CBC’s plan for Radio Canada International sees its staff cut in half

By Steve Faguy

MONTREAL — This week, the CRTC began a two-week hearing into the renewal of CBC/Radio-Canada’s licences, a process which began more than a year ago. There will be days of questioning, dozens of intervenors appearing, and discussions of everything from children’s programming to the fees for CBC News Network to diversity, local news, online distribution and official minority communities.

But one thing that probably won’t be discussed is a service the public broadcaster is specifically required by legislation to provide, relatively few know about, but that the company has seemingly treated like a forgotten stepchild: Radio Canada International.

Last month, CBC announced major changes to RCI. For the broadcaster, it was about “modernizing … for the 21st century.”

For many within RCI, it’s yet another step in “a death by a thousand cuts.”

What isn’t in dispute is that RCI, the CBC’s international service that used to broadcast on shortwave radio but now operates solely online, will see its staff cut from 20 employees to nine on April 1 as it undergoes restructuring. In exchange for being integrated into the CBC News and Radio-Canada Information websites, cutting editing staff, RCI will add two new languages — Punjabi and Tagalog — to existing services in English, French, Spanish, Arabic and Chinese. It will also launch weekly podcasts in all seven languages.

Third-language content will also be offered free of charge to third-language media, to avoid competing with them.

The change will result in 10 layoffs, three unreplaced retirements and three contracts not being renewed, offset by three new reporters — one each in Chinese, Arabic and Punjabi “producing reports from the field,” and two additional journalists responsible for adapting and translating CBC and Radio-Canada content for RCI.

“It’s basically been reduced to a translation service,” said Wojtek Gwiazda, a former RCI employee and spokesperson for the RCI Action Committee, a union-supported group that has been pushing against cuts to the service.

But for Crystelle Crépeau, head of digital news for Radio-Canada, “it’s a transformation to help us give more visibility to RCI and ensure its pertinence in the actual environment.” (RCI, based in Montreal, is managed as a division of Radio-Canada.)

RCI is required under article 46(2) of the Broadcasting Act, which says the CBC shall “provide an international service in accordance with such directions as the Governor in Council may issue.” For decades it broadcast on shortwave to Canadian expats and others around the world, providing what was for many their only objective perspective on world politics.

But since the early 1990s, a series of crippling cuts has turned RCI into a shadow of its former self. The most significant came in 2012, when an 80% cut meant shutting down the shortwave transmitter site in Sackville, N.B., that carried RCI programming around the world. CBC turned in the licence for CKCX-SW and RCI became an online-only venture.

“They’re violating the Broadcasting Act, and violating an order in council that explicitly explains what RCI is supposed to do.” – Wojtek Gwiazda, RCI Action Committee

That change required an Order in Council from the federal government, removing the obligation to broadcast on shortwave and replacing it with one to broadcast on the internet.

Besides the cut to staff, Gwiazda said CBC is trying to quietly change RCI’s mandate, from an international service targeting audiences abroad to a third-language service targeting ethnic Canadians.

“They’re violating the Broadcasting Act, and violating an order in council that explicitly explains what RCI is supposed to do,” he said in a recent interview.

The 2012 Order in Council directs RCI to “produce and distribute programming targeted at international audiences to increase awareness of Canada, its values and its social, economic and cultural activities.”

But Luce Julien, executive director of Radio-Canada News and Current Affairs, said RCI has always targeted new Canadians. “New arrivals, it was already our mandate,” she said. “The mandate won’t change.”

It’s unclear where that mandate originated. Nothing in the act or the Order in Council mentions serving ethnic or new Canadians. Marc Pichette, head of public relations for Radio-Canada, pointed to the mandate that CBC gave itself for RCI, which says “RCI targets audiences who know little to nothing about Canada, whether they live in Canada or abroad.”

The difference between content for international and domestic audiences is subtle, but significant, Gwiazda said. “CBC/Radio-Canada is aimed at a domestic national audience. So you don’t have to explain what the Bloc is, what the NDP is, what Regina is. For an international audience, you’re going to have to say the Ruling Liberal Party, or the prairie city of Regina. Without those hints, any kind of story or any kind of interview we do doesn’t make sense to a foreign audience.”

Julien felt differently. “It was almost duplication,” she said. “I’m not saying RCI doesn’t do original content, but we thought it was possible to adapt content without maintaining these sections.”

Plus, she added, internal statistics show international audiences read much more news content on and than they do RCI.

Starting April 1, RCI will be brought into the CBC and Radio-Canada websites, with its own homepage and logo but also prominent links from the news sites in English and French. The goal is to offer more visibility for RCI content so it’s not “isolated in a corner,” Crépeau said. But Gwiazda said he believed the end result would be burying it.

“If we didn’t care, we wouldn’t add languages, we wouldn’t add resources in the field.” – Luce Julien, CBC

Julien admitted that this transformation is a cut. She said as revenues fail to grow with expenses, she has to make tough choices, like she did when she cancelled 45-year-old religious affairs television show Second Regard in 2019.

“When I cancelled Second Regard, no one was happy,” she said. But Radio-Canada launched a new podcast, called Être, that took on the same mandate but with fewer resources.

“I don’t want to give the impression that I lack empathy. It’s always difficult cutting jobs. But it’s nevertheless our responsibility as manager to ensure the sustainability of the service.”

RCI, she said, “will have to evolve like every other service.”

Gwiazda thinks that sustainability would be better ensured by taking RCI out of CBC’s hands and funding it directly through its own parliamentary appropriation. “We need to turn RCI around, and we can’t rely on the CBC to do it because they’re not interested,” he said.

Julien said the opposite is true.

“If we didn’t care, we wouldn’t add languages, we wouldn’t add resources in the field,” she said. “To the contrary, we’re adding. … If we didn’t care, we wouldn’t have done this.”