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Goodbye old friend

In to the Wind

August 30, 2012
By Mike Gilchrist , Toledo Chronicle, Tama News-Herald

A soft yellow glow paints the wall behind the desk. A low hum emanates from the transformer inside the beast. Small dial and meter lights add to the ambience of an otherwise darkened room.

It is 5:55 am. The Sackville,New Brunswick transmitter is powered up. The three tone interval signal from the BBC signifies they will soon be on the air in North America. From transmitter facilities belonging to Radio Canada International, the BBC World Service is ready to awaken the boy and deliver the news which has broken during the night as he slumbered.

Such was his routine; awaken to the World Service, and upon rising, after that news, to tune the radio to Radio Australia to hear their take on world events, and then onto Radio Canada while getting dressed. The world, to the boy, was a vast place, his radio the cockpit to that world.

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Experience allowed him to identify stations merely by the voice of the announcer. Radio Moscow, the BBC, Radio Canada, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Radio Habana Cuba and many, many others regularly played through the speaker of the ancient shortwave radio positioned on the desk. Logbooks of the exploits, and program notes from international programmers worldwide lay in various collections on the desk.

A three-ringed binder with plastic sleeves stood upright at one end of the desk. Inside were the QSL cards, or confirmation cards from the broadcasters. In exchange for some notes on programming details and a self addressed envelope, most international broadcasters would respond with such a confirmation.

While most of the modern shortwave sets were becoming transistorized, the boy kept the ancient Halicrafters shined and usually on. The warm glow from its tubes was a comforting nightlight. Experience told him on what frequency to leave the radio in order to start the ritual anew the next morning. Random static crashes accentuated the stillness of the room, but did not bother the boy.

From the comfort and confines of his second story bedroom, the boy travelled the world and expanded his horizons. Harp music from Ireland, eerie dance music from Papua New Guinea, the latest in Rock and Roll from Great Britain, and the laugh of the kookaburra bird from Australia were familiar and comforting sounds.

Besides knowing the capitals of every foreign country, he also tried, at least once, to listen to a radio broadcast from every one of them possible. Maybe it was merely a game, a pursuit, a hobby, but the boy imagined himself worldly and better informed because of these choices.

The boy couldn't imagine a world without international broadcasters, or without shortwave radios. Of course, this was before the Internet, and the subsequent shrinking of the world as a result.

Marshall McLuhan offered, "The medium is the message." He proposed that a medium itself, not the content it carries, should be the focus of study. He said that a medium affects the society in which it plays a role not only by the content delivered over the medium, but also by the characteristics of the medium itself.

In the boy's opinion, shortwave radio was one medium to which McLuhan spoke. It didn't take much listening for the boy to figure out the main target of the international broadcasters wasn't just expatriate citizens living abroad, but also citizens in third world countries huddled around a community receiver to listen to the Beeb, or The Voice of America, or even to the droll Radio Moscow. This medium was an important medium. People throughout the world depended on the medium to bring them the news and entertainment from the outside world.

As the decades arrived and left, fewer and fewer international broadcasters rose to the challenge of broadcasting their brand of civilization to a listening world. Budget cuts and the cost of replacing aging transmitters saw more abandoning the medium.

One by one they fall. One by one their programming was slashed, and their reach diminished. The latest is the total loss of Radio Canada International. This summer, their transmitters fell silent. Administrated by the Canadian Broadcast Corporation, RCI's funding was chopped from 13 million to a paltry 2.3 million dollars. While the CBC's charge is to reach Canadians in all corners of the country, RCI's charge was to reach the world with news and entertainment from Canada.

RCI is now an Internet radio station. You can listen to streams from the Voice of Canada, if you have Internet access, and your country allows. Many of the "old" targets for the broadcasts will be lost. People in emerging countries where Internet coverage is not widespread will no longer enjoy their programming. The most populous country, China, blocks web sites carrying programming from other countries, Canada included.

The medium is indeed the message, and without the medium, the message will not be heard. Shortwave radio, you are but a shadow of the medium the boy enjoyed. I bemoan this fact.

Until next time--

You can read past columns by visiting and clicking on the "Local Columns" button.

In to the Wind and this column are copyright 2005 - 2012 Mike Gilchrist. Readers, feel free to contact me at via email, or write to me at P.O. Box 255, Toledo, IA 52342



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