Throughout its history on campus, WKCR has toed an odd line within the University’s governing board system.
Neither a student enterprise nor a club, the radio station exists outside the umbrella of University governing boards, and thus is not in line to receive money from student life funds. Before a plague of monetary problems struck the station, this existence apart from other student groups suited them. But a spate of financial issues, starting in 2001, has decimated the station’s bank account.
The budget crunch prompted the station to seek support through Funding at Columbia University (F@CU)—the undergraduate student councils’ annual process of dividing student life funds between the five governing boards, which, in turn, redistribute the money among the student groups they oversee.
Because of WKCR’s existence outside of the governing boards, F@CU is not obligated to grant the station funding. Despite this, in May 2007, F@CU members made an exception, giving $27,730 toward the station’s $270,000 annual operating costs with the understanding that WKCR would fundraise enough to sustain itself in three to five years through an endowment.
When WKCR renewed its request to F@CU last spring for another $15,415, its request was fulfilled again. But in its award letter, the station also received a note that “the Engineering Student Council has voted that this will be the last year that F@CU funds WKCR.”
“It was not at all an attempt to cut WKCR off,” Lauren Minches, SEAS ’09 and Engineering Student Council vice president intergroup said.
While the public radio station was never a profitable undertaking, WKCR’s finances took the heaviest blow following Sept. 11, 2001, when the station’s transmitter atop the World Trade Center was destroyed. While the station continued broadcasting through a transmitter on Carman Hall roof to a localized tenth of its usual audience, its wider audience was left in silence for two years.
With University help, including the hiring of DJ Ben Young as the only non-student station employee, WKCR returned to the wider airwaves. Yet it still reeled from the loss of its transmitter. Its two-year hiatus meant a smaller donation base and less outside interest in repairing its budget. So to make up for lost ground, the station set out on a series of fundraisers, amassing roughly $750,000 in addition to the money from grants, equipment rental income, and funds from Student Development and Affairs.
Between 2005 and 2006, WKCR’s budget doubled to its current $270,000 when the University left it to pay Young’s salary and the cost of its summer housing—a combined sum of $130,000.
“It’s an issue that WKCR board members have not understood,” Jordan Paul, CC ’08 and the 2007 station manager said. Current Station Manager Morgan Whitcomb, SEAS ’09, added that the University might have interpreted WKCR’s fundraising success as an ability to cover housing and salary costs.
Now, facing a likely end of F@CU funding, WKCR has engaged in talks with council members and the University to seek alternative sources of funding. Despite the obvious benefit of consistent funding that entering into the governing board system would afford, Whitcomb sees this as impractical.
“Is conforming to ABC [Activities Board at Columbia] guidelines worth the $30,000?” she said. “The answer is probably no.”
But F@CU provisions were by no means key to WKCR’s financial plan. The station embarked on an initiative to raise a $4 to $6 million endowment, using the interest to pay for operating costs.
Ben Siegelman, CC ’07 and the 2006 station manager who helped formulate the endowment plan, said he wanted to “come up with some sort of financial plan in which the radio station did not have to rely on on-air fundraising. I was sick of fundraising.”
His board had also discussed some sort of commercial venture, an idea immediately rejected for conflicting with WKCR’s philosophy as an independent radio station.
“We could have commercials, but then we’d have commercials,” Whitcomb said flatly, “and that’s not art.”