2SER living beyond its means: Manager Philip Shine

Sydney-wide Community station 2SER has been “living beyond its means” in recent times because of debtors who are not paying their bills to the station, and increased fragmentation of sponsorship income in the Sydney market.

Decreasing income has resulted in staff cuts and a planned programming revamp, which has been unpopular with many of its volunteers and stakeholders who expressed their views in a station meeting this week.

This phenomenon is not just isolated to Sydney. Around the country other older generalist community stations are also in the process of reinventing themselves to face markets that are very different from when they began more than 25 years ago.

This inevitable process of reinvention, which is not proving an easy task for 2SER, is one of the reasons for the ABA’s increased scrutiny of community radio licences through the new Form 66 requirement at licence renewal time.

2SER’s Manager Philip Shine spoke to radioinfo about the station’s current difficulties:

radioinfo: There are all sorts of rumours about your station. What’s really happening?

Shine: I’ve heard rumours like we will be going to an all music format or to some commercial sound and none of that is true!

We do have a money problem. People owe us money and our ongoing income streams are under threat from changes in the market. We have a range of funding sources, all of which have been decreasing over the past few years – we are funded by the Universities (Macquarie and UTS), and we also get revenue from airtime sales, leasing of our subcarrier, sponsorship and subscriptions.

The ongoing funding from the Universities has been frozen at the same level since 1996, but of course our costs have continued to rise since then.

We also used to sell transmission facilities on our subcarrier, but that technology has become a thing of the past with the growth of other delivery mechanisms. And to make matters worse, some of the clients we have had, have not paid us for rent of that service.

Sale of airtime is facing the same problems. Now, since you can get foreign radio programming on the internet or pay tv, people no longer need so many non-english broadcasts on radio, so that source of funding is also vulnerable in the long term.

radioinfo: Has FBi made a difference to your sponsorship?

Shine: It’s only anecdotal, we have no hard information on that, but it does seem that we are now sharing a similar income stream with FBi.

radioinfo: How much has that affected you?

Shine: Its impacted on about 50% of the sponsorship revenue we did last year. It’s been an obvious trend to most of us for some time now and we most recently noticed it in our radiothon.

radioinfo: So what are you doing about these problems?

Shine: I have had to act quickly to safeguard the station both immediately and for its long-term viability, so there has been some cost cutting. That’s never popular.

We are looking at making changes to our format from March next year because we will just not have enough staff to support all the programs, particularly talk programs, that we have previously made.

We are in a period of consultation about this at the moment, but we will not compromise the ethos of the radio station with those changes.

radioinfo: How many staff have been cut?

Shine: We have reduced staff by a total of 4.5 positions. One talk producer has been reduced to part time, an IT position has been lost, and our reception and admin positions have been merged.

radioinfo: What will the station sound like after these changes are introduced in March?

Shine: I don’t want to preempt the details, but I think we can assume we will be catering to a slightly older audience so as not to directly compete with triple j and FBi as much as we do now.

The post-triple j audience is not well served here in Sydney. They need something for the stage before going to ABC talks programs, or to their CD and mp3 players, or the internet. This is an audience change that is facing many radio stations.

I guess we would be looking at possibly combining our talks with a selection of music programs which cater to a 35-45 year old core audience.

The problem we face is that, with less money to produce talk shows we have to find other ways getting appropriate talk content. An attractive area to tap into perhaps could be like-minded stations around the world which are available free of charge and offer programs that are in line with our philosophies of social change and social justice.

radioinfo: Will the flagship community radio current affairs drive program, The Wire, be affected by these changes?

Shine: No. We have a commitment to the community radio network and the partners we work with on this program and it will continue. We have a grant that will continue to fund that program.

radioinfo: How will this affect your application for a new licence when it comes around. Will you be seeking to vary the original purpose of your licence?

Shine: It’s not our wish to vary the orignial purpose, in fact we want to get back to that purpose with a refocusing onto our original licence and our owners, the two universities. There are other university broadcasters around that we can tap into for help with this and we can also increase the amount of faculty based programs we do.

For example our media analysis program ‘The Fourth Estate’ will continue because it is based on a more sustainable funding model. It is produced by Mark Robinson who works with academics from both unis to showcase the work and research they do and to get access to expert commentary.

We set up a new model where the university departments also support that program separately from our normal funding allocation. With this model we could do same with law, health, hunmanities, etc. With a refocused slant towards our educational component we will also make more use of symposiums and forums held within the universities.

radioinfo: How long will this situation continue?

Shine: Our future is threatened so I need to provide a realistic model for next year and into the future. We have had to cut back to a bare bones staff structure for now, once we get through this we will seek to rebuild.

I know people are not happy, but as manager I have had to act swiftly on this issue to prevent long term problems.