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Student Radio: It’s Here And It Matters

Staff Writer and Exchange Student Sarah Stancombe discusses the importance of student radio to university communities.

Highlighting the importance of student radio has never been more important, as students face the risk of losing key support systems and opportunities in light of financial stress and falling listenership.

I myself have been secretary at Australian Radio Monash (popularly known as Radmon), among other committee positions, after starting my student radio journey at the station in 2021 as a show presenter. I cannot stress enough how important it is for students to get involved in university clubs to enrich their student experience, especially considering the huge price of university degrees. I have probably learnt more during my time at Radmon than I have in some of my classes, certainly when it comes to transferrable skills that will be vital for my future.

On 2 October 2023, Student Youth Network, (commonly known as SYN media) – a not-for-profit based in Melbourne, Australia – released a statement warning that they are “at risk of disappearing” in just six weeks’ time if their funding remains in limbo, and asked for their community’s help in stopping this closure with an emergency fundraiser. For 20 years SYN has been a pillar of student radio in Melbourne, as well as producing content for both TV and online audiences. Born out of a merge between youth radio projects in 2000, SYN is celebrating more than two decades of platforming young people’s voices.

SYN’s cry for help has been met by an outpouring of support and passion in the Melbourne student community, including from Radio Monash, where there is some crossover in people participating in both stations. SYN presenter Max James Taylor writes: “Syn matters to me as it’s a place where young people can learn broadcasting, media skills, and meet new people. I’ve been thoroughly enjoying the short time I’ve been with Syn, hosting, editing and creating shows is something I’ve found very rewarding”. Even those who simply pass through the student stations as visitors often remark on the welcoming environment and many guest presenters or friends of presenters often end up doing their own show.

It’s clear that though video may have killed the radio star, student radio is still forming and being maintained in the 21st century. Other university stations currently up and running in Melbourne include Radio Monash, who celebrated their 50th anniversary in 2022, and Melbourne University’s Radio Fodder. Here at King’s, KCL Radio officially began in 2009.

However, it’s no secret that radio is facing a decline and student radio is bearing this burden too. Radio Monash alumnus Rafal Alumairy has undertaken a huge project of collating research on student radio history, not only in Australia but around the world, to ensure its rich (and sometimes largely undocumented) history is not lost.

At Radmon, we cite 2001 as the year we lost access to semester-by-semester three-month-long broadcasts on 95.7FM. In reality, this had been coming since the late 90s. Radmon shared 95.7FM with Golden Days Radio at this time, with each station broadcasting around half the week each. Citing the year as 2001 is due to the permanent licence application round in 2001. Ultimately Golden Days were the ones who obtained the permanent broadcast licence for the frequency, as they could not come to an agreement with Radio Monash to merge the organisations. There was only one frequency in the area (Waverly) available from the Australian Broadcasting Authority (ABA), and thus with the frequency taken up by Golden Days, Radio Monash went off air. But Radio Monash is an example of one of many stations that persisted despite no longer having access to temporary broadcasts, using an online-only broadcast.

KCL Radio is currently in the same situation, but have been looking into other routes since being established in 2009. President of KCL Radio Tash Bandara explains a situation that sounds similar (albeit a completely different UK system) to what Radmon went through in 2001 – “There are currently three DAB digital multiplexes in London who are under licence from Ofcom – but as we’re late to the party, there is physically no space left on the dial for anyone new in London to join”.

The problem of AM and FM licensing is, for many student radio stations, a funding issue. This is honestly an article on its own. Tash explained that “there is a massive initial setup fee, which could potentially be over £10,000 – and a huge annual maintenance cost too”. It’s hard to imagine any student-run, and sometimes, fully student-funded radio club will ever be able to make that kind of money.

It is clear that SYN have served the student community during a time of closures and uncertainty in the radio space. Stations like SYN are imperative to many young people’s student experience, bringing together life-long friends that students may never have met otherwise.

Student radio may be facing tough times, but the people sustaining it are tougher. These students are passionate about their stations because they have been afforded countless opportunities to broadcast, record, improve their employability and so much more. Not only that, but they attach value and meaning to their stations – the space, and the people involved. Student radio nurtures determined individuals who strive to improve their stations for the next intake of young broadcasters. They are keen to take on leadership roles, have a strong sense of community and maintain individualism through running their own unique shows. Plus, it’s much more than radio at stake.

Contributing to the running of a station and space (often with plenty of expensive equipment involved) teaches young people effective collaboration, leadership, delegating and liaising skills – all things they will use in the future. Being part of a committee improves young peoples’ financial literacy, teaches them how to effectively communicate and run meetings, as well as the importance of handovers and teaching, as students move through these kinds of clubs so quickly in their three to four-year degrees.

Many radio stations are heavily involved in the music scene, and Radio Monash has a recording studio for music artists and producers, containing an abundance of gear that young people may not otherwise have access to or be able to afford. Running a space of this kind involves scheduling rehearsals, maintaining music gear, learning software programs and ensuring the space is kept safe. Furthermore, the rise of podcasts has been breathing new life into radio studios, as they are invaluable locations for recording and editing, and shows broadcast live can get edited and uploaded for on-demand listening.

Ex-President of Radio Monash, Nick Lazzara, reflected on the importance of student radio’s influence on the music scene when young people reach adulthood – “the arts industries are extremely daunting to face when all of a sudden you’re on the same stage as people who have worked their way through the industry for years/decades, and I experienced this first as a musician”. “What student radio does, and plays a vital role in, is taking those who have a talent or a passion (be that a musician, photographer, artist, journalist, wannabe entrepreneur, sports fanatic, I can go on and on), and opening them to a whole world of people who are not only extremely supportive and welcoming but also knowledgeable and supportive and will foster them”, he explains.

To illustrate the importance of student radio, Tash Bandara gives a comprehensive response about his experience: “I have worked for a number of national and commercial radio stations around the UK and Western Europe, which I’ve been incredibly grateful for – but I was only able to get those jobs because I had been able to hone my craft at the independent community level”. It’s clear that opportunities to learn at a grassroots level can lead to career paths in adulthood that one may never have expected to get. On being informed of the situation at SYN, Tash remarks: “It’s tragic to me how student radio is being decimated all around the planet, with the loss of so much talent, originality and experience. Sadly, those who make these decisions just don’t understand the importance of companionship and human connections, which is what student radio is all about”.

Georgie McColm, President of Radio Monash, describes student radio as “a place for young people to have a platform to express themselves”. She explains that “within the hearts of universities is student radio, which is the gateway into creative industries for many young people and students. Without access to these vital communities for young people, it not only limits the creativity of today’s youth but closes the doors to these important spaces where students can build a sense of community. Radio Monash is lucky to have a thriving radio scene flooded with broadcast, musical, creative, technical and journalistic talent from all walks of life, and it wouldn’t have happened without student radio”.

Rohan Kalanje, Tech Director at Radio Monash and incoming Treasurer for 2024, wrote that to him, Radmon is a “continuation of a family legacy”. He reflected on “summers spent tinkering and understanding the intricate systems” at his “grandmother’s elder brother’s radio and watch repair shop in a rural village”. This goes to show how student radio means something completely different to everyone and that everyone brings different perspectives to their stations. On this, I think Rohan speaks for many when he writes that “student radio serves as an unfiltered voice, devoid of the commercial or political necessities that often shape mainstream media narratives”. I believe most student radio stations seek to promote student voices and create unique environments whereby voices that otherwise may not have a place on air, are able to be broadcast live.

On the 24th of October, SYN reported in an Instagram post that they had raised $50,000 AUD, and are hoping to reach $90,000 by 19 November. By reaching this figure they hope it will be enough to “safeguard Syn’s future and… continue to serve [their] fab community and give young people a platform”. The funding of student radio stations can be an article in itself, as they often end up in less-than-harmonious relations with student unions – in Rohan’s words, there are often “strings attached”.

On a lighter note, I seized the opportunity to explore a new radio environment through KCL Radio as a study-abroad student. I was keen to build upon my understanding in as many areas as possible and it has become abundantly clear that the studio radio world has passionate communities everywhere. I certainly owe a lot to my time at Radmon, so it is distressing to think about what the young people at SYN might be going through. The stress of potentially losing their key community, support network or hobby is something no one should have to experience – and so suddenly, too. It has been comforting to see my friends at home in Melbourne supporting SYN, but the fight for student radio is unlikely to be over anytime soon.

On 11 and 12 November, SYN are hosting a “final sprint” in their emergency fundraiser with specialty broadcasts and on 19 November, a mini festival concert at the Evelyn Hotel.

In Rohan Kalanje’s words, “Student and community radio are more than just mediums for information and entertainment; they are vital institutions that shape the communal and cultural fabric of our society.” Perhaps it’s time for those dishing out funding to stop viewing radio as a disappearing technology, and instead, as an enriching megaphone for student voices. Their money is building communities, not just frequencies.

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