What Happened: In Their Own Words, A Special Report
As ‘What Happened’ went to air, volunteers at this station were scrambling to save it. SYN Media was in the middle of a marathon 24 hours of live broadcasting – raising awareness for an emergency fundraiser.
The station’s staff and board say its future hinges on this fundraiser’s success. That’s because after celebrating 20 years on air, they say SYN may close in just six weeks.
This is an extensive — and, at-times, confronting — account of a difficult time in SYN’s history. You’ll read accounts from current and former volunteers, staff and board members, both on and off the record. They were asked when key information was learned and who made key decisions.
Because for many, there is only one question:
Viv was waiting for a train at Essendon Station when she heard the news. And Max was on one to his university when he began ‘doom-scrolling’ on Instagram.
Bree says she received an email when she was sitting in her car. “And then I immediately texted everyone I know in the industry who has some sort of profile — who I think probably has money.”
Louis received a panicked phone call from Sarah to look at SYN’s volunteer Facebook group. That’s the group where Izzy saw the announcement published under an embargo.
And former SYN community manager Jake Stevens was in bed.
“That initial feeling was eerily familiar,” Stevens tells On The Beat. “It was a feeling that SYN has been in similar positions before. I don’t necessarily think it’s been as much of an emergency or an SOS as it is now. But it’s never a fun feeling.”
“And I know the SYN community is amazing, but there’s always that part of you that goes: are we actually going to be able to do it? Is this something that we can actually bounce back from?”
One of the first people to learn the news was Zack Goutzoulas, a casual trainer with SYN Media Learning (SML). It’s one of the main ways SYN self-generates revenue.
Goutzoulas challenges this. “I wouldn’t even say ‘one of.’ As far as I know, it is SYN’s primary way of making money.”
SML runs SYN’s Schools On Air program.
“The format’s changed over time,” Goutzoulas explains. “I actually joined SYN off the back of doing Schools On Air back in 2014.”
“[The workshops are] school excursions most of the time. Schools come out, we teach them how to make radio — so it’s a bit of a lecture for the students — and then they get to go into the studios and actually practice making radio.”
Goutzoulas says some students’ attitudes can change when he takes them into the radio studio. “A lot of the time, the students who are disruptive or who don’t really care will get into the studio and then they’ll get really shy all of a sudden.”
“They’ll become really meek. Suddenly, it becomes real to them, like: oh, wait, I’m actually doing this. This isn’t just a joke. I’m about to be in in a studio, on a mic, on radio.”
Something else getting real is SYN’s finances.
“We’re living in in really tight times, and really tough times,” SYN general manager Ruby Smith told On The Beat in May 2023. “Coming out of the pandemic has not been easy for anyone, and SYN is no different.”
Smith began as a SYN volunteer in 2017 before joining the station’s staff. “I was within the SYN Media Learning program as a trainer, and then was the social enterprise manager. So, I was working within social enterprise and not-for-profit business management for a while before moving into this current role.”
“I think that’s been really key,” said Smith, “because it can be really easy for a not-for-profit to be focused on the details of its everyday running and let financial planning fall by the wayside. And when you don’t have the staff, things can start to fall apart really quickly — because there’s just too many things to get done in the day.”
It’s now become clear SYN’s current model can’t sustain it.
“SYN’s model was built on participation,” explains Stevens, who started as a SYN volunteer in 2013. “So as long as young people continue to have their say, that’s what SYN continues to exist for.”
“I think the challenge really is, economically, SYN’s model just doesn’t fit where the world has gone. There are changes starting to happen behind the scenes, but these are decisions that probably had to be, made 12, 24, 36 or 48 months earlier.”
“It became clear to us closer to the start of this year that we needed to diversify our revenue streams,” says current SYN community manager Laura Green, “so we’ve made a lot of attempts at doing that.” They say these attempts included pursuing sponsorships and holding SYN’s first ‘Radiothon’ fundraising campaign in a decade.
“It’s been in the works for a really long time,” Smith explained at the time. “Our previous general manager Evrim really kicked this all off about a year ago [around May 2022]. I think it’s been a long time coming.”
“The efforts by our staff and our volunteers during that Radiothon were really incredible,” says Laura.
Perhaps not incredible enough.
“There’s a few factors that maybe meant we didn’t reach our goal of $50k quite significantly,” says SYN programming coordinator Sally Lewis.
SYN’s office had a board with a large, illustrated thermometer at its entrance during the Radiothon campaign. It had a scale from zero to $50k but ended up depicting a lukewarm total of around $10k — that number reached after SYN extended the campaign by a week.
“It definitely hurt a lot of people and their morale to rally and fundraise, because it wasn’t getting coloured in,” reflects Lewis. “I don’t believe the consequences of that fundraising campaign were relayed to our community enough.”
“We went probably a bit light in the messaging. But as we know now, we have gone a lot heavier in the messaging this time!”
“Another factor is probably that low volunteer engagement — not being able to spread the load as much,” suggests Green. “So, the volunteers that did work on it were really incredible, but maybe needed more support from their presenters.”
Engagement has been a consistent issue for SYN’s program producers this year.
“We are currently in a cost-of-living crisis, and it is very heavily affecting young people,” says Taymi Brook, the volunteer producer of SYN’s international music program New And Approved.
“A lot of the young people who are part of SYN are university students, or they are school students. And so, I think a lot of people are just taking as much time as they can to work, because we need to have money to pay rent; we need to have money to just survive.”
“It’s difficult because volunteers aren’t that engaged at the moment,” says Goutzoulas, who also volunteers as the producer of SYN’s culture programme Art Smitten.
“So, Art Smitten broadcasts [from] 12 p.m. ‘til 2 p.m. on Saturdays — which is the same time SYN runs its inductions. So, I see the inductions taking place; I get to meet new volunteers. And the number of new volunteers who I meet, who just never say anything ever again — they just drop off the face of the earth — is very interesting.”
Volunteers are required to apply if they want to present on a program at SYN. Zack recalls looking at Art Smitten’s 2015 applications and learning it received 50 applications for one 10-week season.
“Being completely candid: I got one for Art Smitten this season.”
“Young people have become accustomed to a different way of working since Covid,” suggests Green. “They’re also accustomed to things being cancelled regularly, or postponed or rescheduled.”
“I would guess they’re experiencing a lot of burnout, and that makes participation in volunteer activities harder. So, that’s my guess and what I’ve kind of been hearing — but there’s a lot of work to do to build back the community that was so big.”
This issue also extends to SYN’s short-run seasonal programs.
“I think there’s a barrier in that when you make a season, you’re generally locked in for the 10 weeks,” offers co-producer of The Fan And The Fraud, Max James Taylor. “I feel like if you aren’t very prepared for that — if you don’t have that all planned out — then it can be quite stressful and quite difficult.”
The Fan And The Fraud broadcast three seasons in 2022 — and no seasons in 2023.
“With university last year — planning all around that was difficult at times. And this year we’ve taken a break. Now that [my co-producer Nicholas Sarlos Welsh] started with uni, we just found it too difficult for scheduling as well.”
“But I suppose probably the hardest thing to get back into it is setting aside 10 weeks and having to do the work — both in studio and in preparation for each week,” says Taylor. “I think it’s probably the biggest hurdle to overcome.”
“Young people are slammed for time with study, work and just other life commitments, so their time capacity is limited,” says Lewis. “Three quarters of the way into a really hectic year, people are feeling a bit tired and a bit sluggish — which we completely understand. Staff are the same.”
In September, SYN faced a different programming problem.
“There was an emergency where our radio tower in Mt. Dandenong was having some difficulty picking up our signal, but that got all fixed and we’re back on air for now.”
The incident began on a Friday evening and took SYN programming off air until the next Monday.
“If anything goes wrong in the studio and we’re not making our way to the radio tower,” Lewis explains, “we have what we call a backup CD. So that will be triggered if there’s a silence detected. And that backup CD player — having run for four consecutive days while we were off air recently — has now broken.”
Tech issues aren’t new for SYN. Before his interview for this piece, Goutzoulas plugged his headphones into multiple audio outputs in SYN’s off-air studio.
“This one was making a ringing sound, and then that one was making a ringing sound. And then I realised: there’s just a ringing sound in here.”
“I believe it’s because of the lights [in the ceiling]. That’s what Jake [Stevens] was saying.”
Stevens left SYN in March 2023.
That was ahead of the Radiothon fundraiser Smith had hoped would enable SYN to address its technology costs — starting with moving the station’s broadcast computer. “Our broadcaster currently sits on top of a roof and gets blasted by the sun every summer, and that’s never ideal.”
“She’s still holding on,” Smith said, “but we’d love to get the funding to move it into a safer, more regulated environment that we could check on more easily, and that would prevent any further damage. So yeah, a lot of equipment costs are the first things that come up.”
Instead, SYN’s found itself in deep financial trouble.
“Pretty much before [the board’s last] meeting,” says Taymi, “we were getting our papers together; we were getting organised. It was going to be a big meeting discussing the upcoming AGM [annual general meeting] and just getting all of our ducks in a row for that, pretty much.”
Brook is the board’s secretary — another volunteer position.
“When I joined SYN, I didn’t even know we had a board. And I think a lot of people that are currently volunteers at SYN — they just don’t know that there is a board that exists. We kind of exist behind a bit of a closed curtain; we kind of work in the shadows.”
That’s caused issues for the makeup of the board.
“We did have an issue at the last AGM where we didn’t fill the under 26 quota,” Brook explains. “We still obviously operated as a board, because we had to. But because it went against [SYN’s] constitution we had to contact lawyers and we tried really hard to fix the problem as best as we could.”
Brook says the board resolved this by finding another member out of session. “And they were given a term of one year on the board, so their term will be up at the next AGM.”
All of this — the volunteer disengagement, financial issues and governance struggles — created a perfect storm at the board’s last meeting on Wednesday, 27 September.
“We have lost a core piece of funding that we have never missed out on before,” says Brook. “And just trying to figure out the next steps in how to deal with that [made for] a very tense meeting. It was a very long meeting; there was a lot brought up.
Several sources have told On The Beat the exact value of this ‘core funding.’ On The Beat has not been able to independently verify these claims.
“It was unfortunately something that’s snowballed — probably just in the last two weeks,” says Green.
That snowball took out three people’s jobs.
“That was really devastating news to receive late last week. It’s a decision made by the board and upper management, so I wasn’t directly involved in that decision. But I understand that it was our last resort.”
“We knew this might be a possibility if all things fell against us,“ explains Green, “and we put it off for as long as we possibly could. And really, I just want to thank those staff members for being incredible people to work with, and for their contribution to the station, and for their contribution to my team.”
Staff were informed of the redundancies later that week.
“Of course, for myself and two other members of staff, we have been made redundant because of the dire circumstances that SYN is facing,” says Lewis. “The two other staff members will be wrapping up at the end of October — myself in January. So, I have a little bit more time to work at SYN and make sure things will keep afloat before I leave.”
“I’m incredibly grateful for the two years that I have had at SYN. I absolutely adore all our volunteers — who I actually primarily work with. We have a very small group of staff at SYN, but of course, working directly with about 300 volunteers, I oversee a lot of people.”
Lewis says she is most upset at the potential loss for those volunteers.
“I can find a new job. The broadcasting industry, journalism industry, music industry, can’t find another SYN.”
The volunteers were next to learn the news through an embargoed Facebook post on Tuesday, 3 October.
“I found out at about 5 p.m. on Tuesday afternoon,” says one of SYN’s volunteer music directors, Sarah Davenport. “I was here at SYN preparing for an episode of [SYN’s flagship local music program] The Hoist.”
“It was the first week back, so our producers, Mia [Ranalletta] and Sam [Deshayes] were tag teaming and being there to produce each single day of the week. So that was kind of nice; I don’t really often have anyone produce the show with me.”
Davenport was also with SYN volunteer trainer Anika Luna.
“[She] got an e-mail and I definitely saw a shift when she received [it],” recalls Davenport. “She then went on to talk to Laura [Green] in [SYN’s] classroom for about 20 minutes and came back very distressed — in tears. Anika is one of my really dear friends, so that was really tough to see.”
It was then time for Davenport to broadcast live on air.
“As Anika was leaving — before we went on air — she was talking about how we needed to do something. And our first thought was [putting] on a gig, which we’re very much hoping to do in the coming weeks, and we’re in the early stages of planning that.”
“But also,” Davenport says, “Mia and I were very frazzled throughout the broadcast.”
Ranalletta says “trying to manage our emotions while also trying to deliver a two-hour radio show” was challenging. “We kind of just had to channel all of our energy into not panicking and not going into crisis mode.”
Davenport agrees it wasn’t her finest presenting. “I was very much going off the top of my head; it was pretty hectic. We would go off air and I would be calling people to see if they knew people we could organise events with, and just sort of talk — looking at the calendar and going: when could we do a live broadcast?”
“We wanted to do something crazy to sort of gain momentum.”
Davenport and Ranalletta arranged a 24-hour live broadcast to promote SYN’s fundraiser. The fundraiser would be announced when SYN went public with its financial issues the next day on Wednesday, 4 October.
“I saw the ‘Save Our Station’ post,” says Viv Micic, a former volunteer with Art Smitten, “and my heart just dropped.”
“The opportunities I’ve had — and I’ve been really fortunate to have, could be gone for forever — and there would be people in high school and university without access to these opportunities. It’s just absolutely heartbreaking because this was — this is — something I really value.”
Micic had visited the station’s office to offer her support for the fundraiser. She’s now back on air as the voice of one of the fundraiser’s promotional sweepers. “If anyone can donate, please do, because anything helps.”
SYN’s board posted its first statement on the matter on Friday, 6 October. That was nine days after its fateful meeting, two days after the public announcement, and one day before the station’s 24-hour live broadcast.
It reads: “This is undoubtably [sic] a difficult and stressful time for all of us … I understand our community will have questions for us about the circumstances we find ourselves in, and what plans we have for the future of SYN. And you are entitled to put these questions to the Board. I ask that everyone attends our Annual General Meeting (AGM) … This is the opportunity for our community to ask these questions in person.”
Former SYN music director Louis Parkinson is going to the AGM.
“I used to be on a board for another youth radio station,” says Parkinson, “so I do have some understanding of how that all functions — and I understand there’s a lot of due diligence that needs to take place.”
“But at the end of the day: we’re members of the organisation. The board is responsible to us; they need to respond to us. We — as the members of SYN — SYN is ours.”
Parkinson would have appreciated earlier notice of SYN’s financial distress. “Something a lot sooner, saying: we’re having some issues, be prepared for what’s about to take place.”
“There are probably some intricacies that they haven’t told us that may have affected that — giving them a bit of benefit of the doubt. But even at this point — even since they came out and said: hey, we are having these issues — it would have been fantastic if there was a bit more of an explanation.”
Bree Steele is a former SYN volunteer and member of the board in 2019.
“So, I know how hard it is to keep SYN going. When I was on the board just slightly pre-pandemic, into the pandemic, what I was saying was: we need to diversify our income streams.”
A conversation had not 12, 24 or 36, but around 48 months ago.
“Yes, but it’s very easy to say these things, and it’s very easy to suggest them. But at the time, we were just getting a new manager and all the staff were at capacity already. a lot of them aren’t even full time and they do so much outside of their remit.”
“So, I was seeing it a while ago,” says Steele, “but at the same time, it is really hard to get things going because you have to have expertise in sales — and finding someone to leave a cushy full-time job to come to SYN in sales is really hard. It’s easier said than done, but I definitely think it’s something that needs to be done.”
“SYN has always had financial issues,” says Goutzoulas. “It’s not new for SYN to be financially struggling. It’s part of what makes SYN ‘SYN’ at this point.”
“Like [when I volunteered in] 2015, 2016, 2017? Financial troubles. [I] rejoined in 2020, 2021, 2022, 2023. Financial troubles. It’s constant. But it’s definitely never been ‘we are going to shut down’ bad.”
“Even when we had the ‘Save Community Radio’ initiative,” recalls Goutzoulas, referring to the community radio peak body CBAA’s ‘Keep The Community In Your Radio’ campaign, “that was a ‘we are going to shut down’ moment, but that was community radio getting hit, not SYN specifically struggling. So, this is different; it’s a lot worse.”
Soon after realising the board’s public statement, board president Nicolas Zoumboulis spoke to On The Beat.
“Over the past couple of weeks, the board’s been working closely with the general manager [Ruby Smith] monitoring grant funding and our major funding bodies,” Zoumboulis explains. “We recently learned a key grant we rely on wasn’t successful, and we weren’t going to receive that regular grant income we have received for many years now.”
“So, at our last board meeting [on 27 September], the general manager [Ruby Smith] and the board reevaluated our position. And together with our treasurer [Beatrice Matthews] we determined SYN had a six-week runway essentially, and we needed to launch a snap fundraiser to try and buy us some more time to keep the station going.”
The board is looking at a range of options.
“[Options] like unfortunately reducing our staff with downsizing,” says Zoumboulis, “which has been a really difficult thing to do. We don’t want to lose staff; they give their heart and soul to this organisation. But unfortunately, with this sudden loss of funding, it’s really pulled the rug out from under us very quickly. That’s given us no choice.”
“So that is a loss we’re feeling very deeply, and we’re very sorry this has happened to our staff, who we really appreciate, and we cherish.”
On Saturday, 7 October, volunteers old and new began scrambling to raise awareness.
“I love SYN so much,” says Steele, who returned to the station for its 24-hour broadcast. “I heard about SYN, and I was like: I’ve got to help.”
Broadcast producers Davenport and Ranalletta joined On The Beat in its regular 5 p.m. timeslot.
“We’re about 8 hours into the broadcast now,” said Davenport, “so this is very much the easy part. I’m just feeling like I do at 5 p.m. on a Monday, which is not that bad. What I will be feeling at 5 a.m. is another question.”
“Whether or not we will be sleeping tonight? Great question,” said Ranalletta. “I can’t say for certain. We are producing the full 24 hours of broadcasting; you’ll hear from us throughout. We’ll keep you updated mentally, physically, emotionally and also financially.”
“It’s the first time I’m on any kind of live show,” says new SYN volunteer Connor. “It’s the first time I’m doing a flagship. After doing my inductions and all that, I just really wanted to get into actually broadcasting and being on the airwaves.”
Connor joined Brook for New And Approved.
“It was scary and chaotic, but you get hang of it. It was fun. It was just like, I kind of locked into that groove.”
“Yeah, it’s really fun, actually,” says fellow New And Approved presenter Izzy Coldbeck. “It’s been quite intense, I would say.”
Coldbeck also presented during a two-hour reunion of Amplify presenters — SYN’s program for volunteers younger than 18. That’s a total of four hours on air in one night.
“I mean, I’ve been on with people I know, and people who are really good friends of mine. So, it’s been kind of chatty, kind of fun — a little bit of chaos. But I thought that’s kind of the SYN way anyway.”
The broadcast didn’t go without issues.
“I’m so delirious,” says Davenport around 10:30 p.m. She’s standing in the darkened SYN classroom with a cold bowl of spaghetti bolognese she’s barely had time to eat. “This half hour has been so much.”
“Amplify were going so hard. They were making songs; they were making music. I was eating my bolognese. I was 13 hours in. And then I was like: I wonder how [many donations we’re up to].”
But the donation page had gone offline shortly after 10 p.m.
“So, then I cried a little bit,” recalls Davenport. “I call [the fundraising platform] GiveNow. Nothing happens. Volunteers are going to be arriving any minute.”
Davenport reached GiveNow’s voicemail. She said it wasn’t the best timing for its website to be offline. Then she got a text from GiveNow employee Cathy at 10:52 p.m.
“Hi, Cathy from GiveNow here,” the text message read. “We note your calls and I’ve asked the tech team to investigate why the site is down and fix ASAP. Never happened like this before, so working as fast as possible to resolve. Sincerest apologies.”
“[It was a] bit stressful,” says Coldbeck, “but we sort of worked around it by getting people to try to upload videos on Instagram talking about what SYN meant to them. We were looking at Sarah for advice — who was also quite stressed about the whole thing.”
Then Davenport learned GiveNow was back online. She was overcome with emotion upon learning Cathy had made a $31 donation.
“Kathy, if you’re listening right now, I love you.”
This fundraiser is a short-term fix. Laura is looking beyond it.
“We’ve been working really hard in the background on our strategic planning for the next three years,” they explain. “So, we’ll be looking at the ways we can implement those strategies; that does help guide what we do at SYN.”
“The other thing is really listening to our [volunteer] leadership team from this year. They have stood by us incredibly strongly. Taking on their feedback and restructuring things a little so we can deliver on more professional development opportunities and we can support them better into the next year.”
And the board is recruiting.
“So, we’re really looking now to harness this mobilisation of the community,” says Zoumboulis, “and the fact the volunteers have really stepped up.”
Zoumboulis says he must step down as president at SYN’s AGM on Wednesday, 25 October. “I won’t be able to nominate for the role again because under SYN’s constitution, the President must be under 26 at the time of election.”
“It’s really difficult for me personally to have to step down at a time when there’s so much turbulence that is quite tricky to grapple with. It’s bad timing across the board, and we’re looking to harness that motivation and that interest level in SYN as an organisation — to reach out to the young people in our volunteer base who want to have a say in how this organisation progresses from here on.”
The AGM is set to be very well attended.
“What I want to see is an explanation from the board of: here’s what we have been doing, here’s how we got into this position, and here are the steps that we are taking to try and get us out of this position,” says Parkinson, “beyond just the fundraising, because that is a short term solution.”
“We’re not like [other Melbourne community broadcasters] 3RRR or PBS. We have a smaller audience — and an audience which I’m going to say has less disposable income. I doubt we’ll be able to long term be able to rely on [fundraising].”
“We need those grants,” Parkinson stresses. “So, I want to know what they’re applying for. I want to know how they are trying to save the station.”
“[SYN’s] main revenue source outside of self-generated training revenue has been government grant funding,” explains Stevens. “When you’re no longer new and exciting and sexy and can be announced at a press conference — a lot of our programs are [only] very exciting to our community.”
“To a government they’re not necessarily a massive amount of money — we’re talking by the tens of thousands of dollars. That’s not exciting in the context of an election, that’s not exciting in the context of a budget and an announcement for a politician.”
Stevens says SYN has always found navigating politics challenging. “[It’s found it] quite tricky to play the political game, and I think we’ve lost a little bit of that nous over the years. And it’s not something I think SYN was aware we needed.”
“There was a lot of talk before we lost [the core funding] about how we were going to cut down on workload, give pay rises to the staff and we were going to focus on the staff before we focus on anything else,” says Brook, “because SYN can’t operate without staff.”
“It’s just very unfortunate that now we’re pretty much back to square one, where there is a huge toll being put on staff. Because there’s not much we can do without money, unfortunately.”
“Working at a not-for-profit organisation like SYN really is a passion project,” says Steele, “and it means everyone here is really passionate to help young people have a say and get experience to work in the media.”
“You know, it’s harder than ever to get into the media now, so without SYN, so many people wouldn’t get opportunities.”
“SYN’s value used to be a lot more created by the volunteers,” says Goutzoulas. “It wasn’t ‘SYN’s value,’ it was: what value can you bring to SYN? I don’t think there’s any of that now.”
“It’s going to take another 12 to 24 months to really build SYN back up to where it was,” says Stevens. “In saying that, what’s interesting coming out of this process that we’re in right now, is it feels like we’ve almost hit the accelerator on that sense of community.”
“We have been getting so much love from within the organisation and outside of the organisation,” says Brook. “It has been incredible seeing SYN volunteers step up.”
Davenport says the 24-hour broadcast was an important day. “It’s one thing to launch and say: hey, we’re in a bit of a crisis. But I think it’s another to be able to have something so quickly that reflects the community of SYN. I laughed; I cried; it’s beautiful.”
“I don’t know who I am without SYN, which sounds like a lot. I know I’m a whole human being outside of it — but I think of the past three years I’ve had here, and trying to think of myself outside of that is really terrifying.”
SYN is now confronted with several difficult questions.
How can it generate the revenue needed to sustain itself moving forward? How can it bring volunteers back to the table beyond the weekend’s 24-hour blitz? And at the AGM just weeks away: how does SYN move forward — finding a new direction and finding itself?
If it can’t in the next six weeks, there’ll be nothing left to find.
Visit givenow.com.au/savesyn to learn more about the fundraiser.
Listen to On The Beat live on SYN 90.7FM, digital radio or the Community Radio Plus app.
Catch up anytime online with your preferred podcast platform by searching ‘On The Beat SYN’.
And check syn.org.au/news or @onthebeatsyn on the socials for more updates.