressive transmitter array in Sackville, N.B., carrying the signal to the world. But CBC shut down that service, moving RCI entirely online and dismantling the transmitters, a move Gwiazda and others fought a hard battle against and ultimately lost.

Without a shortwave signal, RCI can simply be blocked by any government that doesn’t want its citizens to get an outside perspective. And without a broadcast schedule to fill, CBC gutted RCI’s staff and output, so it just doesn’t do that much anymore.

I learned through this reporting that apparently there’s some … let’s be generous and say disagreement … about what RCI’s mandate is.

The government’s 2012 Order in Council resetting RCI’s mandate (and removing the obligation to broadcast on shortwave) says RCI is to “produce and distribute programming targeted at international audiences to increase awareness of Canada, its values and its social, economic and cultural activities.”

But the CBC’s own mandate for RCI says “RCI targets audiences who know little to nothing about Canada, whether they live in Canada or abroad.”

Julien said serving new Canadians has always been RCI’s mandate. Gwiazda said its mandate is solely to serve people outside the country.

I think it’s time the federal government stepped in and decided what it wants to do with RCI. Gwiazda thinks it should be separated from the CBC and run as its own separately-funded service.

CBC seems to want to turn RCI into an add-on third-language service providing some news to ethnic Canadians. (Julien said content produced in third languages would be made available free of charge to ethnic media, to avoid competing with them.)

It’s up to the politicians to decide which is the best course. Or to pull the obligation from CBC and let RCI die an honourable death.

9 thoughts on “Is there a point to Radio Canada International anymore?

  1. Wojtek Gwiazda

    First of all I want to thank Steve for this blog post, and for his coverage of Radio Canada International (RCI) in the past. This latest post raises some very important questions, and in particular, the central one of whether Radio Canada International should continue to exist.

    It certainly can’t continue in the form that is planned for it by the latest CBC/Radio-Canada announcement, which no smoke and mirrors can hide, will turn RCI into a translation service.

    What struck me most about Steve’s post was this sentence: “For Julien and Crépeau, it’s a necessary transformation because much of RCI’s work is redundant, and their metrics show foreign audiences get more content from CBC and Radio-Canada’s news sites than from RCI.”

    That’s rich coming from Radio-Canada, which in 2012 decided that to reduce its own budget expenses by $16.3 million dollars, it would hack off $10 million from RCI’s budget of $12.3 million. Note: CBC/Radio-Canada had been told by the government to cut its budget by 10 per cent, so it cut 80 per cent of RCI’s budget.

    It fired two thirds of our staff (none of them bureaucrats, all radio production staff), they eliminated newscasts, shut down the newsroom, shutdown our shortwave and satellite programming, and turned a radio station into a web only service, with a website that was immediately so well “improved” by Radio-Canada that it crashed the first weekend, and continued to be a problem afterwards.

    Quite frankly when you take away so many people from an organization, it’s hard to maintain an audience. And it’s interesting that Julien and Crépeau are looking at the “metrics” now and not before the 2012 cuts.

    Yes, it’s true, RCI is no longer what it was. It’s like a car whose tires have been deflated, the doors torn off, and then being told it’s no good anymore. But we at the RCI Action Committee suggest that RCI can be rebuilt. It will take a leap of faith, we think those tires can be inflated, replacement doors found.

    To do that we are asking the Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault to stop the new policy, freeze any changes, and let us, along with any agency outside of CBC, rethink how we could continue to make Radio Canada International Canada’s Voice to the World. Our website is http://rciaction.org/blog/ I can be reached at: wojtekrciaction@gmail.com

    Reply
    1. Dilbert

      “It’s like a car whose tires have been deflated, the doors torn off, and then being told it’s no good anymore.”

      This is a pretty poor representation of reality. Reality is much more “like steam powered car in a world of Teslas, it is no longer relevant and there no longer exists a target audience to reach in this manner”.

      RCI was useful (to a certain extent) when communication was rare, hard to do, or incredibly expensive. Being able to target audiences around the world with radio programs to inform, educate, and entertain people who otherwise might not get any of that was a noble goal. That target audience, and that noble goal both has moved on and are not really going to get accomplishes with high power short wave radio broadcasts.

      The internet has rendered many of the mid to late 20th century information systems moot. In the target markets, people have leap frogged from isolation almost directly into the information age. The sales of smart phone devices in many of these areas is so overwhelming, that the major companies from Samsung on down the line are making low cost phones to try to dominate these huge marketplaces.

      There is also the effects of local radio in these areas as well, It use to be that setting up a radio station was a big deal, took a lot of work, and was very costly. Now for solidly under 20,000 Canadian, you can get all the parts needed to set up 1000 watt FM transmitter and be on the air. It means that in many cases, people have access to their own culture and their own information, readily receivable in their car, their homes, or on their FM receiver equipped phones. It’s pretty simple now.

      RCI as a broadcaster died in 2012. Whatever existed after that point called “RCI” was meaningless. There is no radio in RCI anymore, not is there any real demand for it.

      For reference, I am an amateur radio operator and have been for a long time. It’s a hobby that is also about as relevant as building steam engines these days. It was magic when you couldn’t easily communicate with someone on the other side of the world. Those days are over.

      Reply
  2. Nigel Spencer

    RCI used to be a much better option than the English-language CBC, especially overseas.
    (Nevertheless, the French network Radio-Canada has been cut much more severely and maintains a far higher quality of journalism…so far.)
    The strategy from the FedLibs, followed by the Tories, was to reduce CBC effectiveness till it was not worth keeping alive any more.

    Reply
  3. Rahul Majumdar

    Real investigative journalism requires boots on the ground and significant financial investment.

    RCI could still be a true voice for Canada overseas. Sadly, the writing seems to be on the wall.

    No wonder Canada cannot get a seat on the UN Security Council…

    Reply
  4. Abigail

    This reminds me of what happened to RNW in the Netherlands a number of years ago. In that instance, the broadcast radio station – which used to be prolific and well-regarded in terms of its output – was closed completely and staffing reduced to just a few. RNW was repurposed as “RNW Media”, an organisation which specifically targets young people in relatively closed media environments (the Arab world, sub-Saharan Africa etc) and provides information on civil society, sexual relationships and other topics of interest. Its activity is largely social media-based.

    The state of international broadcasting is poor, to say the least. There is hour after hour of dull propaganda output from China in a multitude of languages. The United States offers a full range of whacka-doodle commercial broadcasters providing hollering homophobic preachers, flat-earth nonsense etc. The BBC World Service and VOA still exist to some extent, but their output is greatly reduced and largely targeted at areas of Africa and Asia rather than other Western countries.

    Reply
    1. Dilbert

      The reason for those changes is that nobody is really listening anymore. Yes, I know, a few might still listen, hobby types mostly. The true target audience, the unwashed masses that could be influences with a radio broadcast from overseas has long since disappeared. There are a couple of places (as you mention) such as middle Africa and spots in Asia where this might still play out, but those are few and far between.

      With such a small target market, setting up FM or regular AM stations in neighboring friendly countries and running what is effectively a border blaster station is way more useful. Even then, it’s cost prohibitive compared to just getting a better web presence and working to get your material into the hands of locals who will re-tweet, share, or otherwise like your content and expose it to others.

      Shortwave had an amazing history, but it is just that, history.

      Reply
  5. Keith Perron

    Pull the plug already and just do away with it. RCI serves no more purpose. The main CBC site, app, YouTube and other outlets do a much better job at covering Canada than RCI ever could.

    For something very funny. RCI had a program call the The Link, which it would also feed live on YouTube. The nice thing about YouTube is you can’t lie about how many viewers you had. How many views does The Link get? Well an average of 40 to 100 views. That is just laughable. Clear sign no one is listening.

    Reply
  6. Kai Ludwig

    In the case of RNW it was indeed a radical repurposing. RNW is now an NGO that explicitely does no journalism anymore and produces only content of a soft kind because they consider it too risky to deal with hard news.

    Thus RNW in 2018 also left a group of international broadcasters called DG7. And now take a look at the last sentence of https://p.dw.com/p/39Z6s and, perhaps, be surprised who took their place. At the end of 2019 indeed some real participation of CBC/Radio-Canada has been reported: https://p.dw.com/p/3UHsh

    To this foreign observer their participation is indeed surprising, because from this point of view CBC/Radio-Canada simply closed down its foreign service in 2012, away from a small token they kept for the legal reasons already discussed here. And the repurposing of RCI started even before, very much noticed abroad and commented with jokes like “Radio Canada Internal” or “Radio Canada Immigration”. During the final years even the remaining shortwave distribution in North America was, judging from the combinations of time of the day and frequency, optimized for covering the area from Montreal to Toronto rather than the USA.

    So what still qualifies CBC/Radio-Canada as international media organization? Ok, one can look at the CBC News webpages also from abroad, and pointing out so explicitely that they get more page impressions than the small token left of RCI just adds insult to injury. But what about content in other languages, which is just to be further curtailed? What about television, with CBC News Network for some time indeed already being availablized abroad but, if I’m correct, now geoblocked and paywalled again because, as everyone knows, the pandemic is over?

    To the foreign observer nothing adds up here and the whole communication from CBC/Radio-Canada looks dishonest.

    Reply
  7. JB

    It all makes me think of a modern day Johannesburg Gutenberg petitioning to revive his movable type printing press in the age of the internet.
    Outdated & obsolete.
    Of course as a listener I loved the glory days of RCI, I also loved the sound and ambiance of tube radios. They’re not coming back either.
    Time to pull up the big boy pants and face facts not said out of animosity but of fact- it was once great but now irreverent.

    Reply

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