The true cost of CHRW / Radio Western #VoteUSC
Returning from winter holiday, Western University students receive their annual opportunity to thoroughly vet a new group of student leaders during the USC elections process. While candidate branding and personalities take the forefront of campaign messaging, this year I implore students and candidates alike to closely review not only the candidates but the organization they campaign to lead.
Take a look at the CHRW/Radio Western budget, and then look up the definition of “Boondoggle”
Every year, marginal fee increases cause uproar and controversy in the USC. It’s why a fee freeze was @matthelfand’s first campaign point for his successful USC presidency bid in 2014. Students care where there money is going. So why then have we turned a blind eye to the $370,000 in fees the campus radio station CHRW casually collects every year. That’s over $13.00 per student. What. the. hell.
Why this should frustrate you…
While completing my undergrad in Media, Information, and Technology, I had the chance to serve a number of terms on the USC Grants Committee. For those unaware, the grants program is a pool of approximately $100,000 to help students develop great experiences for the Western community. Grant money helps kick start the creation of student conferences like Hack Western, brings in hundreds of speakers from around the world for various student groups, and supports student transport to conferences across North America to bring knowledge and experience back to the Western campus. All of this is accomplished despite the tiny percentage of the USC fee that is allotted to the grant pool–about 1.5% of 5.9m in 2015 (excluding health plans and bus pass). Each year about $3.79 of student USC fees go towards the grants program. This small fee returns a great value for students as many, if not all social, academic, and club events you might attend this year were (or will be) at least partially funded by USC grant money. Sounds like a pretty cool system, eh?
Now let’s chat CHRW…
Also known as Radio Western, CHRW has existed since a successful student referendum in 1979 voted into existence what, at the time, probably seemed like a good idea. Since then CHRW has broadcast locally on… (Take a moment here to ask yourself what station they broadcast on. Is it AM or FM?). If you really care, go to their website to find out.
Here is where it gets icky. Each year CHRW collects $13.15 from each student who pays ancillary fees. In 2014/2015, this amounted to a whopping $321,888, which makes it one of the costliest items on the USC fee schedule. To put this into context, let’s take a peek at the USC Fee schedule from fiscal 2014–15. Please take note of the obnoxious highlights.
Okay, so it’s an expensive service.
Providing for 30,000 students is a costly endeavour, right?
Right. Money is meant to be spent to better our campus and heighten the student experience through opportunities and services. Fantastic. So you can put down your pitchforks for now, but don’t set them down too far away just yet. Take a look over the breakdown of the CHRW budget below to see where this money is actually going.
Notable figures (using actual amounts from 2012–2013):
- CHRW Student fee revenue: $376,737 (95.8% of total revenue)
- CHRW Self raised revenue: $16,337 (4.2% of total revenue)
- Three Full Time staff combined salary (benefits): $170,684 ($27,098)
- Telephone system: $10,401
- Transmitter operations: $14,812
- Occupancy: $28,326
- Travel: $3,999
- Equipment Rental: $10,625
I think you get it. Radio is damn expensive and students are paying for the vast majority of it (95.8%). Actually, media in general is expensive: the cost of equipment and distribution make getting programming to the masses a costly challenge. Looking back up at figure one, you’ll notice our campus newspaper The Gazette receives about $16.25 per student, amounting just shy of $400,000 in student fees (note: The Gazette was still a daily newspaper back in 2014–they have recent switched to an online first model). In total, the USC spent over $700,000 towards campus media in 2014–2015. This figure is not the issue at hand, but rather the student value extracted from that money.
What is the true value of CHRW to the Western Community?
Understanding the revenues and costs of CHRW, let’s look at who is really benefitting from student dollars. This 2011 breakdown from CHRW Station Manager Grant Stein notes that, CHRW has “just short of 300 volunteers on its active list” and that during the school year “55% of CHRW volunteers are students and 45% are community volunteers”. These figures swap during the summer and winter breaks, making the average roughly 50/50 for Western student and London community member volunteers at CHRW.
Now if my time on the USC Grant Committee taught me anything, it was the need to appropriately distribute student funds in proportion to the value gained by the student body. For instance, it’s hard to justify giving $10,000 to a niche club for a closed door speaker event. However the committee may not hesitate to give that same amount to an event attended by thousands of students. (I should note that many other considerations are made in the grants process. It’s never this simple.)
With this in mind, we can look objectively at how ludicrous it is to spend $370,000 on 300 students. Actually, since about half CHRW volunteers are non-student community members we’re really supporting only 150 students. Break out your calculators ladies and gentlemen:
$370,000 in funding / 150 student = $2,466.67 per CHRW Volunteer.
With the current model, we could put each CHRW student volunteer into the Fanshawe Broadcast Radio program for a year, pay the tuition, and still come out $200 ahead.
Read that last line again. This allocation of funds is not working, and hasn’t been for some time…
Since 2009, multiple Gazette articles have outlined student and USC councillor disapproval of CHRW costs. A read through these articles show a recurring narrative: A raising of concerns, an attempt to modernize the station with $130,000 of equipment or a promise to explore new media ventures, followed then by a lack of delivery. So how do we save CHRW? I’m not sure if anyone wants to, or at least not in its current form.
In the summer of 2012, then USC Vice President Communications Jeremy Santucci (@JSantucci) presented the results of a USC survey to council members (watch 40:00–60:00) (Presentation Slides & Meeting Minutes). The survey polled 6649 students about CHRW and the results were (not) surprising:
- 90.8% have never been involved with CHRW in any way
- 60.9% were not aware of the involvement opportunity
- 40.5% did not know how to get involved
- 76.9% favour a name change to Radio Western
- 77.7% have either never or rarely listened to CHRW
- Music selection is the main motivator of a listener’s station selection
- The majority of listeners are interested in Pop, Top 40, Hip hop, and electronic music genres.
So the station has a marketing issue…
Unfortunately it’s not that simple. CHRW is mandated by the CRTC Campus and Community radio policy, which puts Radio Western in a tricky spot. The CRTC policy limits the playing of more than 10% top 40 music, forbids competition against other radio stations, and mandates at least 35% of all popular music must be Canadian. Yikes. Not only does CHRW have a brand recognition problem, they are literally bound by federal policy not to play the music their primary audience enjoys.
You can only play so much Nickelback before you start losing listeners.
Where do we go from here…
There a few lessons we can learn from other schools. Back in 2009, University of Waterloo nixed their campus radio station when the student body shut down a referendum asking for a $2.50 fee increase to keep the station alive. Chris Neal, vice-president of administration and finance for the Waterloo Student Federation at the time mention the results “were a mix of student apathy and dissatisfaction”. At the same time, executive director of the National Campus and Community Radio Association Kevin Matthews mentioned the lack of radical change to campus radio in the last ten years has led to students no longer understanding campus radio’s purpose. Are any of these things starting to sound strangely familiar?
Despite the similar sentiment to the University of Waterloo station, I’m not condoning CHRW to the graveyard. I truly believe the USC should offer a service to students interested in the production, marketing and distribution of sound. However, it is abundantly clear the current model is neither worth its financial load upon the USC, nor is it in the best interest of the Western student populace who have clearly shown they are as interested in listening to campus broadcast radio as they are to the campus weather sirens.
My official suggestions for CHRW:
- Remove over the air broadcasting, adopting a fully online webcast. Live segments such as sports can still be covered live over the web.
- Focus on storytelling in podcast formats to increase content quality and skills development.
- Merge remaining funding and equipment with Western TV & The Gazette to provide a fully integrated USC media house. Realize that the most successful thing to ever come out of CHRW radio is a video. This should be treated as less a nudge, more a shove in the right direction. If this sounds too far fetched note that Western TV was enveloped into The Gazette just days ago.
At the very least, I’m hoping this essay will entice USC candidates at the executive and senator levels to explore the capital buried within CHRW’s coffers to benefit their own agenda to improve the Western experience. I haven’t been shy with my support of the USC grant system in this essay and I hope it is something each candidate looks to improve and grow over their term. Access to this grant money helps students turn their ideas into realities, a cliche that is rarely achieved as vividly as it is through the grants system.
Have a nice clean elections everyone.
tl;dr: Western students pay over $370,000 to fund a radio station utilized by around 150 students. These funds should be better allocated to areas that provide students more value.