Commentary | Do you want a radio station or not?

Why opt-outs make a difference for CKUT

CKUT is regularly ranked as the number one or the number two best radio stations in Montreal, according to the Montreal Mirror reader’s poll. It is almost certainly the city’s primary point of contact with McGill, and it’s a huge part of our own community’s public image here. Over the years, thousands of students have picked up skills as programmers, organizers, and journalists by volunteering at the station. Countless student bands have launched their careers over our airwaves.

There’s been some trouble in paradise lately, though. A dizzying amount of misinformation about CKUT has been flying around on the internet lately, and I think a comprehensive explanation of what’s going on is in order. I’ll try to make this as sexy as possible.

The first thing to clarify is that CKUT played no role whatsoever in organizing the occupation of James Admin. In fact, we were taken completely off-guard by it. CKUT supports the right of students to defend their own democratic processes, however, and maintains the validity of the fall referendum results.

We have been negotiating with McGill since December, and those talks have led to an agreement in principle that the admin will recognize that referendum as a validation of our existence. In the upcoming referendum period, we’ll be asking students for permission to change our fee from opt-outable to non-opt-outable, just like the Daily’s or the Trib’s. (Our tentative understanding with the admin is that if we do win, we will be able to offer a refund from our own offices, as per our internal policies.)

MORT BY A THOUSAND CUTS

Opt-outs are historically a student-initiated institution, and it is by no means unprecedented that the opt out-ability of a fee has changed in an existence referendum. CKUT’s fee became opt-outable at the behest of SSMU when we needed council’s approval of our last existence referendum question in March 2006. At that time SSMU assured CKUT that would be able to manage our own opt outs. We won that referendum, but we also entered a period of arduous negotiations with the University, which didn’t end until we finally signed our MOA in December of 2007.

In March of that year, with no warning hitherto, the admin demanded that we abruptly stop calling ourselves “CKUT Radio McGill.” After much back and forth, CKUT reluctantly agreed to drop McGill for our name. But it was impossible for us to do this within the timescale they demanded, given that such a decision can only be made by a resolution at our annual general meeting. They consequently decided to withhold our student fees for the third time in the previous six years to pressure us into signing an MoA on their terms. This past fall, over 130 other student clubs and services have gone through a similar name-changing rigmarole. (I’ve looked into this quite a bit, and still don’t fully comprehend the admin’s justification for all this.)

Our situation went from half-Nelson to full-Nelson in September of 2007 when the Minerva system was suddenly imposed upon CKUT, QPIRG, Queer McGill, Nightline, the Union for Gender Empowerment, Midnight Kitchen, and TV McGill.

Student backlash against Minerva was overwhelming. At the Fall 2007 General Assembly, students voted overwhelmingly in opposition to the system, and a similar question was passed through referendum the following semester.

Throughout the previous year and a half during which we had been trying to negotiate our MoA with the admin, their plans to implement the online opt-out system had never been disclosed. We argued that they had been bargaining in bad faith, but we sorely needed the student fees to keep our heads above the water, so we reluctantly signed the MoA, name-change and all.

90.3 BY THE NUMBERS

Alright, here comes the really sexy stuff.

In that first year, opt-outs knocked $14,000 out of our budget; last year, it was about $27,000. Our total budget last year was about $450,000; of that, $170,000 came from student fees. The rest we raised through our funding drive, advertisements, and grants.

Given the size of our total budget, the $27,000 we lost to opt outs in the last fiscal year may not seem like a lot, but with overhead costs eating up the lion’s share of our budget, it makes the difference between viability and unviability.

Those overhead costs include over $8,000 in mandatory royalties for the music we air; $26,000 to rent our broadcast tower on the top of the mountain; $12,000 for our transmitter; over $44,000 in rent and other fees goes to McGill; and $10,000 goes toward insurance. (Many of these expenses have increased over the years, while our fee has remained at $4 – exactly what it was when we became incorporated in 1988.)

That leaves a series of relatively negligible costs – things like printing or software upkeep – until we get to our largest single expense, which is the $255,000 we pay in salaries to our six full-time workers and two part-timers. (On top of that we have a few non-permanent staff, including two students in McGill’s work study program.)

The annual salary for the average full-time staff member at CKUT is $26,000. After taxes, this would put it closer to $21,000. With kids, which some of them do have, it puts them below the poverty line. There has been no cost of living increase in their earnings since Minerva was set up in 2007, and they work more than fifty hours per week on a regular basis – sometimes as much as eighty. You do the math, and it works out to less than minimum wage. We’ve already cut two full-time positions in the past five years, and meetings have ended in tears when we’ve tried to cut paid labour-hours further than we already have.

The station is suffering tremendously as a result of all this. Some of our most dedicated and talented staff members have quit in recent months, given the overwhelming workload and miniscule remuneration offered by CKUT.

The most important thing to clarify here is that the station is by no means living gluttonously off the fat of student fees. The campus-community radio model, as it is practiced throughout the country, is one that relies on a stable income of student membership fees. Under our license with the CRTC, there are certain grants we can’t apply for. And, so as not to encroach too much on the commercial market, we cannot advertise for more than four minutes per hour. McGill, however, is the only university in the country to implement this kind of opt-out system on their campus radio station.

This situation of decreasing revenues and increasing expenses is unmanageable.

Ultimately, McGill needs to ask itself if it is a community – and a university – that deserves a top-notch local radio station. I do. And I am of the humble belief that virtually any of the thousands of students who have volunteered at CKUT over the years would agree.

Niko Block is an undergraduate representative to the Board of Directors of CKUT. He is also the Daily’s Readers Advocate columnist and former Daily News and Features Editor. The opinions expressed here are his own. He can be reached at niko.block@gmail.com.

A previous version of this article stated that CKUT is regularly ranked as either the first or second most listened-to radio station in this city; rather, CKUT is regularly ranked as the number one or the number two best radio stations in Montreal, according to the Montreal Mirror reader’s poll. The Daily regrets the error. 


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