SYN community manager Johan Lee demonstrating one of SYN's recording studios. Photo: John Thompson
Just beginning to air flagship shows for the new year, the Student Youth Network (SYN) had no choice but to halt its programs.
On February 12, a water leak at the RMIT-based radio studio caused thousands of dollars in damages and disrupted broadcast for days.
The not-for-profit student and youth radio station provide educational programs and professional development for young people in Melbourne. SYN Media, which is not affiliated with RMIT, leases offices and studio spaces from the university.
SYN’s Operations Manager Johan Lee first discovered the water leak when one listener – a local high schooler who volunteers at the station reported a problem with the radio’s online broadcast.
“Basically, the moment I walked in the door I saw some water,” said Lee.
“I happened to be talking to the building manager a little bit just before that, so I knew exactly where she was”.
The room, which was in fact, ‘more of a closet’, sits among the studio offices of SYN’s ‘HQ’ underneath RMIT’s building 12 on Swanston Street. The space stores upwards of $30,000 worth of live electronics: broadcast equipment belonging to the NBN, Telstra, and of course, SYN Media.
“Let me get an electrician in first, to make sure that nobody steps on this water and electrocutes themselves”, Lee recalled thinking at the time. He texted the building manager immediately.
“Come over now. It’s an emergency”.
Within five minutes three tradies were in the room, minus Lee, who was preoccupied with unplugging every piece of live electrical equipment in sight.
“There was an electrician there to handle all the electricity, a plumber because there was water everywhere, and I think there was a general contractor at some point to make sure everything was fine”.
The leak was never dangerous, and the electrician declared it safe. The plumbing was altered so that water would be less likely to leak, and the spill was mopped and dried. But the damage had been done.
With the immediate concern of safety aside, Lee assessed the cause of the network's broadcast failure. It did not take long. Approximately $5000 worth of IT equipment had been damaged or destroyed, according to Lee. The equipment was itself a backup, but the station's main IT systems happened to be offline due to unrelated maintenance.
As a result, young producers and hosts had to shelve their shows, which were replaced by a CD backup that’s used in the event of a broadcast failure. The stations’ members were instead given the option to broadcast their shows later, either as a podcast or live.
Laura Green is continuing to broadcast remotely until they can return to the studios. Photo: John Thompson.
Laura Green, executive producer of the LGBT talk show Loud & Queer, said that they were disappointed by the broadcast failure, which meant their pilot episode never went to air. “They fixed it by Monday but the Friday to Sunday shows, as far as I am aware none of them went to air”, said Green.
Green added that while SYN was generally good at re-broadcasting missed shows, the content of Loud & Queer, which covers news and upcoming events would have dated by the following week.
“Anyone who only listens to FM would have missed the show”.
All of SYN Media’s weekly programming is produced and hosted by volunteers under the age of 25. It represents a rare opportunity for young people to discuss or broadcast news and entertainment media that is relevant to them.
According to a 2020 report published by the Foundation for Young Australians, 59 per cent of stories in the Australian media that mentioned young people in the headline did not quote one within the story itself.
FYA’s data was collected from Australian news media published during the first six months of the COVID-19 pandemic, a disaster that disproportionately affected the nation’s youth.
SYN community manager Maddy Macquine said that the broadcast disruption reminded her of the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic when a state-wide lockdown was announced, and the studios were shuttered.
“We went from a live broadcast model to a fully remote broadcasting model. We had to teach all of these young people to make their radio shows from home, basically overnight,” said Macquine.
“We want to make sure that when things like this happen, whether it's access to the space or something like a fault with equipment, that it's our priority to get it all back up and running again as soon as possible”.
SYN’s annual budget, which is sourced from grants, government funds, and social enterprise, allocates money to cover the immediate cost of any necessary repairs. Lee sourced and replaced the equipment that weekend and four days later – three days earlier than had been predicted – SYN was once again broadcasting young people’s content.
The SYN studios are located within RMIT's Building 12. Young people broadcast their work on 90.7 FM. Photo: Shuttershock
It has not yet been determined who is at fault for the water leak. RMIT University is responsible for the building itself, including the air conditioning unit in question, but SYN Media is also responsible for the equipment it stores under the said unit.
RMIT University did not respond to questions on whether or not it would commit to paying for the equipment directly. Instead, RMIT University said in a statement that SYN Media and the university are currently discussing the replacement of the damaged equipment but would not commit to reimbursing the youth broadcaster.
"RMIT and SYN are now working through the process of replacing the damaged equipment,” RMIT University said in a statement.
"The University and SYN Media have enjoyed a long and productive relationship over the past 20 years and the university recognises the important role SYN plays in providing a platform for student voices.”
"SYN Media is a valued part of campus life."
RMIT did provide on-the-spot remediation to SYN Media, which covered the initial labour required to stop the leak and made changes to reduce future faults in the air conditioning system.
But these changes may not be enough to eliminate the risk entirely.
“We cannot eliminate the risk altogether because we have equipment under an air conditioner. At some point in the future, it's probably going to happen again”, said Lee. “Personally, I would move it all out of that room and redesign the entire place, but in four walls and a ceiling, we have to work with what is physically possible”.