Money is so tight at Auckland student radio station 95bFM that paper towels have been off the shopping list and the new station manager had to fix the toilet seat.
But despite the six-figure debt, manager Tom Tremewan reckons he’s inherited a ferrari not a financial crisis.
“I’ve been around student media a long time, specifically student radio, so inheriting something of this scope was a true privilege and I was excited just to get stuck in,” he says.
Since taking over four months ago, Tremewan has overseen a big sell-off of the radio station’s vinyl record collection and plans for a fundraising concert in December in an effort to clear the debt.
Today, Tremewan takes The Detail on a tour of the radio station at the top of Auckland University’s student union building and outlines the problems that led to 95bFM’s losses, including enforced staffing restrictions during the pandemic, a handful of natural disasters in Auckland, and an economic slowdown.
Inside 95bFM, also called simply ‘bFM’ or, affectionately, ‘B’, it is a throwback to radio days of the ’80s with stacks of compact discs and cassettes that are still in use, well-worn couches and a well-used coffee machine. It runs on a mix of keen volunteers and paid staff, with funding from NZ On Air, philanthropists, advertisers and a membership programme.
But Tremewan says income has been hit hard by Parliament changing student union membership from compulsory to voluntary more than 10 years ago.
“Our operational costs over the years have steadily increased and as we try to replace the old couches with new couches – we don’t have the new couches – the costs become significant,” he says.
“We all thought that radio was the media cockroach that would survive the apocalypse but commercial revenues have been falling for over 20 years now.”
Radio listenership is stable at around 40,000, and more listen through the website, but Tremewan admits that he doesn’t know exact numbers because bFM can’t afford to be part of the Radio Broadcasters Association’s GfK radio ratings survey.
Without the numbers and the makeup of the audience, advertisers are difficult to secure, says chief executive of the association Alistair Jamison.
“A lot of the bigger advertisers are using reach-based data, audience data, and unfortunately for B that doesn’t always show a benefit or a growth. They’re targeting a specific audience but when you just want mass, sometimes it just doesn’t make it onto a schedule.”
Student radio like the rest of the industry faces declining and ageing listenership, the rise of streaming and so-called ‘non-linear’ entertainment, and advertisers spreading their spending across multiple platforms.
95bFM is also under pressure to evolve beyond radio and offer social media, video content, and podcasts on the same or dwindling budgets, Jamison says.
But the industry will not allow bFM to fail, says Jamison, because of its important contribution of young talent on air and behind the scenes.
“The journey for all radio stations is to become fully digital. The point at which that happens – there’s a really old car fleet and a lot of in-car listening still happens, so you’ve got challenges there. There’s all sorts of considerations on what that journey looks like over the next 10 to 15 years rather than immediately.”
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