Radio Canada International towers come down

The Radio Canada International (RCI) towers are coming down this week, and while many Sackville residents will be sad to see them go, activists outside the community have been raising concern about the termination of shortwave broadcasting.

RCI is the international broadcasting service of CBC/Radio Canada, and the Sackville towers were its only relay station. The towers began broadcasting internationally in 1945, delivering high power shortwave broadcasts around the world. They were the first of their kind in North America and the only North American broadcast to deliver transmissions beyond the Iron Curtain during the Cold War.

Though the towers have not been used since 2012, a number of people are dismayed that the federal government’s funding cuts to the CBC in 2012 resulted in the discontinuation of shortwave broadcasting. Although a number of shows were cancelled due to the cuts, Radio Canada International continues to operate online.

CBC President Hubert Lacroix said in an October 2012 public statement that the move to online broadcasting was a necessary adaptation and reflected the “new world reality.” The decision came shortly after RCI lost eighty per cent of its funding from the federal government.

When the changes were announced, supporters rallied against the discontinuation of shortwave broadcasting. Among these was the Radio Canada International Action Committee, representing unionized RCI workers. They argued that shortwave broadcasting was an important service for Canada abroad, and a valuable means of outside information for countries with repressive censorship laws.

“The idea that listeners in other countries can go online is farcical,” Sheldon Harvey told The Montreal Gazette in 2012. Harvey is a shortwave transmission radio “enthusiast” and president of the Canadian International DX club. He runs a blog on the subject, and is concerned by the declining use of shortwave radio. Harvey also pointed out that shortwave radio is valuable because it cannot be censored, while governments around the world can restrict Internet access.

Back in Sackville, many people are more concerned about the structure itself, rather than the transmissions it was built to disseminate. The town’s Tourism and Business Manager, Ron Kelly-Spurles, said, “I think the towers have a historical connection to Sackville […] I think that people here are attached to the sight of them, the lights, and all the things they had on them, not necessarily as much the function of them.”

Moncton-based abstract filmmaker, Amanda Dawn Christie, is not one of these people. “I think it’s a huge loss in terms of international communication,” she said in an interview with The Argosy. “Anyone can build a shortwave radio; you can’t do that with a computer,” she added.

Christie made it clear that her opinion on the matter is not supposed to influence the documentary she is working on about the towers called Spectres of Shortwave. The filmmaker said she had “built up a personal relationship” with the towers after researching them for four years.

This relationship was so strong that she was moved to tears at the sight of the wires being taken down when demolition began last week.

Christie was inspired to do the documentary after an art installation in which she built a free-standing sink structure out of basic plumbing that was capable of picking up shortwave transmissions. She started the “Marshland Radio Plumbing Project” in 2009, which was originally intended to simply document the towers, but has since incorporated their closure.

Christie said that saving the towers was not sustainable. “This has been inevitable,” she said. Christie pointed out that that since they ended transmission in 2012, the towers have not been maintained and if they had continued to be kept they would have posed a risk. In addition, the cost of maintenance was high, with a single light bulb costing $1,000, explained Christie.

The CBC had originally planned on selling the land with the towers intact, but had difficulty finding a buyer. The news agency still plans on selling the 222-acre property once the towers are removed.

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