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The Fridge, The Volume Collective and Contact FM: How the WSU's behaviour now is the same as it always has been.

March 12, 2019

There's been a bit of a happening in our arts scene. And I've decided to make a post to help spread some awareness that this has happened before. And before that too. 

 

Let me begin with my own involvement.

 My own 'In The Fridge' session being recorded late last year and with wonderful guest interviewer 'Kelli From The Tron'. This will be released on the In The Fridge Youtube channel later this year.

 

The Volume Collective is an organisation I was involved in from its inception in 2015 and during the year that followed. At this time, The Volume Collective was making a podcast, organising gigs, recording musicians and experimenting with making occasional Youtube videos free of charge. These were done in various locations including the Arts Fusion (the art gallery on campus). After some months a group of us moved into a house together and pooled our music gear to make a basement recording studio. We had a dream to improve the local music scene of Hamilton, to support local musicians, and especially to encourage students to engage in our local arts communities. 

 

In 2016, I discontinued my involvement due to personal reasons and went overseas - and, in 2016, The Volume Collective seemingly found an opportunity to engage with the student community and encourage them to be active in our music scene.

 

It's important to note that, from this point on, everything I relate is what I know from being a supportive friend to those involved in The Volume Collective. They have not asked me to make this post, I do so as an individual, as a musician, and as a way to support our arts scene. 

 

This opportunity to engage with students was in the form of leasing the space known as 'The Fridge' in 'the Cowshed' of the University of Waikato (UoW). The Fridge has a rich history of supporting our music scene through the efforts of Contact 89FM and Contact 88.1FM. On the walls were the names of bands who had recorded in the space - a tradition which The Volume Collective embraced and continued. 

 

 A panoramic photo of The Fridge taken as The Volume Collective were leaving the space.

 

This seemed like the perfect new home, and with it came more structure and an established format. Drawing on the history of the space, The Volume Collective created the webseries 'In The Fridge' where each week a local Waikato or New Zealand based musician/band would be filmed and recorded, free of charge. Posting these onto Youtube created much needed exposure for many artists.

 

It was a way for the arts community to work together: sound engineers, videographers, photographers, even some business and marketing people came on board. Many were UoW students or ex-UoW students. It was, indeed, a collective enterprise to support our music scene. And what's more, it was all for free. Everyone who invested their time did it free of charge, as volunteers, and as a community. The gear was largely donated.

 

The Volume Collective was registered as a Limited Liability Company but it operated more like a not for profit Trust - so much so that I have continually suggested that they become one. They did take paid recording or sound engineering  work when it was offered and usually this money went straight back into upgrading the recording equipment. 

 

Many students found access to our arts scene through The Fridge, they found community, and they found out that Hamilton is a whole lot cooler than they had previously realised. They learnt from experienced sound or video people and gained their own valuable experience and knowledge which they could add to their CVs. Importantly, they enjoyed the experience and maintained their enthusiasm for their art.

 

Even so, it was not the key into the student community that The Volume Collective had hoped for. There were strict rules about marketing events on campus due to sponsorship commitments the Waikato Student's Union (WSU) had made, gigs organised on campus were somehow double booked or not promoted, and it felt like there was a constant pressure to leave the space. 

 

The Volume Collective were providing a service for the University, and the wider community, free of charge, yet it always felt like their efforts were not appreciated and they were not welcome there. Primarily this feeling came from the WSU's actions and attitude towards them. 

 

Recently it became too much and The Volume Collective have left The Fridge. This is a huge loss for the University of Waikato, for the students, and for our arts community. I am certain that The Volume Collective will continue to support our arts scene in some format or other - but something more powerful has become very clear. 

 

It is clear that the situations and barriers that The Volume Collective faced at the University were not new. When they left the UoW, the arts community rallied to support them and more and more people have revealed that they, too, have had similar experiences and have similar grievances with the WSU. 

 

I reached out to Lauren K. Bell and asked her to share some of her own experiences from working within Contact 88.1FM at The University of Waikato campus. She wrote the following article detailing her experiences.

My history with Contact 88.1FM
Involved between 2007-2014
Lauren K. Bell

 

I went to a ton of gigs in the 2000s, something I still love doing. Through these gigs, I got to meet other people who had a shared love for independent music (for lack of a better term), and through a few of these people, I became involved with the University of Waikato’s student radio station Contact 88.1FM, which operated from 2003 to 2014. We loved producing radio shows and organising gigs. Everyone within our small music and arts scene worked together to help make Hamilton a more vibrant place. We built friendships with national promoters helping them bring bands into Hamilton and in turn those promoters helped Hamilton bands when they played their city. We were part of a network that extended far beyond our little city - we were part of a network that supported our national music industry.


We were the type of people to organise events in the CBD and on campus, something different, something a little more unique for the city. We were the people who offered our couches to touring bands and provided a free feed, so that they would come back and tour our way again. And as it turns out some of us are still in the music/arts industry, except now we do it for paid employment or in our spare time. 


All of us dedicated so many hours, a ton… we often joked that we lived at Contact studios. Other stations had paid staff members, but we only had us, all voluntary and all unpaid. I have so many good memories, but with it also comes with some I’d rather forget. 
I would love to say that there was always feeling of support on campus from the powers that be. I would love to say that there wasn’t a constant feeling of undermining towards Contact 88.1 FM, that we could have stayed away or at least not even be on the radar of WSU politics, that it wasn’t a battle. But it was. 


At first I couldn’t quite work out what was going on with Contact’s history with WSU. Radio Contact started in 1978, later becoming Contact 89FM in the mid-1980s. I had only heard about issues from former Contact 89FM members and what they dealt with during the station’s sale and closure by WSU in 1998. I also knew that those former members cared enough about having a station on campus to dedicate time and money to build what was to become the new, independently run Contact 88.1FM, run by the Independent Broadcasting Community Hamilton.   


Many of committee members I had the pleasure of working with at Contact FM did everything in our power to try and get along and work with everyone on campus.. We wanted a clean slate from the political issues of Contact 89FM. Rather naively, all I wanted was a fantastic arts culture on campus, in our city and to put on gigs.


But a several conversations later led me to believe this was going to be a harder to achieve than I thought for Contact 88.1FM.  I started to realise very quickly that new Contact FM was likely to get caught up many of the same political issues as its predecessor, whether we liked it or not. 
I learnt how much corporate sponsorship dictated what type of events were held or promoted during O Week (that is for another article!). I learnt how when you care and love doing something so much, you can easily ignore subversive or side comments made about committee members or the station itself …..until the day you can’t. 


You see we had endured comments from various WSU members and staff for years… 
- that we weren’t commercial enough 

(FYI - a lot of the bands you hear on commercial radio today, Contact broke locally…. Arcade Fire, Queens of the Stone Age, hell, even The Weeknd played on Contact before anywhere else in Hamilton)

- that our music sucked

- that we were living in the identity of student radio past

- that no one listens to us because they listen The Edge 

- that we didn’t have a product that people would want to listen too

- that the beanie, Doc Marten type of alt culture was “out” with students (this was a personal favourite, guess what some of us wore)

- that we should just change our format completely

- that we should become more like what they wanted, their vision and not what Contact was established on to be - an alternative to the mainstream for student culture…

 

We heard it all.  

 

We were told our committee didn’t have students or enough. FYI again - approximately 27 members out of 35 were students or Wintec/UoW staff. Of those who weren’t, most were former UoW students and had amazing skills for running a radio station. 

 

We were told a lot of things. But it didn’t matter because as long as we were supporting our local and national artists with airplay, we felt somewhat vindicated. Especially because a lot of those local artists were students themselves, and many of them became DJs on Contact FM. 
For us Contact committee members, our job was to simply be caretakers of what Contact was built on when it was re-established in 2003, clearly spelt out in our 88.1 FM charter.  We didn’t interfere with content - the music programmer was trusted to programme what they saw fit to suit the station and normally that meant a bulk of content was local and national bands. It helped that all programmers for Contact FM started as students, were musicians and heavily involved in our local music scene. 


But it is one conversation has always stuck in my mind and crucial point where we decided enough is enough. 


In early 2014, four of the Contact committee members met with several WSU staff. We were at a turn point for Contact FM. We had lost the bid for the high powered 89FM fourteen months prior (to the amazing and always supportive Free FM… we bear no grudges!) and quite frankly, after years on campus we needed some support. We never asked for anything financially towards operation costs - Contact ran on its own funds.  We made it work and we had enough to keep going for a couple of years. We had re-established The Fridge recording studios and had awesome studio gear we financed ourselves. Sound engineers were using the space to record and film bands and they were training students. We were pretty chuffed with our efforts as volunteers to raise that kind of money. But we also knew that we were burning out. 


After 10+ years of various members through the door, we thought we will try harder or work harder to get support from WSU and the University, surely after 10+ years as 88.1FM and with 20 years as 89FM, we had all paid our dues and shown that we could do the work and have the background to train students well. We had been dealing with challenging transmitter signal issues that affected our broadcasting range, but had remained optimistic that we could look towards different avenues to broadcast, stream and adapt to a landscape now moving with Spotify and Rdio. We had also just relocated into the space which Contact 89FM originally started in. This was the dream space we always wanted, large with offices and right next to The Fridge for band live to airs and interviews. We had started bringing in our gear, tacking our gig posters to the wall and making it our space.  We all had big ideas of what we could do with the space and in a few months we would be ready to start rebroadcasting. 


But it was during that meeting in 2014 our optimism started to disappear. We started to get added pressure from WSU staff strongly implying that they would like to set up their own station. We had heard rumblings of this starting early in 2012 about a ‘W FM’, but staff had given an assurance to WSU board members that this concept would not go ahead (documented in our official committee meeting records). However this time it was called Nexus Radio, which apparently had been funded or could be funded - essentially a fait accompli for Nexus Radio to happen. 
And where did Contact FM fit into this? It seemed like we didn’t. I remember directly asking ‘what does this mean for us?’. There was not much of an answer. There seemed like there was no room for collaboration and it seemed like there was no room for Contact FM in this equation. This meeting always felt like the final push to move Contact FM out of the way to make room for a vision long held by several personnel involved with WSU. 


As we learnt this was likely to be a wider strategy for Nexus/Nexus Radio and WSU, a possible way of collecting potential advertising revenue by combining radio shows and print ads. Something in previous years we had been asked to consider as an “advertising package” but were hesitant due to some questionable advertisements that did not align with Contact FM’s ethos. Since Contact FM was independent of WSU, our advertising and gig/fundraising revenue went back to us. It seemed to us, as Hamtown Smakdown Facebook page recently mentioned, “Nexus Magazine wanted to be the owner and creator of youth and student creative media, rather than the supporter or the collaborator with existing youth and student media”. I’m going to assume the person who wrote that had insight into Nexus’ goals at the time.  


So we sat there and wondered if it is all worth it, should we stay on campus and were the hours we dedicated to this worth it if we don’t have support or even the feeling like we should be here. Some of us went home and cried and felt our trust shattered by an organisation we thought at least had might have respect for the history of the station and work and hours we did. We went and talked to ex Contact 89FM staff, we talked to trusted people in the arts community, we asked ‘what would you do’?, ‘what should we do’? And the response was pretty amazing. As it turns out a lot of what they had dealt with mirrored was what we were dealing with now. By April 2014, a decision was made to officially close. The reason behind it was understood by a lot of long-time Contact supporters.  It would be another year before we could even bring ourselves to wind up the society that was the Independent Broadcasting Community Hamilton.   


When I try to explain to people what we came up against or the general feeling towards us as a radio station, especially in Contact 88.1 FM final years, it is hard to explain.  All I know is that feeling of unease and lack of general support is something past Contact staff and volunteers can agree upon.


While a few previous WSU directors had been supportive of Contact, we were stuck in a groundhog day situation with the politics of the WSU board. A few supporters managed to relay information back to us, and we were later told that there was an effort to undermine Contact FM’s 89FM frequency bid in 2011, even though we had the written support of the University’s Vice Chancellor. 


As I write this, it is still hard for me to put into words the kind of political environment Contact 88.1 FM had to deal with in order just to be on campus, just to bring arts culture to campus and what lead to us feeling like we just couldn’t do it anymore. 


All I know is with distance and age is that, the environment there is not a healthy one to be around and I’m really, really glad to be away.  It is not a supportive environment that allows arts and culture to flourish on campus, especially when you have politics continuing to wear down the exact kind of organisations that should be celebrated for contributing to arts on campus. The day we packed up Contact and The Fridge’s gear was mixed with sadness, but some relief knowing we would not have to deal with that environment again.


Sadly though, somewhat from afar, I have watched a similar situation play out again for The Volume Collective. I recognise the exhaustion of dealing with the politics, I recognise the feeling of wondering if it is worth it, I recognise the feeling of hearsay wearing you down, but I also recognise that it is not the end of the road for The Volume Collective… far from it.  


The Volume Collective will no doubt be going through the emotions that comes from being in a unhealthy and essentially politically toxic environment. Those environments are not always easy to recognise, even harder when you are in them. But once you do and you are out, you learn that when you do something you love, you will have support and those supporters will help extended your creativity further than you imagined. You will get messages, tweets from people you have never met, but will know exactly what you are talking about, they too will share their story and you will know then it is a pattern. You will also get messages from the exact people whose display the toxic behaviour you are talking about. That is ok - they are just proving your point. 


In light of The Volume Collective coming out and talking about the environment they have been dealing with, I received a phone call from a friend, an ex-Hamiltonian who is a music publicist for bands all over the country. She saw the Volume Collective’s post and was so angry. She recognised that, in The Volume Collective, Hamilton finally had an outlet for local and national bands on campus after Contact 88.1 ended, and as a publicist she knew the benefits this would bring to the city and for the music industry. 


But there was also another element to her anger… a personal one, one that after years of dealing with this environment on campus, there was frustration that nothing had changed. She lamented today, alternating between cursing… “every f**king time this happens, it is a blow for the music scene both locally and nationally, how many times are politics going cause damage to this scene”.  And I think she is right. The Volume Collective’s Fridge studio closure are just a part of long line of fractures within our local music scene, one that the music community will now have to repair… yet again. 


If there is a rebuttal to this, no doubt there will be things said about Contact FM (or me for matter) that will not ring true. For me it doesn’t matter, there will be nothing said I probably haven’t heard before anyway.  Maybe it will be the opposite … the standard “We supported Contact FM….” A whole organisation like WSU can’t lay claim to the select few who fought hard as champions in our corner. Maybe nothing will be said at all and this toxic environment will continue to exist. 


It is more important to me for Hamiltonians in the arts sector to fully understand what The Volume Collective are currently going through – the emotions and the rawness of it. The only thing I can offer them right now is an ear, some sympathy and some understanding of these feelings which are all too familiar. 
 

If you've made it this far then I'll leave you with some of The Volume Collective's In The Fridge sessions; local Kirikiriroa musicians NRG Rising. 

 

And local Kirikiriroa musican Glass Shards. 

To support our arts scene please share this post.  Thank you for your time and support.

 

 

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