Commentary  Opt-outs killed the radio star

Opt-outs and editorial independence at CKUT

On March 8, when voting starts on the SSMU referendum question, undergraduate students will have a choice between preserving the quality and editorial independence of CKUT 90.3 FM, a valued campus-community institution, or imperiling its existence. The radio station is asking the student body to vote on whether or not their $4.00 a semester fee will become non-opt-outable.

Students should vote ‘yes’. (Full disclosure: The Daily collaborates with CKUT on a biweekly radio segment.) If CKUT remains opt-outable, and faced with the vagaries of the online opt-out system, it could be difficult for CKUT to maintain its editorial independence. If students start pulling their money from the station because it takes an unpopular stance on controversial issues, it would face a strong incentive to change its coverage. This would compromise CKUT’s ability to cover issues with the frankness and honesty that are integral to good journalism.

This is by no means an unprecedented argument. All public broadcasting relies, to an extent, on the idea that some media should be exempt from the pressures of tailoring coverage to suit the tastes of advertisers and a fickle public. The CBC exists on this assumption. On campus, other publications such as – The Daily and The Tribune – are also non opt-outable in part to maintain their editorial independence.

Moreover, the loss of student fees that CKUT incurs due to opt-outs is bound to cause the quality of CKUT programming to go down in a kind of death by a thousand cuts. As a campus community radio station, under their license from the Canada Radio-television Council (CRTC), their on-air advertising is restricted to four minutes an hour. And the station already has a tight budget – for example, they operate with a threadbare staff: just six full-time and two part-time employees. The full-timers make $26,000 a year, a pittance given the creativity and technical expertise that goes into running a radio station. Much of the rest of the station’s budget is overhead like rent on their radio tower and office space, costs over which the station has no control. CKUT can’t trim around the edges –  big funding cuts could be fatal to their continued presence on campus.

We recognize that CKUT’S $4.00 per semester fee is a greater burden for some students than for others. But CKUT is not changing its current policy of allowing any student to go to their office and request a refund – they wish to take refunds out of the University’s purview to have greater control of their own finances. CKUT doesn’t ask why you want your money back – the process is not intended to embarrass or intimidate anyone.

So vote yes between March 8 and 14, and keep CKUT independent and strong.