Even now, it’s a day Derek Quinn doesn’t like to think about – the Friday in March 1991 when he received a call telling him to get to the office as soon as possible. When he arrived at the Montreal headquarters of Radio Canada International, he found a lobby full of colleagues who had received similar calls. Together, they were swept off the crowded elevator into the second-floor hallway – the only place large enough for a meeting of the international shortwave radio service’s 200-member staff.

CBC vice president Michael McEwen wasted no words. RCI’s budget was being slashed by 35 per cent and slightly more than half of the staff would lose their jobs. People stood in silence as the news sank in. Quickly, it became apparent who was going and who was staying, as McEwen rhymed off the foreign-language services that would be cut. Gone were Japanese, German, Portuguese, Polish, Hungarian, Czech and Slovak. Original programming would be cut by 85 per cent and replaced by rebroadcasts from the CBC, RCI’s funding body at the time.

Producers of the axed programs were told they could do one more broadcast the following Monday. Stunned staff, some in tears, headed home or to a local bar to watch themselves on the evening news. Although Quinn was one of those scheduled to go, he managed to hang on through temporary contracts until a permanent job came up about two years later. He’s now news coordinator at RCI. That day was the most devastating of the five budget cuts and near-death experiences RCI has endured in the past 22 years. Yet it has refused to die, showing instead a remarkable ability to adapt to changing times, roles, budgets, governments and technologies.

Partly, RCI has endured because of its fiercely loyal and largely idealistic staff and the fact that it has been the only international media presence Canada has had until the arrival of the Internet. Even now, no other media source does quite what RCI does.

It broadcasts 232 program hours a week of news and information about Canada via shortwave radio, satellite and real audio on the Internet (www.rcinet.ca) in eight languages. Its direct signal can be heard all over the world. RCI’s programs are also rebroadcast on more than 300 local stations around the globe, in countries such as Mexico, China and Ukraine. It produces newscasts in English and French, which are then translated into the other broadcast languages. Each language section airs half an hour to an hour a day of original current affairs. Although exact numbers are hard to come by, RCI estimates that its worldwide audience is between six and 10 million a week. Although the first test broadcast was on Christmas Day, 1944, RCI officially went on the air as the International Service of the CBC on February 25, 1945. That was three years after a government report recommended Canada should have the same international radio presence as the other allies in the Second World War.

Prime Minister Mackenzie King went on the air to inaugurate the new service, telling the world it would “bring the voice of Canada to her own sons and daughters in other lands. It will also bring Canada into closer contact with other countries. In the better world for which you are fighting, Canada will have a large part to play in furthering between nations the mutual understanding and goodwill on which the permanence of peace depends.”

The early broadcasts were directed at returning servicemen and women, telling them about what to expect when they got home. But as the war cooled and gave way to another, colder war, RCI quickly had to develop a new sense of purpose.

During the 1950s and 1960s, RCI’s mandate was overtly anticommunist, says historian Arthur Siegel, author of Radio Canada International, a history of RCI. Siegel recounts that a meeting on April 16, 1948, between the chairman of the CBC and senior officials from the department of external affairs resulted in the following “guidance notes” to the international service:

1. Nothing should be said or done that suggests Canadian approval of communist-controlled governments.

2. Use every opportunity to encourage democratic elements.

3. Avoid situations that could lead to diplomatic protests, as technically Canada is on friendly terms with the communist countries.

Some staff members took pride in fulfilling that role, believing they were helping to bring the voice of the free world to oppressed peoples. But Siegel says many others resented the interference of External Affairs in the service’s programming. The situation was complicated by the fact that many of the announcers were natives of the Eastern European countries to which they were broadcasting. Ottawa did not want to alienate communist governments entirely, and it was concerned that some announcers were encouraging independence movements in countries under Soviet control. “Some of the broadcasters had their own agenda,” says Siegel. “The question was how to ensure a Canadian perspective but give the various sections a degree of autonomy.”

In the 1970s, RCI directors success-fully fought to free the service from direction by External Affairs, and now the ministry’s only input is to specify the languages in which it wants the service to broadcast and which geographic areas should be targeted.

Later, as relations between East and West began to ease, and especially after the fall of communism in 1989, shortwave broadcasters in the West once again began to lose their sense of purpose. And once again they have had to redefine their reason for being.

For some, like the BBC World Service – which broadcasts in more than 40 languages – part of their mandate is still to bring uncensored news coverage to parts of the world where it is not otherwise available. To people in war zones or living under dictatorships, shortwave radio – and in particular the BBC – has always been an information lifeline.

Despite budget cuts of its own in the early nineties, however, the BBC has been restored to its full funding and brings vast resources – $507 million (Canadian) annually – to its international broadcasting. RCI’s annual budget is still only $15.5 million, tiny compared with the BBC World Service or the German service Deutsche Welle’s $978 million.

Obviously, the BBC’s mandate of informing people around the world about what’s going on in their own countries is one RCI could never hope to match. Instead, RCI’s mandate is to develop “an international awareness of Canada, which reflects the realities and quality of Canadian life and culture.” RCI must also meet the needs of Canadians abroad for news from home. To fulfill these roles, the station now broadcasts in eight languages: English, French, Spanish, Russian, Arabic, Ukrainian, Mandarin and Cantonese.

It hasn’t been easy to fulfill even that scaled-down mandate. For years after the cuts in 1991, RCI’s only original programming in English consisted of news broadcasts. Gone were North Country, a daily current affairs show; the weekly Shortwave Listener’s Digest, which dealt with letters and questions about shortwave; and programs targeted to Asia and Africa. Instead, rebroadcasts from CBC radio filled the airtime.

That may have been exactly what homesick Canadians abroad were looking for, but for the rest of the world it meant that a lot of background information was missing. When RCI broadcasts a story on, say, Jean Chr?tien’s insistence on a clear question in the next Quebec referendum, it has to explain who Jean Chr?tien is, where Quebec is, what the referendum is about, and add context and history about why Chr?tien insists the question be a clear one. And because listeners will hear no other stations broadcasting an alternative version, the newsroom strives to be as balanced as possible. CBC broadcasts don’t do all that – thus the need to tailor content to the understanding of foreign listeners has always been RCI’s strongest argument for its existence.

That RCI is still broadcasting at all reflects the feisty resistance of its staff. While some employees accepted their fate after the 1991 cuts, others went into action. They formed a coalition of employees and supporters to pressure the government to restore full funding. Within days after the cuts were announced, they demonstrated outside RCI’s offices and, in Ottawa, called press conferences and besieged the media – not an easy task since they often had to explain what RCI was.

The coalition also mobilized listeners, who wrote insistent letters to the government and the CBC, demanding that RCI be returned to its former self. Maggy Akerblom, now in charge of audience relations at RCI, was one of those activists. “Countless Canadians came out of the woodwork,” she says. “They had twice the impact of the people worldwide.” The Canadian Exporters’ Association wrote to say that many Canadians had forged business links abroad because of a product or business featured on RCI. Shortwave enthusiasts wrote that getting rid of RCI would be an embarrassment to Canada in the world’s eyes. Businesspeople who travelled frequently said RCI was their only source of Canadian news while out of the country, and listeners from outside Canada simply wanted their favourite programs back.

Their efforts resulted in a Senate inquiry, which recommended in June 1994 that full funding be restored. The report was shelved. But it was not until the situation worsened in December 1995 that a turnaround began. On December 11, the CBC announced that it could no longer afford to fund the shortwave service and planned to close it down. Within hours of the announcement, letters from outraged listeners around the world addressed to Jean Chr?tien and the minister of foreign affairs, Andr? Ouellet, started pouring in via fax, demanding to know why Canada could not afford an external shortwave service when nearly all other developed countries had one.

Sheila Copps, minister of heritage, announced in January 1996 that somewhere the money would be found to keep RCI going, at least for another year. In February 1998, RCI received a three-year funding commitment, with the money to come not from the CBC but directly from the ministries of heritage and foreign affairs. There was also to be a onetime grant of $15 million to upgrade facilities and equipment.

Jean Guerette, director-general for broadcasting policy with the ministry of heritage, says the decision to save RCI resulted from the letters that poured into the ministry. “There was real pressure put on by the people who valued it.”

Since its resurrection in early 1997, RCI has once again built up its own programming. Apart from 35 hours of newscasts each week, that programming includes First Edition, a daily half-hour, early-morning current affairs show, and Spectrum, its one-hour evening equivalent. As well, there are half-hour weekly shows including Venture Canada, which focusses on business and The Arts in Canada. These days, CBC programming takes up only about 35 per cent of RCI’s airtime. But present and former staff say the station is still not what it once was.

All the program hosts are announcer-producers, a designation unique to RCI. Aided by freelancers and correspondents, announcer-producers do everything, even some technical work. So there’s not much time left for innovation, originality, special projects or investigative reporting. During newscasts, many of the interviews are with RCI correspondents across Canada, rather than with the newsmakers themselves.

Yet news is the most important part of RCI’s mandate. Surveys show listenership drops 30 per cent when the newscasts end. But there are only 12 full-time reporters, and they are stretched to the limit just keeping up basic news coverage for nearly 30 10-minute newscasts a day. As well, they contribute material for the other original programming.

News service manager Jean Larin says if he had the budget, he’d have reporters out in the field with Canada’s peacekeeping troops in East Timor and covering the work of agencies such as Canadian International Development Agency in Africa and other countries. “Canada is more active abroad than Canadians are aware of,” he says. “The national media are not covering that because it costs too much. If we don’t cover it, no one will.”

RCI’s director, Bob O’Reilly, is the latest in a long line of leaders to come to RCI from the CBC. The first thing he had to do when he arrived on the job two years ago was build up trust with a staff who had formed a natural distrust of the CBC after years of neglect and threats of closure. “The general feeling at RCI was that CBC sold them out,” says O’Reilly. “There’s no question there was tension, and tension is the polite word.

“Some journalists at Radio-Canada [the CBC’s French-language service] thought RCI was a joke,” he says. “They thought we were doing propaganda for the government.” In fact, RCI follows the same journalistic standards as the CBC, and journalists and producers say they’ve never felt pressured by the government in their reporting. A federal report in 1981 made that position clear: “It is imperative that the editorial independence of Radio Canada International be maintained in any new financial arrangements.”

O’Reilly is currently in discussion with the heritage ministry over RCI’s next three years of funding. Heritage’s Guerette says that while RCI’s present funding is stable, it isn’t likely to increase anytime soon.

On the surface, the need for more funding may seem hard to justify. In Western Europe, shortwave is of waning importance to expatriate Canadians, who more and more look to Canadian media websites for information from home. But it is non-Canadians who are still tuning in to shortwave or listening to local rebroadcasts. In Africa and parts of Eastern Europe, the Internet is not available to most people, and shortwave remains the cheapest and easiest way to reach them. In Africa, shortwave remains ubiquitous – even cars come equipped with shortwave receivers.

RCI is popular and relevant in those countries partly because many dream of coming to Canada. Luba Demko, who broadcasts in Ukrainian, puts it simply: for people in Ukraine, Canada is “the promised land.” News coordinator Derek Quinn recalls that when he travelled to a conference last year in Tanzania, he saw a young man sitting atop a pile of garbage, listening to a shortwave radio.

Late last year, RCI revived its African service, which is now run by Ousseynou Diop. When Diop was still a young reporter in Senegal in 1968, he recalls that shortwave was a vital link in getting accurate news. Once, while he was covering an election, government statements said election day was proceeding peacefully, though Diop himself had witnessed violence in the capital. But it was by shortwave that he learned that fighting had broken out throughout the country.

Today, like other world broadcasters, RCI is making the adjustment from being a shortwave radio broadcaster to being a provider of international content that reaches its audience by a variety of means. As a result, it is ready for the arrival of digital radio, with new equipment and a new transmitter in Sackville, New Brunswick. It has also started a daily digest of Canadian news, sent out free of charge to email subscribers.

Struggling to make the most of its meagre resources, RCI managed to boost its original programming last year by 14.5 per cent and plans a further 25-per-cent increase this year. “We’re lean, mean and very focussed,” says O’Reilly. “Anytime we can save a dime it goes back into programming.” He wants to restore some of the languages that were cut in 1991, especially Japanese, German and Portuguese.

If O’Reilly’s plans work out, it will do a lot to restore confidence in RCI’s future. But after more than 50 years, it seems uncertainty may always remain a fact of life for the international broadcaster. With its focus on the world outside of Canada, it will never have a high profile at home. And the years ahead, with tumultuous change in all types of media, will be particularly challenging.

But it will be a long time before anyone again thinks that Radio Canada International doesn’t matter.

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About the author

Shirley Rennie was the Copy Editor for the Spring 2000 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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