On the second floor of the Student Union, journalism major Ari Davanelos sits in the office of Stony Brook’s long-running radio station, WUSB. The room is dimly lit, its walls lined with posters of various bands. A tall cabinet is covered with colorful stickers bearing the names and signals of other radio stations.
The room defines the station itself: edgy and eclectic—a personality that has made WUSB widely popular on campus and off.
But despite that popularity, the station is struggling. This year the Undergraduate Student Government cut WUSB’s finances by roughly $9,000, from a budget of $72,000 last year to the station’s current one of $63,000. As recently as the 2009-2010 academic year, WUSB received over $80,000, making the cuts over the past two years total about $25,000.
Davanelos, WUSB’s program director, says the cuts are detrimental to the station’s operations.
“They affect us in a whole slew of ways,” he says. “We already run on a shoestring. Cutting our funding prevents us from doing our job.”
WUSB’s budget is used to pay bills—a $1,000 monthly Verizon phone bill and a $4,500 monthly lease on a transmitter tower. Additionally, the station pays satellite fees and a fee to run its Integrated Service Digital Network line, which is used to broadcast to other stations. And because WUSB uses old equipment, including a 1967 analog board, repairs are frequent and costly, Davanelos says. He adds that deejays sometimes use their own money to replace damaged equipment.
Because WUSB does not advertise, it holds donation drives. Years ago it would receive as much as $55,000 in donations from listeners across the country. But with the slumping economy, Davanelos says, donations have dropped to around $22,000. The station used to put those donated funds towards updating equipment, but now the money is only used to pay the bills the station’s budget cannot cover.
But WUSB is not the only student media group at Stony Brook with a shrinking budget. USG cut about $66,000 from the seven funded student-run media outlets this year. Isobel Breheny-Schafer, Assistant Director for Student Media, says that for the past three years funding to student media groups has dwindled significantly, and many groups have faced problems with USG. In the 2010-2011 academic year, the Statesman, which also relies on advertising revenue, lost almost all of its funding, forcing the paper to limit its publishing from twice a week to once a week. SBU-TV, the campus-wide television station, saw its budget freeze last spring after USG took it over to refurbish it.
Breheny-Schafer says she is worried about whether or not this trend will continue.
“My concern is, if this keeps happening, then there will be no more campus journalism,” she says. “They won’t be able to cover as much campus news.”
Student media groups use their budgets differently than other funded clubs and organizations. Rather than using funds to host events or pay for trips, they use theirs strictly for operational purposes. Print publications such as the Statesman and The Press pay for camera equipment, office supplies and layout software along with printing fees every time they publish. Even online publications have to pay for domain space as well as camera equipment and office supplies.
Broadcast media groups, however, normally require higher budgets because their equipment is more expensive and they are required to pay additional fees in order to broadcast.
USG Treasurer Thomas Kirnbauer says USG did not specifically target student media outlets when forming this year’s budget.
“We do not cut clubs/organizations based on the service they provide to the campus,” he says. “Therefore, to say we are doing so or to ask if media groups will get their budget cut further is completely under false pretenses.”
But many of Breheny-Schafer’s concerns stretch beyond the funding of student media. Many of the groups’ memberships, including SBU-TV, are increasing, but budget cuts mean fewer resources will be available to students so they all can participate and voice their concerns on campus.
The assistant director says she is also concerned about the new financial bylaws, which became effective last semester. Section 118, Subsection 6 of the legislation states that every club and organization must host at least one event on campus each semester that is entirely or partly funded by the Student Activity Fee. In January, the Asian American Journal lost its budget of at least $2,800; on USG’s website Kirnbauer writes that this occurred because the group violated the bylaw. While Breheny-Schafer worries about how this will affect other student media, Kirnbauer says AAJ lost its funding because it didn’t spend any money at all.
“I interpreted the rule very, very loosely,” he says. “As long as the media groups spent some amount of money, I didn’t consider it a violation of the rules.”
But perhaps the most questionable of USG’s actions concerning student media, and the one that troubles Breheny-Schafer, is its acquisition of SBU-TV. Last spring, after SBU-TV allocated for more equipment so it could stream some of its content digitally, USG found that the station’s service was outdated. The organization passed the Reformation of SBU Television Act, acquiring the station and freezing its budget so it could not operate. The act states that USG will restructure the station, but SBU-TV President Andy Mavra says there’s been little process.
“As far as I know there has been little effort by USG in terms of trying to restructure SBU-TV,” Mavra says. “And if there have been efforts they have all been done without discussing it with the currently existing members of the club. As far as I know USG has not used our studios for anything productive or in favor of other students since they kicked us out.”
Mavra, a cinema and cultural studies major, says that any progress with the station’s reformation is thanks to members of SBU-TV. Although the station is technically still recognized as a club and still holds meetings, it has no definitive meeting space, useable budget or access to its equipment. Mavra says more people have expressed interest in helping it regain activity.
“From the time our studios got closed down SBU-TV has made it clear that we are open to the idea of change and want to work with USG to help turn SBU-TV into the more open, student-friendly organization they claimed they wanted,” he says, “But in the year that has passed little to no effort has been done to achieve that.”
“We understand that money is being cut from most clubs, especially in the media department, but our main goal is to simply get the use of our studio and already-owned equipment back,” he adds.
USG President Mark Maloof could not be reached for a comment.
Breheny-Schaefer and Davanelos, say the way USG handles Stony Brook’s student media needs to change. Both agree that USG is potentially preventing students from developing crucial job skills. Many Stony Brook alumni have gone obtained jobs at well-known, respected news media outlets because of their involvement with student-run media organizations. Scott Higham, once a writer for The Press long before the School of Journalism was established, is now a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter for The Washington Post. Shivana Harriram, the current news director at WUSB, got a job with News 12 because the station knew of the news pieces she aired.
“College is supposed to be a sandbox,” Davanelos says. “It’s supposed to provide you with real-world tools. Stuff like these budget cuts are totally [preventing that].”
The program director suggests that USG may not understand how crucial funding is to the way student media groups operate. “They’re completely ignorant,” Davanelos says. “If they weren’t ignorant, we wouldn’t be in this situation.”
“We provide a valuable service,” he continues, “They’re completely preventing that.”