Even from the relative distance of theUnited States, it’s painful to witness the brutal gagging of the broadest-reaching voice of Canadian international diplomacy.
The recently announced cuts to the CBC have garnered considerable press. However, what has not received sufficient press is the story of the cuts which threaten the very existence of Radio Canada International.
This oversight is likely because, sadly, many Canadians must not be aware of RCI, or of its valiant but unsung role in international relations. Radio Canada International is an arm of the CBC that stretches across the world with international news and programming, offering a uniquely Canadian perspective on world events to millions of listeners, who await these broadcasts every day.
If I could speak on behalf of the millions who listen to RCI in the dark of night, I’d say a mouthful. Here on the overly-lit, information-saturated North American continent, it’s easy to forget that an estimated 1.6 billion human beings - a full one quarter of us - still lack access to reliable power and to the Internet. In remote, impoverished, often war-torn regions, radio has become a familiar voice in the darkness. Without radio broadcasters such as RCI – and the light of information they can relay – the night can become very dark, indeed.
Meanwhile, the Internet, while unquestionably a useful medium, can only travel as far as its (still-limited) availability; in other words, the Internet relies upon a costly infrastructure, not just at its source, but where it is received. Of course, while most of the people for whom I speak do not have Internet access, computers, or even electricity, those who do are often trapped under repressive government regimes whose censors track or control their citizens’ Internet usage, and sometimes use what they learn to control these individuals, to threaten them or worse.
Shortwave radio, on the other hand? Radio, which requires most of its infrastructure at its source, has little regard for distance, and no regard for political borders, nor for who and how many join you to listen. This apparent information dinosaur travels at the speed of light, streams information wirelessly on affordable handheld devices (transistor radio, anyone?), is virtually immune to censorship, and leaves no tracks. Censorial attempts to jam it are largely unsuccessful and can usually be bypassed. Radio is, moreover, faster than the Internet. Radio is straightforward, effective – and in the developing world, still absolutely vital. It often functions as a form of life-support for rural and impoverished communities – for example, offering life-saving information when disaster strikes, like earthquakes or tsunamis.
But the pertinent, painful fact remains: The Canadian voice in the ether is being silenced. RCI’s presence on shortwave radio is being eliminated andCanada’s only international broadcasting site–inSackville,NB–is slated to be shut down.
I don’t pretend to have an answer to the economic problems that led to RCI’s crippling cuts. No doubt, it’s costly to run a reputable international broadcaster whose potential reach, up to this point, has encompassed the entire planet. But soon, Canada – like so many other cash-strapped countries that are slashing their (radio) budgets, and tossing all their eggs into one (Internet) basket – will have no infrastructure to share its voice with the rest of the world.
So, if I could give but one word of advice: take precaution, Canada, and diversify your communications programs. In the pie chart that represents your international media delivery systems, the shortwave radio slice will soon be gone. And there will be no more where that came from, should the infrastructure go, too.
Plus, shortwave radio represents the best option for basic emergency communications, far preferable to the vulnerable Internet. This is true both in the developed and developing world. For your own sake as well as the world’s, downsize if you must, but don’t dismantle your radio infrastructure; the cost to reclaim it, should emergency or political crisis render this necessary, will be far greater to your country and our interdependent world than just keeping that voice alive in the first place.
Yes, radio costs something. But consider the cost per listener. Millions upon millions of listeners – we can’t even begin to track them all – are listening for mere pennies - or fractions of pennies – each. A modest cost, indeed, for offering the world a daily dose of reliable news and information; for saving lives (including, potentially, your own); for sharing the ever-broadening cultural understanding and enlightened perspectives for whichCanada stands.
Please, Canada, find a way to avoid severing your own tongue. The world is listening to you.
Thomas Witherspoon (a US citizen) is founder and director of US-based non-profit Ears to Our World which distributes shortwave radios to schools and communities in the developing world. He also actively blogs about radio and international broadcasting in easy-to-read English on the SWLing Post.