Free money, just apply

Of the thousands of broadcast students in Canada, only 44 applied for five RTNDA scholarships, writes George Hoff.  Why some broadcast programs pay little or no attention to lucrative scholarships for students.

Last January Russ Courtney put together a radio assignment on the impact of the recession. With the support of his professors at Fanshawe College in London, Russ entered that eight-minute piece for the RTNDA BNN/Jim O’Connell scholarship. “It was a matter of save and send that was it. I didn’t have to spend any extra time on it,” Russ recalls. A few weeks later he learned that his piece won the $2,000 scholarship and a trip to Toronto for the RTNDA Convention. Russ was one of 44 broadcast students to submit entries for the five RTNDA scholarships available last year. (Disclosure: I was a board member of RTNDA for three years and I am currently the chair of its Ethics Committee.)

That’s right. Of the thousands of students across Canada enrolled in community college and university broadcast journalism programs a grand total of 44 submitted entries for the five categories. That was down from 84 the year before. A review of the entries shows that over the past two years college programs have submitted the majority of entries. In 2008, 54 of the 84 entries came from colleges and last year there were only five entries from university journalism programs.

In 2009, the winning entries went to students from college programs. Ken Kingston is the chair of the RTNDA Foundation (RTNDF) and oversees the scholarships. He doesn’t have a reason for the sudden drop in entries calling them a “wonderful opportunity” for students to show off their best work and get an award that jumps out on a student’s resume. While the entries dropped off Kingston was impressed by the quality of the students’ work. “It was really good stuff” he says.

Good for resumes, good for schools

Sheridan College in Oakville started its broadcast journalism course three years ago. The coordinator of the program, Nicole Blanchett Neheli, knows the RTNDA scholarships exist. So why have broadcast students at Sheridan not entered the awards? “I would love for our students to win these awards. It would be good for their resumes and for the school,” she says.

With a new program Blanchett Neheli says the focus is on making sure the students are taught the skills they need and getting the internships that will lead to jobs. For Sheridan the RTNDA awards have not been “a top priority.” She says that RTNDA has not contacted her about the scholarships and suggests that an email to her with basic information such as the categories and the deadlines might have resulted in entries from Sheridan. However, Blanchett Neheli also admits she has “to figure out the awards and see what the students need to do to enter.” She adds “it is really important to get our students in on the action. We have to take the initiative.”

Another program that didn’t submit entries was Humber College in Toronto. When I asked Mike Karapita, a program coordinator for the broadcast journalism program, about the RTNDA scholarships he told me he was “glad to be reminded of these awards.” Karapita says sometimes award opportunities “get lost” and he adds, “It wouldn’t hurt if RTNDA had a list of program coordinators across the country and sent out reminders about deadlines.” Like Blanchett Neheli at Sheridan Karapita says the staff are multi-tasking and “everyone is very busy.”

Six scholarships

The RTNDA scholarships are not new. The first RTNDA scholarship winner was back in 1978 and was funded when RTNDA set aside some money to create one scholarship in broadcast journalism administered by RTNDF.

This year RTNDA added a sixth scholarship also worth $2,000. A seventh award, the George Clark Scholarship, goes to the best “overall winning entry” and gives one of the six winning students an additional $2,500. Categories are for the best first year entry, the best entry to a student in years 2, 3 or 4, best interview, best business report, a scholarship for aboriginal or visible minority student and this year’s new award for the best report on diversity issues.

For a full description and details on entries you can go to the RTNDA website. Radio and television submissions are allowed in each category. Kingston explains that he puts together panels to listen and view the entries judging them using criteria similar to what is used for RTNDA’s industry awards.

Thinking about excellence

While some broadcast journalist programs pay little or no attention to the RTNDA scholarships, a handful make it part of the academic year. The wall along the hall at Fanshawe’s Broadcast Journalism department has 36 RTNDA scholarship plaques. Jim Van Horne, a professor there, says those plaques are an everyday reminder to the students of the awards. But at Fanshawe the professors go further. They use class time to talk about the scholarships and encouraging the students to think about entering. “By stressing the scholarships we are thinking about excellence. It’s another way, another tool, to emphasize excellence on a daily basis,” he says. “We’ll tell a student ‘this is good work, this rates; you should enter this for an RTNDA award.'”

Whether it is the 84 submissions from 2008 or 44 from 2009 many broadcast journalism programs across the Canada at both the community college and university levels are simply not encouraging their students to enter. Kingston says there seems to be a correlation between RTNDA membership amongst professors and instructors and scholarship entries. The programs where the leaders are members in RTNDA seem to be the ones that submit entries. He says, “If there are no RTNDA members at the school maybe then they don’t know about the scholarships.” Kingston says he has reached out to the Broadcast Educators Association of Canada and hopes this year there will be more submissions.

Giving students an edge

Russ Courtney graduated in the spring and landed a radio job in Wingham, Ontario. “News directors know what an RTNDA award means,” he says. “It’s a confidence boost and people recognize it.” At Humber, Karapita acknowledges, “It’s important for students to gauge their worth to the industry through competition and comparison. Anything that gives a student an edge is worth it.”

Perhaps next spring more broadcast journalism programs will work with their students to make them aware of the RTNDA scholarship program. Perhaps next spring 100 students will submit entries. Even that would only be about 17 entries per category not many for a national scholarship program.

George Hoff is an instructor at Centennial College and a freelance producer at CTV’s W5.

(Image by Leo Reynolds. Used under Creative Commons license.)