Playing radio roulette: You just never know where CBC Overnight will take you
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 6 April 2004)

Could widespread knowledge of English in the Czech Republic eventually harm Czech literature? Has Fiji developed an adequate policy on AIDS? Will Poland's entry into the European Union lead to prosperous Germans grabbing all the best Polish real estate? Was there a dark political conspiracy behind Belgium's Crime of the Century in the 1990s? Will Finland's second official language, Swedish, be expelled from many of the country's schools?

In the pre-dawn hours, people all over Canada find themselves pondering these questions. They are listeners to CBC Radio Overnight, one of the best and certainly the most cosmopolitan of all Canadian radio shows.

It's a five-hour anthology of news and features sent our way by the English-language services of broadcasters in nine countries. It went on the air in 1995 and has since acquired an audience of night workers, insomniacs and people like me. Often, if I wake up briefly at night, I record a couple of hours and listen to it in odd moments during the day.

On the current schedule, Radio Netherlands starts off at 1:05 a.m. (there's Canadian news on the hour) and the Voice of Russia winds everything up before the CBC's own broadcasts start at six. For listeners it's a kind of radio roulette. You never know whether the next item will take you to the literary festival in Prague, the Easter Beethoven Festival in Warsaw, or the sheep-dog trials in Molong, New South Wales.

You can seldom predict what news Deutsche Welle from Bonn or Radio Polonia from Warsaw will consider important. For North Americans this has a liberating effect. It pulls us out from under our own obsessions and reminds us that other continents have other concerns. Until I started hearing the ABC Radio Australia news in the 1990s, I had no idea that Australia remains deeply involved with its former dependency, Papua New Guinea; hardly a sparrow falls in PNG without full coverage from ABC.

These are all government-backed broadcasters, which often means they avoid annoying friendly countries. Channel Africa, from Johannesburg, reported recently on a new law in Zanzibar (a semi-autonomous region) that will punish homosexual acts with a five-year prison term. Zanzibar's government considers homosexuality an alien activity, un-African and certainly un-Muslim. Channel Africa's story quoted no opinions, pro or con, on this legislation.

And when it reported that Zimbabwe's 2004 tobacco crop will be even lower than last year's all-time low, Channel Africa noted two reasons: High costs for farmers (inflation is 600%) and Zimbabwe's "controversial land reforms." That's code for confiscation of white-owned property, which Channel Africa doesn't like to dwell on.

Netherlands radio has lately been telling us about the crime that brought a crowd of 300,000 into the streets of Brussels eight years ago and produced a Belgian political crisis. Many citizens believed the imprisonment and sexual abuse of six female children and adolescents, four of whom were found dead, were the work of a well-connected pedophile network, protected by an official coverup. This spring, Marc Dutroux and three alleged confederates are at last on trial.

The fact that Dutroux had been jailed for child rape in 1989 and given early parole was only one of a dozen facts that made the Belgians lose faith in their justice system and their leaders. The authorities have since decided there was no large-scale conspiracy, even though Dutroux (who often changes his story) now says there was. Police claim they were not complicit, merely incompetent. But a Radio Netherlands reporter remarked that many Belgians still believe in a conspiracy and perhaps always will.

Unlike the other broadcasters, The Voice of Russia delivers a fairly consistent level of unintentional comedy, grounded mainly in political anxiety. For one thing, the VOR badly wants us to know who's in charge of the government. There's probably no rule that Vladimir Putin's name must be mentioned in the first sentence of the first item in every newscast, but in my experience that's the way things usually work out. When Putin says anything about anything, his words lead the broadcast.

One recent night the news began with his unremarkable statement that it would set a bad precedent if terrorists believe that their bomb attacks in Madrid changed the government of Spain. After the news, the Voice of Russia presented its next program, News and Views. It, too, began with Vladimir Putin expressing the same opinion about Madrid. He was speaking at a conference at a Black Sea resort. Naturally, he related Madrid's crisis to Russia's problems, or former problems, in Chechnya. That particular crisis is over, Putin was glad to report. Law and order have now taken hold in Chechnya and corporations can start investing there again. On that point the producers of News and Views gathered no other views.

In the Soviet era, long ago, feature items from Moscow radio had a corny, boyish style, which must have been some apparatchik's idea of how to reach the English-speaking masses in their own simple language. The always happy-sounding host of Moscow Mailbag, who offered to answer any queries we had about the Soviet Union, would sign off every week with the line, "Remember, you couldn't do better than send us a letter."

Today the Voice of Russia still sounds like a small-town North American station of the 1930s. Every week it does a melodramatic feature called The River of Time, in which a chorus chants heroic music and a solemn voice announces the week's anniversaries: Rimsky-Korsakov's birthday, Julius Caesar's assassination, the Paris Commune, whatever. The only difference is that broadcasters can now look back in pride on Czarist triumphs, like a 1916 victory in a battle against an Austro-Hungarian army, as well as Soviet achievements, like the first space-walk by a cosmonaut. In contemporary feature stories, VOR runs a good-news service. It loves harmless pieces about the history of Russian women's clothes or a children's literary competition. If the economy is mentioned, the news is likely to be pretty good, or at least improving.

Perhaps it's so reminiscent of Soviet-era broadcasting because some of the same people, obviously nimble survivors, still work there. The guy who used to answer letters got that job in 1958 and does it even now. Like the Voice of Russia in general, he's still mediocre. Consistency is admirable, though not always.

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