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WYOU in limbo: The community-access TV station may collapse if it can't update its equipment
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Local bands like Baristacide perform on <i>Wisconscene</i>.
Local bands like Baristacide perform on Wisconscene.

What is Madison's riskiest business these days, if by "risky" you mean "likely to disappear"?

Traditional media outlets are top contenders. So are nonprofit organizations, especially those whose funding has been slashed. WYOU is both of these things: a nonprofit, community-access TV station that nearly vanished following the passage of the Video Competition Act in 2007.

The legislation released cable companies from a longstanding requirement to fund and broadcast public, educational and government (PEG) channels. Within three years, the 37-year-old station lost all of its paid employees and roughly 80% of its funding, about $140,000 per year.

"We've been brutalized from all angles," explains Michael Doyle Olson, vice chair of the station's board of directors. "Losing our funding was hard enough, but then there was the recession and the plummeting viewership that came with YouTube and Facebook."

Despite these hurdles, WYOU didn't lose the will to carry on. It learned to operate with a shoestring budget and an all-volunteer staff. But even resourcefulness has its limits. The station now faces one of its toughest challenges yet: staying afloat as outmoded equipment drags it down.

WYOU can operate for just a few more weeks, according to Rick Richards, the volunteer who oversees the books.

"We've got $5,000 or so in the bank. At our normal rate of expenses, that's about two months of survival," he says.

Richards knows PEG funding won't return anytime soon. That's why the station provides media services to other Madison-area organizations. These services range from recording footage for websites to teaching locals how to operate videocameras.

Though these activities bring in revenue - $15,000 to $20,000 per year, according to Richards - the returns are diminishing as the station's equipment ages. Couple this with a struggle to win grants, and survival seems unlikely.

Richards says WYOU could make more money, but not without high-definition cameras, faster computers and up-to-date editing software.

"We can't compete with some of the other places in town doing media services," Richards says. "We have pre-HD cameras, which put out okay video, but that's not what people want to see or learn. The technology is at least 10 to 15 years old."

WYOU's initial Kickstarter campaign aims to raise $20,000, enough to buy a few modern cameras and editing tools. Supporters can also donate through the station's website, WYOU.org.

These campaigns won't solve all of the station's problems, Richards admits, but they will help. "If we're able to retool, we could become sustainable," he says.

But what if the station can't come up with the cash?

Richards contends that the community won't just lose investigative news programs like Democracy Now! and bastions of local culture like Gomeroke Live and Wisconscene. It will also sacrifice vital educational opportunities.

"It's amazing there's this kind of learning resource in the community," he says. "When I first came [to WYOU] around 2005, I didn't know how to use a camera, but within a year, I was making two TV shows."

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