Commentary  J-school on a shoestring

Why vote yes to CKUT?

Fittingly, but maddeningly, the conversation surrounding Radio CKUT’s proposed $1 fee increase has amounted to a lot of white noise. Some claim the station is too radical, others that it just isn’t worth the money, since who listens to radio anymore? But those critics are missing the point. The important thing to consider when voting in the referendum this week is that CKUT is effectively McGill’s thriftiest, most efficient faculty, churning out well-trained journalists and technicians on a shoestring budget that would make most of McGill’s bloated departmental Leviathans blush. When you vote ‘yes,’ you’re voting to help a resourceful, underfunded journalism school stay afloat. Sinking CKUT makes no more sense than torpedoing the School of Dentistry, except the School of Dentistry probably costs more to run.

McGill doesn’t have a journalism school, and that’s fine. J-schools are kind of a scam. As most journalists will tell you, the best way to learn journalism is on the fly. And that’s exactly what CKUT lets students and community members do. The dozens of students who volunteer, intern, and work-study at the station every year are getting invaluable hands-on experience, doing interviews, editing audio, and doing live, on-air shows. It’s trial by fire, and it works.

The list of CKUT alumni who have landed high-profile media jobs is a little ridiculous. Adrian Harewood studied Political Science at McGill, but I’ll bet you it wasn’t his grasp of politics or whatever that landed him his current gig anchoring the late-night news at CBC-TV in Ottawa. David Blair, meanwhile, hosted and produced a show at CKUT when he was a McGill student and now does the business segment of the hugely popular Daybreak program on CBC Radio. Stuart Greer was news director and now works in the UK for Global TV. Claire Boucher was an intern and is now FUCKING GRIMES. The list goes on.

The thing is, there is no better journalism training than student media. Nor is there a more cost-effective way of learning a profession. Because it doesn’t need TAs, classrooms, or professors – CKUT only employ five full-time staff – the station is run on a pittance. If you gathered up every penny that CKUT made through student fees last year, you could almost pay two professors their minimum salary, though not quite. To put that in perspective, there are twelve full professors on payroll in the History department, along with eighteen associate profs. And as a History major, I can tell you, most of the students they’re teaching are not flipping their degrees into well-remunerated jobs.

I’ve spent a lot of time in the CKUT office, and the place is held together with spit and glue. Apart from some equipment, without which you could not have a radio station, the place is far more down-at-heel than any other building I’ve seen at McGill. These people are not going on junkets, or buying $10 million microscopes. They’re making student dollars stretch.

And, while CKUT happens to be a very good radio station, it wouldn’t really matter if it were a mediocre one. It’s school: people are learning as they go. If you want to criticize the quality of their programming, show me a couple of papers or lab reports you wrote in first year, and then get back to me.

And, while CKUT happens not to be the exclusive preserve of frothy-mouthed radicals – most of the station’s content is music – it wouldn’t matter if it were. Lots of faculties contain radical professors and students. That’s no reason to starve them of funding.

And maybe you would opt-out of all those radical faculties if you could. Great news! You can still opt-out of CKUT. Voting ‘yes’ in this referendum won’t change that. (Though opting-out is a nasty thing to do.) All it does is allow the rest of us to give an extra couple dollars to support McGill’s incredibly cheap, improbably great, de facto journalism school. If you don’t like that, you don’t like higher education.

Eric Andrew-Gee is a U4 History student and former Daily News and Features editor. He can be reached at