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Radio GaGa

Nicola Kean



A New Station Is Born
For the last decade or so, Victoria has been the only University in the country without a student-run radio station. Until two weeks ago, that is, when the Victoria Broadcasting Club was launched on the permanent frequency of 88.3 FM. While getting the VBC on air was a challenge for club members, surviving the competitive radio market in Wellington will most likely be equally as tough. VBC Programme Directors, Kristen Paterson and Matthew Davis – along with Business Director, Doug Tereu – have been the driving force behind getting the station on air. And all for the love of radio. “We’ve been working on this for 18 months and haven’t been paid a cent”, says Paterson. Drawn together by the lack of a student radio station, they formed a club to show student support, in order to receive funding. It now has over 300 members.
While volunteers were plentiful, the funding was not. “VUWSA [currently running annual deficits] said that there was no way they could run it in the same way as Salient – pay all the costs and wages – but there was the possibility that through the [VUWSA] Trust we could get a grant,” says Paterson.
“We thought the VUWSA Trust was going to give us the money a lot earlier, but they kept saying ‘oh, that’s great,but now we want you to prove this, now we want you to prove that”, she says. In the interim, Vice-Chancellor Pat Walsh was approached, who in turn donated $5,000 to get a basic station up and running. “He thought it was fantastic and really wanted to lend his support, so he gave us the seed money we needed to get low budget equipment for a pilot run.
”With a pilot station and a good business plan, the idea was that the Trust would be unable to say no. Just before the station was officially launched, they coughed up just over $27,000 for new equipment for the studio and campus including recording and transmitting equipment, and loudspeakers which would allow students to tune in on campus.”
For Paterson, Davis and Tereu, the hard work to survive in an increasingly competitive radio market has just begun – especially considering that one of their largest rivals is a former Victoria University radio station. But first, some history.
Radio Active emerged as the Victoria University radio station 30 years ago, in 1977. Owned by VUWSA, Active flourished during the ‘80s but encountered financial difficulty in the ‘90s. The combination of a broken transmitter, government deregulation of the radio market and VUWSA’s inability to fund capital expenditure brought the station to the brink of closure.
In mid-1992, DJs arrived at the station’s office one morning only to be refused entry by security guards. The VUWSA Executive, concerned that as much as $40,000 would be needed to make the station commercially viable, had blocked access to the station.
Eventually, an agreement between the Executive and staff – acting under the guise of Radio Active Ltd – was hammered out, with the company purchasing the station and its liabilities from VUWSA for $22,000. The station continued to operate, but was eventually forced to relocate off campus.
From his downtown office, current Radio Active Station Manager, Dave Gibbons, admits that the cause of the rift between Active and VUWSA was due to the inefficient management of the station. “It cost the student’s association a lot at that time, so it was a case of having to shut it down because they could no longer support it. Whether it was bad management or just the youth of the volunteers, I don’t know.”
While Radio Active is no longer exclusively a student radio station, it retains the 89.0 frequency set aside by the Ministry of Economic Development for student purposes. However, despite the use of the frequency coming up for review in 2011, the VBC have no plans to challenge Active’s retention of 89.0. In past attempts to start up a Vic radio station, Davis says, “it seemed to be the first thing that they did was say, ‘right, let’s pinch Active’s frequency.” From then on, they were doomed. It just seemed to be the first stumbling block before they disappeared. I like to think that the reason we succeeded was because we weren’t at all interested in taking over that frequency.”
Paterson believes there is room for the VBC and Active to work in tandem. “At the moment”, she says, “they can take care of the bigger stuff, while we can do more of the smaller bits and pieces.” But if the VBC were to attempt to directly challenge Active – “I think we would lose our smaller ground here and screw up the bigger ground. And there’s not really much point in that.”
Gibbons is slightly defensive about Active’s role as a student radio station. “With Wellington being the size it is, we just felt we needed to widen the reach a bit.” He then adds, “Is there a market for the VBC? There totally is. There’s always going to be a market for somebody, but the radio market is not easy – even for us, it’s not easy.”
“We’ve been working on this for 18 months and haven’t been paid a cent”
He reels off the names of at least eight alternative stations that the VBC will be competing with for listeners and, more importantly, advertising. The VBC’s business plan emphasises the need for financial independence and stability, which will be obtained via advertising. It is estimated that within the first year it could raise $109,257 in advertising sales, increasing to $311,179 by the station’s fifth birthday.
But the Directors are determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past. Their positions are permanent, to ensure that the yearly turnover of students does not affect the finances of the station. The Directors are overseen by a Board of Trustees, who are in charge of hiring and firing, and also allocating VBC grants – taken from the sales profits, after salaries have been paid.
While VUWSA is represented on the Trust board, Paterson says the VBC wasn’t “necessarily striving for independence from them; this came about because they didn’t have the money for it, and that’s fine.” At the same time, such independence is a potential boon to ensure that the VBC does not suffer Active’s fate, along with that of Canterbury University’s station RDU. With the Students’ Association struggling to fund it, the station was sold for $1 to RDU 98.5 FM Ltd, late last year. It was a closed-door decision made with no student consultation.
“You don’t know what each year’s Exec would think of the station or what they would do with it, but [financial independence] ensures that there’s a team of people knowing how to keep the station afloat so that students can benefit from having it.”
At the other end of the city is another potential competitor, at least in terms of listeners. Funded by the Massey Wellington Student’s Association, the Massey University Network Transmission, or MUNT FM – reaching the grand age of four years old – has, until now, been the only Wellington student radio station. Though MUNT is advertisement free and broadcasts music, rather than university specific information – the installation of a new aerial will ensure that MUNT will have the same reach as the VBC.
Certified MUNT-er and former Station Manager, Matt Hall, believes the VBC and MUNT may come to blows. “The target markets are the same and that’s where there’ll be some line of conflict. Vic has more students, but I don’t think we can necessarily stick to our own pool of students.”
However, he says that there is definitely a niche for a second student radio station in the city. “We’ve been running for four years now, and we’ve gained a lot of attention – with zero marketing. So the VBC will come out guns blazing, with a big marketing push. If they can back it up, that’s good, but if they don’t back it up and they have teething problems, then it may or may not work for them. It’s a tough call.”
Davis says the key to the VBC’s strategy is openness and adaptability. “As we’re putting it all together, there are going to be changes. Some things will need to be ironed out. Some things are not going to flow together, and others will.”
“You’ve also got to consider how diverse the student population is,” he continues. “Vic has 20,000 students ranging from 18 years to over 50, and everyone has their own interests.” For such a diverse population, a diverse programming schedule is planned – playing everything from country music to drum and bass, electroclash to metal. But the Directors stress that constructive criticism is welcome and necessary.
What will give the VBC an edge with Vic students is the information and sense of community that the station will bring to the campus. Along with music, the station will feature important announcements from VUWSA, a news team, links with Salient, talkbacks and student-written radio plays. Blaring out to the lifeless Quad at Kelburn, the atrium of the Railway West Wing and your own computer (thanks to the miraculous technology of live streaming) the VBC will help give a sense of community and belonging that is currently lacking in a decentralised and diverse student population.
“That’s the best thing about student radio,” adds Paterson, “you can just give anything a go.”