Why a budget cut will devastate Student Media

In a time where Coronavirus-related measures have resulted in the largest percentage of people unemployed since the Great Recession, and it’s resultant negative impact on tax revenues, I’m making the argument that George Mason University Student Media’s budget should not be cut.

Why?

The short answer is that any significant cut to our budget will significantly, and most likely permanently, reduce student opportunities to express themselves. Given how small our budget is currently and how important our role is to the protection and exercise of students’ First Amendment rights, the University should make every effort to maintain our budget.

Our budget is a tiny fraction (0.046%) of the University’s $1.25 billion overall budget. Our actual cost to the University is actually less since 13.4% of our revenue is self-generated through activities like advertising and services.

Looking at our revenue over the past fourteen years (Figure 1 below), our overall revenue is lower now than it was fourteen years ago. Think of how many things have gone up in price since 2007. Wages have gone up. For example, the Federal Minimum Wage went up to $7.25/hr in 2009. And it’s going up to $9.50/hr in Virginia next year. Printing costs have gone up. Web hosting costs have gone up.

Revenue Chart

Figure 1: Revenue per category FY07 – FY20

It’s also important to look up what makes up revenue. The biggest part of our revenue is the student fee transfer. The second biggest part is self generated revenue. As I mentioned above, self generated revenue is things like newspaper advertising, production services, journal submission fees and subscriptions. Unfortunately, since the Great Recession of 2007 – 2009, self generated revenue has been consistently trending downward. See the red line (third from the top) in Figure 1.

I’ve heard some administrators say that if Student Media needs more money, they should make more self generated revenue. This is pretty much out of our control. Unless you are Google, pretty much no one is making as much in advertising as they used to. I’d like to see those same administrators buck macro-economic trends. If you need more graduate students …

To be fair, the University was initially willing to invest in Student Media. However, there was a change in administration and the new regime took a hatchet to our student fee revenue, cutting it back to pre-2012 levels.

Student Fee Revenue Chart

Figure 2: Student Fee Revenue FY07 – FY 20

You can see the results of what I call the double-whammy, the student fee cuts and decline in advertising sales, in Figure 3 below.

Spending Chart

Spending per category FY07 – FY20

In those fourteen years, we’ve cut the number of copies of the newspaper we print by a third and the number of literary journals we print by over 50%. Entire groups have disappeared, including Connect2Mason, an award-winning news website, and GMView, the yearbook (although lack of participation played a bigger role in killing the yearbook).

You might notice that the “Admin” line has grown. At first blush this may appear to be “administrative bloat“, but it’s not. First, the only part of our budget that has grown is professional staff salary, and only because it is mandated by the Commonwealth of Virginia as a “cost of living adjustment” (remember things cost more than fourteen years ago). Second, a lot of functions were centralized in an attempt to boost efficiency – functions like the advertising sales staff, web hosting and publication distribution.

Also, the University brought in high-priced consultants to look at staffing levels. They looked at the number of students we serve and what our peers spend on student media and concluded that we needed to be doubled in size immediately. Of course, no action was taken on that particular recommendation.

This shrinking of the amount we spend on student is something that bothers me greatly. We need to serve the students. It’s right there in the name, Student Media.

Any budget cuts fall disproportionately on the students since professional staff costs are essentially fixed.

At this point, after absorbing over a decade’s worth of cuts, there’s no more fat left to cut. If you’re only printing a few hundred copies of a journal, how much more can you cut before you have nothing? The most likely outcome of significant cuts is our smaller groups that have little to no self-generated revenue ceasing to exist, groups like Hispanic Culture Review, a Spanish-English journal covering Hispanic culture, and So to Speak, a journal covering feminist topics.

I would hate to stop supporting diverse voices, at a time where we need it more than ever.

I would hope that the University would find a few dollars (our budget isĀ 0.046% remember, relative pocket change) somewhere to spare us deep cuts.

Unfortunately, it’s probably naive of me to thing that our University will suddenly start supporting us considering they didn’t when times where better. George Mason University record in protecting first amendment rights like freedom of the press or freedom of speech has not been spotless either.

WordPress Plugins: Too Much of a Good Thing?

I’ve been very busy lately, which is why it has been some time since I’ve last posted anything. One area of my job that sucks a lot of time is maintaining onMason, the WordPress-based platform on which this blog runs.

onMason recently celebrated it’s tenth anniversary, which means onMason is very, very old in tech years.

One of the things I’ve been trying to do is update the PHP, the programming language WordPress is written in, to version 7.3. WordPress itself is ready for this upgrade. In fact, they display a very misleading “PHP Update is Required” warning in the Dashboard if you are running anything but PHP 7.3.

However, many of the plugins (and themes) we use on the site will not run or run poorly with PHP 7.3. For example, the report generated by the PHP Compatibility Checker plugin is an imposing 161 pages long.

So why is upgrading such an ordeal? It’s because of a mistake we made when we created onMason back in 2009 – we decided that we would basically install any plugins (or themes) our users asked for. Over the next ten years, we installed no less than 160 plugins. We were even less selective with themes, with nearly 200 installed over the same period. So what’s the problem with that? After all, plugins (and themes) add functionality not included with WordPress and who doesn’t want more features?

The problem is that plugins are not maintained as well as the WordPress core, typically only for a few years. Sometimes the author loses interest in the plugin, or sometimes they tragically pass away. Unfortunately, it just isn’t in the WordPress community’s DNA to adopt an abandoned plugin, no matter how popular it once was. It is also rare that a plugin will import another plugin’s data and settings. Occasionally, a plugin won’t even import data and settings from an older version of itself.

Over the years, I’ve managed to slim down the number of the number of plugins and themes to around 80 and 130 respectively. If I’m lucky, the plugin functionality gets integrated into the WordPress core and I no longer need the plugin. Sometimes the plugin relied on a web service that shut down (e.g., del.icio.us). But most of the time, I effectively become the maintainer for dozens of abandoned plugins and themes.

Is it worth it to maintain a plugin for one or two users? Is it worth it to have plugins to support features that have fallen out of favor (like tag clouds)? Is it worth it to support advanced features (like podcasts) when many users may want to use it, but probably never will?

For years, I’ve known how many sites use each plugin. However, what I didn’t know was how many people actually used the plugin. It was shocking to learn that around 70-80% of people who activate a plugin, never actually use it. I can tell since many plugins require users to configure something – completing a wizard, entering an API key, etc. If these steps were never completed, the plugin was obviously never used. In one example (Smart YouTube Pro), a plugin was active on 30 sites, but not a single user actually used it.

Due to health reasons, I no longer have the time to maintain all these abandoned plugins and themes. I’ve come to the bitter conclusion that it’s best to run as close to a stock WordPress instance as possible. It’s the only way we can maintain a secure and high performing service with the resources we currently have. So, in the future, you’ll see a lot less options for additional plugins and themes – and that is a good thing.

Progress

Box full of audio cables

Box full of completed cables for the WGMU Production Studio

It may not look like much, but that box full of cables represents several days worth of work.

Unfortunately, the necessary cables never come in the box when it comes to pro-grade audio equipment – you have to make them yourself.

Part of the problem is that there are so many different types of connectors for audio equipments, including XLR, RCA, 1/4″ phone, 3.5mm mini-jack, etc – the list goes on. Also, every studio is different, so you never know what length you’re going to need. For our Logitek AE-32 Audio Engine, I had to create cables that go from DB25 to XLR, RCA or terminal block with lengths ranging from 6 feet to 18 feet.

It takes time to measure, cut, solder, test and label* each wire. A couple of things slowed me down.

First, I don’t have a dedicated workbench so I have to set up everything each time I work. After hauling out all my tools and warming up the soldering gun, 30 minutes pass without actually accomplishing any real work.

Second, I use lead-free solder that has a melting point of 422.6 degrees Fahrenheit, which is a good 50 degrees higher than 60/40 tin/lead solder. That makes it more difficult to work with since you have to wait longer for everything to heat up (unless you like cold-solder joints). Of course, you’ll become infertile after being exposed to lead, so lead-free solder does have some benefits.

These factors combine to make it necessary to have a full hour of uninterrupted work time in order for me to complete anything. Unfortunately, I rarely have an hour when I’m not interrupted so needless to say, the Production Studio upgrade has gone very slowly.

* It is important to label each wire. It may not seem important at first, and if you never ever repair, replace or add any equipment to your studio (yeah, right), you might be able to get away with it. However, without labels and documentation, repairs, upgrades and additions become very difficult – tracing connections is no fun. I guarantee, you will not remember how you hooked things up a year from now and it may not even be you who does the repair, upgrade or addition.

Patch Chart Screenshot

I keep very copious notes about where every single conductor goes. This makes repairs, upgrades and additions easier.

Rise of the Machines

Epson Discproducer PP-50

Our DVD duplication “factory” – an Epson Discproducer PP-50 with a Dell Ultra Small Form Factor computer.

It’s no secret that “traditional” college media, like newspapers and yearbooks, are struggling financially these days. Our yearbook, GM View, is no different. It happened slowly, but our yearbook sales have eroded to the point that producing a yearbook is becoming a serious financial burden.

Honestly, I’ve never understood why our yearbook doesn’t sell better. It’s a great way to remember one’s time at Mason, doesn’t cost a lot (at less than $50) and even comes with a companion DVD. I can only guess that most students aren’t aware that we have a yearbook.

Several other universities have discontinued their yearbooks because of rising costs and sagging sales, but I didn’t want the same fate for our yearbook since it is one of the few student publications, along with Broadside and Phoebe, that existed before George Mason University became an independent university in 1972. After all these years, not having a yearbook just seems wrong.

Since I have limited control over marketing, I focused on the areas where I could make a difference – technology.

One of the areas I quickly identified was the cost of DVD duplication. In previous years, we contracted out duplication, paying around $2.50 per DVD. Additionally, we were spending $1.24 for packaging on top of that. Nearly $4 per DVD seemed expensive to me. And I’m not even including shipping costs or the cost of the labor it took to assemble everything when it came in.

We had tried DVD duplication in-house before. Gunston Hall asked us for 125 copies of our George Mason documentary (a CBI 2014 finalist for Best Documentary) on DVD. We were unable to contract this job out because of the tight turn-around time. So, I set up 10 laptop computers and, with the assistance of our front desk staff, began burning DVDs. We printed labels out on stickers and applied them to the DVDs. It took us two very labor-intensive days to finish the job and the results were so-so. This is clearly not the way to go.

After that, I started looking into purchasing a DVD duplicating machine. They aren’t terribly expensive and they eliminate virtually all the labor necessary in creating a DVD. No need to load each disc or apply stickers. After some research, we ended up purchasing an Epson Discproducer PP-50 for a little more than $1,800.

For the 2013-2014 GM View yearbook, we also made a change in packaging. In previous years, we shipped the DVD in a separate keep case. In my opinion, this made it seem like the DVD was a separate product instead of a companion to the yearbook. This year, we included the DVD in a sleeve on the inside front cover of the yearbook. Not only does this make the DVD truly a part of the yearbook, it saves us quite a bit in packaging cost, and is lighter and cheaper to ship to boot.

Bottom line, the yearbook DVD, including packaging, now costs around $1.25. With a savings of around $2.50 per DVD, we should have the machine paid off in two to three years, assuming we don’t take any other duplicating jobs (which I’d very much like to do). And the results look great. I feel that we have cut costs without sacrificing quality.

Hopefully, with the other changes we made, including opening the yearbook up to all students (not just seniors) and accepting orders online, GM view will be around for years to come.

Here’s a video of the Epson Discproducer PP-50 at work:

Convergence Area

Upgraded Convergence area with new meeting tables.

Upgraded Convergence area with new meeting tables.

This really isn’t a post about technology. However, if you’ve read some of my previous posts, you might notice that I pay attention to how people interact the equipment and their workspaces.

During 2008-2010, when my Director, Kathryn Mangus, and I were planning our space in The Hub (back then SUB 2), we both whole-heartedly agreed on the need for the Student Media groups to “converge.” More than simply sharing the same office suite, we wanted each of the groups to constantly work together and build on each other’s strengths.

For example, the newspaper could work with the radio station and cable television station on news shows. This didn’t mean that the newspaper would simply produce shows that would air on the stations, but rather the newspaper would provide the reporting expertise and the radio and television stations would provide the audio and video expertise (respectively). It would truly be a joint production.

To create a space to support this ideal, we planned to have the newspaper, radio station and cable television station surround a “convergence” area in the middle of the office. Each group would have their own space, but they could meet in the middle (literally and figuratively) to collaborate.

When we finally moved into our new space in February of 2011, we were shocked to find that our collaboration area consisted of a series of small cubicles. I think the designers were going for some sort of open plan office space, but it really didn’t meet our needs. I don’t see how you’re going to foster conversation by placing people in cramped and awkward cubicles, instead of, say, meeting tables. What is even more baffling is that we even discussed putting meeting tables in that space. Something definitely got lost in the translation.

Unfortunately, there was anything we could do to fix the problem at the time since there wasn’t any money left – there wasn’t even enough money to finish furnishing all of the offices.

Over the last couple of years, we tried to use the space for a variety on things like overflow space for newspaper editors and radio camp. However, nothing really worked out (it’s too small) and it seemed like wasted space.

Luckily, at the end of last fiscal year, we had a little bit of money left – enough money to buy some meeting tables to replace the cubicles.

I decided to pull apart the cubicles myself to save money. I’ve done it before – it’s really not that difficult. The cubicles are modular and come apart with a minimum of tools. All you really need are a pair of pliers, a rubber hammer and a screwdriver. I managed to do everything in around 8 hours. The most time-consuming part was re-routing all the network cables though the furniture.

While convergence is still a work in progress, we finally have a space that matches our initial vision.

Original configuration of the Convergence area, with many small cubicles.

Original configuration of the Convergence area, with many small cubicles.

Convergence area with cubicles removed (the Ethernet wiring on the ground used to run through the cubicles).

Convergence area with cubicles removed (the Ethernet wiring on the ground used to run through the cubicles).

Convergence area with the Ethernet wires nicely tucked back into the remaining cubicles.

Convergence area with the Ethernet wires nicely tucked back into the remaining cubicles.

Another view of the upgraded Convergence area.

Another view of the upgraded Convergence area.

Production Studio Upgrade – Patch Panel

Patch panel installed underneath the table.

Patch panel installed underneath the table.

It has been a lot longer than I’d like since I last worked on the Production Studio. Unfortunately, Student Media had a lot of staff leave in the last year and a half and I had to pick up a lot of their responsibilities. Luckily, we hired two new full time staff members at the end of the Spring semester. Once they are up to speed, hopefully I can turn my attention back to neglected projects like the Production Studio.

I made a lot of progress this week. I wired up an Ethernet patch panel to replace the 66 block we currently use. No, our new system isn’t IP-Audio based – it is a mix of analog and serial digital (AES/EBU, S/PDIF). I decided to use Ethernet since both parts and tools are plentiful and cheap. I could have used a 110 block instead of a patch panel, but there is a certain appeal to being able to change a connection down the road without a punchdown tool.

66 Block in the Production Studio

66 Block in the Production Studio

While we won’t need a punchdown tool in the future, I sure needed one this week while wiring up the patch panel. A spreadsheet we created to document the wiring takes two pages when printed out. The version of the Logitek AE-32 engine we has DB-25 outputs, so I had to wire four serial cables into the patch panel. Luckily, RS232 and Cat 5/6 use similar gauge wire (around 24 gauge).

Ethernet patch panel wired to serial cables.

Serial cables wired to Ethernet patch panel.

Serial cables plugged into the Production Studio Logitek AE-32.

Serial cables plugged into the Production Studio Logitek AE-32.

Since I split the equipment into two racks, I will have to pass a lot of cables through the table. The three small existing holes are not enough to accommodate all the cables. So, I drilled a new 3″ hole in the table. Unfortunately, the grommet I bought for the hole is 80mm, which is slightly larger than 3″ and I couldn’t get it to fit. Looks like I need to find a file.

Yet another hole in the Production Studio table.

Yet another hole in the Production Studio table.

Another reason I will need more space for cables is that most of the equipment was plugged into the nearest power outlet, often without a surge protector. I think this contributed to the ground loop hum problem in the studio. I plan to plug all the equipment into our Furman PL-8c power conditioner, which means I have to route all the power cables to one location.

Next, I will have to fabricate wires between the patch panel and the equipment. That’s a lot of soldering that will probably take several days to complete. Hopefully, WGMU won’t have to wait another 8 months until I have free time in my schedule.

Practice Studio – New Tally Light

With the new "In Use" tally light, you can see when the studio is in use without opening the door.

With the new “In Use” tally light, you can see when the studio is in use without opening the door.

Students using the Practice Studio frequently run over their scheduled time. Also, for some strange reason, many students will close (and lock!) the door of the studio when they leave, even though they know other people will be using the studio after them.

Since our Practice Studio doesn’t have any windows and has a soundproof door (STC 45), the students coming in for the next slot never really know if anyone is in the studio. Often, they will be waiting outside of an empty room, afraid of interrupting someone’s recording. This also makes them run over their time, creating a domino effect.

To fix this problem, we installed an On-Air tally light. The tally light illuminates anytime the microphone is on. Our light actually says “In Use” since the Practice Studio is not used for broadcasting.

The light itself, a Sandies Model 343, isn’t expensive at around $80. However, installing the light wasn’t cheap – Facilities charged us $350. Part of the problem might have been that this is an unusual job for them. In fact, they asked me to wire up the low-voltage (DC) side of the relay, which I did.

In the end though, I think the cost is worth it since this should lead to higher utilization of the space, less waste of the students’ time and less interrupted recordings.

Production Studio Update – Relocating Mic 1

Mic 1 has been relocated from the left side of the board to a center position behind the board.

Mic 1 has been relocated from the left side of the board to a center position behind the board.

Today, I spent time tweaking the “feng shui” of the Production Studio.

If you look at the picture of the Production Studio in my blog post on November 23rd, you’ll notice that the OC White mic arm is mounted to the left of the console and the mic hangs near the rear of the console. In use, this is as awkward as it looks – you have to lean over the console to speak into the mic. So I centered the mic arm behind the console and put it on a riser that I salvaged from the Practice Studio. For good measure, I greased all the joints to silence any squeaks and adjusted the tension on the arm so it no longer snaps back. Now the mic hangs directly in front of the console and can be easily swung away without making any noise.

As an added bonus, with the mic arm out of the way, I could move the equipment rack closer to the console.

I also replaced the 17″ CRT monitor with a 17″ LCD monitor, which allowed me to move the computer closer to the console as well. This puts everything within easy reach of the user.

Finally, I replaced the old chair with two newer chairs from Surplus (so they didn’t cost us anything). The old chair squeaked, was missing an armrest and had a rip in the seat. Even though the new chairs were from Surplus, they are in great shape although I had to repair a broken back adjustment lever on one of the chairs.

Old Production Studio chair with missing armrest and torn seat

Old Production Studio chair with missing armrest and torn seat

Production Studio Upgrade – New Racks

Our ancient metal rack has been replaced by two racks, a particle board rack on the table and a brand new metal rack underneath.

Our ancient metal rack has been replaced by two racks, a particle board rack on the table and a brand new metal rack underneath.

After completing the upgrade of the Practice Studio, I am turning my attention to upgrading WGMU Radio’s Production Studio on the ground floor of the Johnson Center. I originally wanted to complete this project over the summer, but our Business Manager suddenly retired in April, and I inherited his duties due to my previous stint as Business Manager back in 2001. Needless to say, absorbing an additional 0.5 FTE worth of work is tough.

The console in the Production Studio, ATI Vanguard, is a virtual twin of the one that was in the practice studio, except that it is slightly newer (early 80’s vintage) and has a set of four cart machine controls on the front. At around 30 years old, this piece of equipment is older than most students that use it. I can’t fault the console’s durability, but it is functionally obsolete, so it has to go. Luckily, the same employee of the Associate Press who donated equipment for our Practice Studio also donated a second Logitek AE-32 Audio Engine and Remora control surface for use in the Production Studio.

Overall, the Production Studio is a mess. Whoever set it up initially knew what they were doing. Unfortunately, all their handwritten labels on the 66 block faded away a long time ago and numerous people since then have installed various unlabeled and undocumented hacks. My favorite is the “poor man’s mix-minus bus”. Since the Vanguard doesn’t have a min-minus bus installed standard, someone kind of made one by tapping into the Mic 1 pre-amp output and connecting it to the Telos Zephyr ISDN codec. This does work although it drops the output of Mic 1, which makes it more difficult to balance it with Mic 2.

Other issues include both mics wired out of phase, the 3.5mm computer connection swaps the left and right channel and the shield pin isn’t connected in many XLR jacks – probably a clumsy attempt to fix a ground loop hum issue.

The first step in the studio upgrade is to install all the equipment we purchased over the summer into the equipment racks. Originally, we tried to install the equipment in our ancient gray metal rack, but after Rodger Smith asked that we move the Comrex Hotline to the Production Studio in order to handle Women’s Basketball broadcasts, we didn’t have enough space (even after ditching the old Technics compact cassette deck).

Our ancient gray metal rack.

Our ancient gray metal rack.

That is just as well since we had trouble screwing in the equipment into our ancient gray metal rack because the threads were rusted. Also, true story, back when it was new (World War II?), the rack was actually black and when it begun to rust, someone decided to paint it gray. Why? I assume that gray paint was on sale at the time. Repainting would have been perfectly OK if they sanded off the rust first and smoothed out the paint, but they just sprayed over the mess and called it a day. That is what gives the rack its wonderful mottled appearance.

Rust collecting at the bottom of our ancient gray metal rack.

Rust collecting at the bottom of our ancient gray metal rack.

I made the decision to use two medium size racks instead of one gigantic rack, primarily because I didn’t think the table could handle the weight, and because it would be tough to reach the equipment at the top of the rack from a sitting position.

The upper rack is the particle board rack from the Practice Studio. It was too big for the Practice Studio, but just right for the Production Studio. I gave it a good cleaning and added felt strips on the bottom so it can slide around on the desk without scraping it up. The equipment in the upper rack is (from top to bottom): Furman PL-8 C Power Conditioner*, Aphex Distribution Amp (which I would have removed if I actually knew what was patched through it), Alesis RS300 Amplifier, Comrex Hotline POTS Codec, Telos Zephyr ISDN Codec, Numark CDN450 Dual CD Player*, Rolls RA62c Headphone Amplifier* and Benchmark System 1000.
* New Equipment

The lower rack is a brand-new Samson SRK12 rack. The Samson is a great rack for the money. It is completely steel, includes casters and has both US and European threads. The gauge of the steel isn’t as thick as our ancient gray metal rack, but not bad overall. I put the Logitek AE-32 Audio Engine and Benchmark PS202 Power Supply in the lower rack since neither piece of equipment has any front controls.

Practice Studio Upgrade

Early in 2011, when the Office of Student Media was planning their new location in The Hub, they carved out space for an Audio Studio for students to use in creating pre-recorded radio shows, podcasts and other recordings.

Unfortunately, due to budget constraints, Student Media was unable to furnish the studio with new equipment. Instead, they had to use 30-year-old equipment transplanted from WGMU Radio’s original studio formerly located in Thompson Hall.

Thanks to a generous donation of equipment by an employee of Associate Press, Student Media was finally able to upgrade the Audio Studio this year. To keep costs low, all studio design and engineering work was performed in-house by David Carroll, Associate Director of Student Media, with assistance from Martin Bonica, WGMU’s on-call audio engineer (a recent graduate), and Cody Racek, WGMU’s current Director of Audio Engineering.

The Audio Studio now features up-to-date digital equipment and purpose-built furniture. It will be used by student staff of all the Student Media groups, as well as students in the COMM 148 and COMM 348 radio workshops.