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Lean times ahead for student media

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Student media in Canada could be in trouble; with fewer advertising dollars to go around and a shifting media climate, its future is no longer clear. What is clear though, is that student media must change, or it could cease to exist altogether.

Perhaps one of the most prominent examples of student media in crisis took place on Jan. 28, 2011, when the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) announced that it was revoking the broadcast license for CKLN, the student radio station at Ryerson University in Toronto.

The CRTC's decision was based on the fact that in 2009 CKLN had not met its obligations to the regulatory body during a period of internal strife at the station that culminated in a lockout. During the lockout programming suffered, as did maintenance of the station's transmitter.

While it is an extreme case, CKLN is not alone in feeling the sting of tough times. According to Jared McKetiak, station manager at the University of Manitoba's CJUM (aka UMFM), advertising sales have been declining for several years.

"We've seen a decrease in our advertising revenue steadily over the last five years. The first year we probably saw a decrease of $2,000, then it was $5,000 then $8,000." McKetiak estimates that in the 2011 fiscal year the station's ad revenues could be down by as much as $10,000 compared to last year.

McKetiak says that the decline is because all advertisers (local, national and governmental) are advertising less.

In terms of what to do about the decline, the station manager says that there are hard choices to make. Trimming fat from the budget is a non-starter since the station already runs "pretty lean," and of the people out there still willing to advertise on a campus radio station, many do not fit into the station's ethical mandates: "No big corporations, no big oil conglomerates," says McKetiak.

"You've seen other stations start accepting ads from companies they maybe shouldn't have, you know that's something that we obviously don't want to do. At the end of the day, we want to uphold our programming-mandate more than we want to chase the all-mighty dollar."

In terms of alternate sources of revenue, the station has considered pledge or funding drives, something they dismissed in the past, since it is a big source of revenue for UMFM's downtown neighbours CKUW, the University of Winnipeg's campus radio station.

"The reason we've always steered clear of that is because I know for a fact that [pledge drives] are CKUW's bread and butter," says McKetiak. "Like us, they collect a student levy [ . . . ] but the U of W has a smaller student population, which means that they actually have to raise money."

Radio stations are not the only forms of campus media in trouble; student newspapers have also seen a significant drop in advertising revenue and are having to make some tough choices going forward.

Justin Bell, the managing editor of the University of Alberta's Gateway, says that a lot of student newspapers have hit a "financial wall," due to a reduction in advertising dollars.

As a result, Bell says that the Gateway has decided to go from a twice-weekly publication to one that only puts out one issue a week, and as a direct result, have made the decision to reduce staff hours.

In the case of the Gateway, it wasn't the local ads that disappeared -- in fact, Bell says that the local advertising market has even grown slightly -- but the national ads and ads bought by the U of A's students' union decreased.

In terms of what the Gateway has done up until this point to make up for the lost revenue, Bell says that they have "been cutting back here and there for the last little while, trying to save money, muddling through," but that they eventually realized that "serious cutbacks were in order for us to be able to make it through the next couple of years and become a viable organization, and not just become a year-to-year organization."

Also on the chopping block is the money the paper spends sending employees and volunteers to professional development conferences, such as the Canadian University Press' annual national conference. However, Bell is confident that alternative sources of funding can be found.

"I don't think it will eliminate us from the conferences. The one thing we'll be looking at to make up for it will be fundraising."

The Gateway is also looking at increasing its student levy through a referendum, but this option wasn't on the table this year due to the amount of time it takes to set up and run a proper referendum campaign.

Overall, though, Bell is confident that the problems facing student media are solvable and is confident that the storm can be weathered.

"I've been involved in student journalism for five years. [ . . . ] I think it's a lean time, but I think the 'sky is falling' analogies don't hold true. We've survived worse times and come through stronger."

UMFM's McKetiak is also confident, but a bit more cautious. He feels that alternative sources of funding can be found, but worries that if students don't realize the challenges facing their campus media, and act now, they might not realize what they've lost until it's too late.

"If people don't see the value in [student media], and wise up to the fact that these entities have been here for a long time, these great institutions are going to fall by the wayside."

This article was originally published in the Manitoban.

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