Tag Archives: COVID-19

Enabling Student Media in a Time of Shutdowns and Social Distancing

During the Summer, we had lots of discussions internally about how student media could continue without our students having access to the spaces and equipment that they use on a daily basis. It took some serious effort, but we devised ways to continue operations in spite of the challenges posed by building closures, social distancing requirements and massive hits to our budget.

I’m very proud of how we managed to substantially transform our operations. It is a testament to the flexibility and ingenuity of both professional staff and students. Unfortunately, this amazing achievement has gone unnoticed by our administration and others.

I am going to share some of the details on what we did.

I first began looking into ways of increasing remote work after suffering a health scare in July 2019 . That way I could continue working if my health deteriorated further. I worked with our central IT department to set up VPN (Virtual Private Network), a way to access our internal network from home. VPN has been the linchpin to everything we have done. A silver lining to spending a day in the emergency room and nearly a month off of work.

Mason Cable Network, our television station, started producing 100% remote shows in September. To date, we have produced a dozen remote shows. Most of the shows are produced using vMix’s Call functionality. From a user’s perspective, vMix Call is identical to other video conferencing services like Zoom or WebEx. You just visit a website with a device with a camera (i.e., laptop with webcam, smart phone).

vMix Test Screen Capture

A screen capture from the proof-of-concept test of vMix Call conducted April 2020.

However, the difference is vMix allows you to have all the features of a audio/video mixer, including switching among camera angles, inserting graphic overlays, manually adjusting audio levels, etc. In other words, you can have a full-fledged television show versus the standard grid you get with video conferencing services.

Luckily for us, we already owned vMix. We originally purchased it for instant replay purposes for the sports broadcasts we do for ESPN+. Since Fall sports were postponed, we were able to redeploy vMix for remote broadcasts. The computer with vMix has remained in our office and the technical director connects to it using VPN and VNC (Virtual Network Computing), a way of sharing the desktop of a machine over a network.

We use Zoom as an IFB (Interruptible foldback) to cue talent and general communication purposes.

For WGMU, our radio station, we also use VPN and VNC to control our computer-based radio automation system and upload new songs. Using a radio automation system is nothing new for us – we’ve been using one for years.

However, our workflow primarily revolves around having a DJ in the studio working the console and speaking into a mic.

To enable a 100% remote workflow, I purchased a $23 USB controlled relay off of Amazon and jerry-rigged a way to toggle inputs on the console on and off using the same computer the radio automation software is on.

USB Relay in On Air Studio

USB relay used to remotely turn inputs on our radio console on and off. I’ll permanently mount it when I have a spare moment – which means in a year or two.

Theoretically, a DJ could send audio to the Comrex Access unit in our studio, use the USB relay to control the board remotely and VPN/VNC to control the radio automation software. Normally, we use a portable Comrex Access unit during basketball games to send game audio to the rackmount Comrex Access in our studio. However, the Comrex Access supports a SIP mode, which means we don’t need specialized hardware or software and can use any off-the-shelf VOIP (Voice over IP) software. Comrex (and I) recommend Linphone, a free VOIP software. By using freely available software, we don’t have to worry about each DJ having expensive equipment.

Unfortunately, I say “theoretically” since no DJ has taken us up on the offer to do a completely remote show. Still, we have used the system I jerry-rigged to reset everything after a power outage or a session with a particularly novice DJ.

Since all DJs are currently doing in-person shows, we had to invest in ways to keep them safe. Unfortunately, this has been extremely labor intensive as we have to clean the studios between each show. To manage the increased workload, we’ve had to limit studio sessions to two days a week. We also have to let the studios air out between shows as well (initially one hour, which we later reduced to 30 minutes due to demand). Everyone has to wear gloves and we put disposable mic covers on the pop filters. I wanted to purchase air purifiers for all the studios, but our University’s Environmental Health and Safety Office rejected that as “unnecessary”, even though research has shown Coronavirus is primarily transmitted through droplets in the air and DJ’s are doing shows without masks (albeit alone).

Mic Cover in Practice Studio

Disposable mic cover on a mic in our Practice Studio.

Our literary journals long ago switched to a mostly remote workflow, so they have been the least affected by Coronavirus-related precautions.  Most of our journals use Submittable to accept and manage submissions. Ironically, Phoebe, our oldest literary journal, just launched the Incarcerated Writers Project, which solicits writings from people in prisons and all submissions are mailed in.

Probably the hardest hit of all of our groups has been Fourth Estate, our newspaper. While they continue to regularly post things on their website, they ceased printing a newspaper for financial and logistical reasons. We rely on advertising to support printing our paper and newspaper advertising has all but disappeared. Historically, we have distributed newspaper in racks placed around campus. Who is going to pick up papers out of the racks when the dorms are less than half full and most students are not coming to campus since their classes are online?

I have a feeling that we may never resume printing a paper, which bums me out.

To end on a happy note, I’m proud that GMU Student Media has enabled our students to exercise their first amendment rights in spite of everything going on right now. It certainly hasn’t been easy.

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 is 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.