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March 18, 2013 | by  | in Features |
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Who Killed the Radio Star?

While Salient triumphantly turnS 76 thiS year, itS vivaciouS younger brother, the vbc Student radio Station, turnS Six With more queStionS than anSWerS. the vbc iS Stuck in limbo, With near-to-no funding, no clear goalS, and no guidance from either vuWSa or victoria univerSity. hoW did they get into thiS hole, and hoW Will they get out?

I have a terrible confession to make. The first time I listened to the student-run VBC—a station my Student Services Levy helps to pay for—was last week. Sadly, I’m not alone in my neglectfulness. In fact, the largest simultaneous online audience the station has seen in the last year was of 33 listeners.

The Victoria Broadcasting Club, the VBC, or the ‘veeb’, is a labour of love. Every week, numerous volunteer DJs come in from around the University to play music and talk shit. There are shows about politics, shows about electronic dance music, and shows about metal. There’s also dead air, Facebook beeps, and a drastic lack of funds.

The VBC has seen better times. It’s seen worse too—in 2011 the station was completely rudderless, with long periods of dead air, but 2012 hire Rhys Morgan was supposed to fix this. As a part-time Station Manager with considerable radio experience, he brought much-needed attention to the station. It’s certainly come a long way since then, with volunteers filling most of the schedule and even a sponsor or two, but in Morgan’s words: “we’re limping”.

When Morgan was hired, he was promised a paid assistant. He never got one. He was told the inactive VBC Trust was going to dissolve, leaving room for VUWSA to step their involvement up. That hasn’t happened. He expected some level of investment in the station, other than his wages, which hasn’t exactly happened.

“Apart from me getting paid nothing is being invested in the station”, he explains, “It needs all-new computers and a new printer, a couple of new mics, some new monitors, and none of this is happening.” His volunteer DJs agree—three spoken to all described the situation with a negative adjective, ranging from “terrible” to “just shit”. Morgan doesn’t have the time or money to train new volunteers properly, or to sell ads on the station. “The receptionist [at VUWSA] won’t even play us.”

VUWSA President Rory McCourt agrees that something needs to be done. “There needs to be a plan…. There’s no strategic focus. Poor Rhys [Morgan] is all by himself, and he has to have support around him.”

Currently VBC’s funding situation is a little uncertain.

The VBC are allocated a portion of the student media grant the University gives VUWSA; money that comes from the compulsory Student Services Levy we all pay each year. It’s up to VUWSA to decide how the money is split up between the fine pages of Salient you are currently reading, and the VBC. In 2012 (a decent yardstick for 2013’s financials as well), the VBC got close to $30,000, with Salient receiving close to $130,000. There are some clear differences between Salient and the VBC however, as McCourt is quick to point out. “I think every dollar that’s going to student media should be there… The Student Experience Survey measures how much students value particular student services; Salient consistently scores highly in that, the VBC not so much.” Salient requires a full-time editor (or two part-time co-editors) and a full-time designer, not to mention printing costs. Along with these requirements, Salient boasts readership goals, advertising money, budget proposals, a 76-year history (happy birthday!) and a mandate in the VUWSA constitution. The VBC (as a station) has existed since 2007, is not in the VUWSA constitution, has no specific goals, and barely any assets. Without clear goals it makes no sense for VUWSA to invest in them, but Morgan doesn’t have time to write proposals and budgets if they won’t go anywhere. “It’s a crazy kind of catch-22.” 

Furthemore, VUWSA has no official stake in VBC. The VBC Trust, an inactive group, ‘owns’ the station. They agreed to dissolve and hand over the station to VUWSA, but this has not happened. McCourt claims that the VBC Trust won’t disclose their liabilities, leaving VUWSA unwilling to take them on. Trustee Matt Davis, one of the original founders of the VBC, indicated a willingness to answer questions but then failed to reply before the magazine went to print. VUWSA pays Morgan, but McCourt refers to the VBC as “a completely separate entity”.

Let’s slow down and take stock here. Victoria grants money to VUWSA for “student media”, which it specifies as Salient and the VBC. VUWSA gets to split this limited money up, and for the reasons explained above, decides that most of this goes to Salient, especially given VUWSA don’t technically own the station, since the VBC Trust has yet to dissolve. They do use some of it to pay a part-time Station Manager, Rhys Morgan, but he claims the station is drastically underfunded in other areas.

Both McCourt and Morgan agree that something needs to happen. A decision needs to be made. “They might decide to axe the VBC, which would make total financial sense”, concedes Morgan. While not the ideal outcome, at least that would be something, some kind of direction.

Morgan questions VUWSA’s level of commitment— he wants them to either go hard or go back to making wall planners. Asked whether being part of the constitution would help, he thinks it would, “But only if they throw their full weight behind it and start believing in the VBC.” McCourt is keen to assess the viability of radio at Vic. After all, all the other major universities manage a station; even Massey Wellington has Muse Radio. “If [demand for a radio station] is there and students value it, we need to decide how we can make that happen and how we can allocate funds to make that happen.” If the funds aren’t there, McCourt is open to other ideas. “We could have a joint radio station with MAWSA. We could be joint with the radio network. We just need a strategic focus first.”

But is the demand there? How many of you actually listen to the radio, streaming or analogue? In a world with podcasts*, Spotify and Pandora, is a live audio service really the best use of student media funds? Is student media really the best use of our Student Services Levy funds?

Well, yes.

Student media really fulfils two roles. One, obviously, is to inform and entertain students. Universities are complex beasts, and something student-focussed is needed to present these complexities to students, and to keep both the Students’ Association and the University itself on their toes. In this way, student media acts a “public good” that the University and students fund, not expecting it to turn a profit; much like how the Government sees Radio New Zealand. Secondly, and less obviously, student media acts a training ground for future media professionals. Station co-founder Matt Davis now works at Flying Nun Records, and Former Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer once edited Salient.

Student media at Victoria ultimately relies on an ongoing financial contribution from the University to operate; it is essential that someone within the University appreciates the roles that student media fulfill, and is accountable for its ongoing success. In that vein, Salient asked the University “what is the function of student-run media, and is a student radio station a necessary aspect of Victoria University?” A university spokesperson responded, “The University received a proposal from VUWSA which outlined a request to receive Student Services Levy Funding to cover Salient and VBC in 2012. We are still in discussions about student media services to be covered in 2013.” Effectively wiping their hands of VUWSA operations has been somewhat of a trend for the University lately, despite the growing amount of control they exert via the post-VSM contracting process.

Student media is never going to be financially viable. It’s always going to feel just a little underfunded, a little scrappy. But as Morgan says, if we want a radio station we have to commit. VSM’s thrown everything out of whack, but shit, it’s been a year. The VBC online stream has a limit of 250 individual connections. This should be an annoying restraint, not a far-fetched goal.

 

*VBC are too small to move into podcasting, as the royalties situation with podcasts is much more stringent.

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  1. Josh says:

    Pet hate: ‘neglectfulness’. You just need ‘neglect’, y’all.

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