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Signing off

As of last weekend, Radio Canada International no longer resembles an international broadcaster.
CBC slashed RCI’s budget from an austere $12-million to a paltry crippling $2-million. The result was the laying off of most of its staff and the elimination of all shortwave, satellite and Internet broadcasting services.
(Above is a view of RCI’s main shortwave transmission site in Sackville, N.B., as it was in 2003.)
It’s hard to get taxpayers too upset about the change. After all, the whole point of RCI was to provide radio services outside of Canada.
Its impact on the domestic radio market was pretty much nil, apart from the handful of hours a week it used to fill during late-night and overnight hours on Radio One and Première Chaîne. There was also a short-lived, ill-fated radio channel on Sirius for a few years.
And as the argument goes, everyone’s using the Internet, so who needs a radio service specifically for international consumption anyway? CBC offers all of its radio services as live streams on the Internet, 24 hours a day. Canada’s private TV broadcasters produce ethnic programs daily that are also viewable on the Internet.
As it was, RCI was only producing a few hours of original programming a day in English, French, Spanish, Chinese, Arabic, Russian and Ukrainian. It produced even fewer hours per week in Portuguese.
I can understand why international broadcasters stopped beaming their programs to the developed world. We can listen, read and watch damn near anything we want.
Here, censorship and other limits to viewing/listening are less a matter of political control and more a matter of content producers trying to protect their distribution rights.
But overseas, it’s another matter.
Just before I started typing this, I read an article about how Bloomberg News had its website blocked in China, after it reported on the vast wealth on its leader-in-waiting. Soon after, all searches on his name were blocked.
Although international radio broadcasts can be jammed, it would take a little more effort than blocking the Internet.
The same goes for places like Syria, where it’s been almost impossible to get news in or out of that country since people there began their revolt against the regime of President Bashir Al-Assad.
The big boys — BBC World Service and the Voice of America — are still doing actual radio broadcasts but it seems sad that those two will be the only main points of view English speakers across the world will have access to.
Canada is left with an RCI that’s a shell of its former self, producing blogs and weekly audio programs for consumption online.
No more telling Canada’s stories to the world in an accessible analog radio format.
Sadly, it’s a trend that other countries have adopted.
June 2012 also marked the end of broadcasting services for Radio Nederlands, which was seen (as RCI was) as a respected voice of a world middle-power.
This is not the sort of thing where you’ll see private interests picking up the slack, as there’s no way to accurately measure the audience and no simple way to make money.
Bringing light to the oppressed peoples of the world needs to be the function of the world’s public broadcasters.
And if done right, it shouldn’t cost very much to do it.
I really do wish RCI will make a comeback, some way and somehow.
But failing that, in an era of worldwide budget cuts and navel-gazing, I can only hope the free world’s remaining international radio voices — Britain, America, Australia, New Zealand, Germany and Japan, to name a few — continue to retain the financial and political support necessary to stay alive.