Big changes are coming to student-run radio station WRAS at Georgia State University. This morning, students and staff at the station learned that student-produced programming will no longer broadcast over the powerful 100,000 watt FM station during daytime hours. Administrators at Georgia State University entered into an agreement with Georgia Public Broadcasting unbeknownst to the WRAS student staff. According to the agreement, GPB will begin airing talk programming mostly from NPR over 88.5 FM in Atlanta between the hours of 5am and 7pm beginning on June 2nd. The deal has apparently been in the works for awhile, as a photo of a new GPB NPR 88.5 FM Atlanta T-shirt showed up on Twitter this morning.
A press release on the GPB website states,
Georgia Public Broadcasting (GPB) will make its long-awaited debut on the Atlanta radio airwaves this June through a programming partnership with Georgia State University station WRAS 88.5 FM…GPB Radio and Georgia State will share the broadcast schedule on WRAS, with GPB offering public radio programming on WRAS daily from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. Public service announcements promoting the university will air during that time. From 7 p.m. to 5 a.m., the station will continue to be programmed by Georgia State students. Daytime radio broadcasting of Album 88, the student radio station, will be streamed live online. Georgia State also will have unprecedented access to GPB’s resources through one of GPB’s digital television stations to showcase student productions and other Georgia State content from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. each day. Plans also include a student produced weekly half-hour magazine radio program about music. Georgia State’s home football games will continue to be broadcast live on the station.
The partnerships call for GPB’s programming schedule to be dedicated to news and information. The programming will be a mix of nationally produced programs from public radio providers, including National Public Radio (NPR), Public Radio International (PRI) and American Public Media (APM), and locally produced news programming to include a local talk show anticipated to begin in fall 2014.
According to the GPB-GSU contract posted on Creative Loafing, this could be the first step towards GPB acquiring its own FM license in Atlanta. The contract states, “Within twelve (12) months after the commencement date of this Agreement, GSU and GPTC will initiate good faith negotiations regarding the possibility of applying to the FCC for a shared time licensing arrangement for the Station consistent with the parties’ discussions to date regarding the possibilities for such shared time arrangement.”
When I reached out to WRAS’ outgoing General Manager Anastasia Zimitravich today, she told me, “I just found out this morning.” School is out for the semester at Georgia State University and Zimitravich’s term as General Manager actually concluded on May 1st. With the changeover in staff and with students leaving campus for summer break, she told me that the timing of the announcement seemed to be designed to “keep things under wraps” in order to have less “backlash from students.” She told me that WRAS was “not involved at all in this discussion” and said that listeners are “up in arms” about the forthcoming changes to the station and that news about the format changes was even trending on Twitter.
While WRAS will continue to oversee its student programming over FM between the hours of 7pm and 5am, this agreement with GPB means that WRAS’ daytime programming (which will move online-only and to HD) will lose the majority of its listening audience. When I visited WRAS in fall 2012, it did not have its own official webstream, as it focused all of its efforts on its massive 100,000 watt FM signal. Although WRAS finally began to stream online in the past year or so, it’s not the primary way that its listeners tune in to the station. Zimitravich told me, “We’ve always been so focused on our analog [broadcast]…the stream wasn’t that much of a priority.” She added, “Most of our listeners are terrestrial listeners.”
She also explained that after June 2nd, the new managers at WRAS will have the difficult task of figuring out how to program the station from 7pm to 5am. She speculated that daytime FM listenership will go up because of the public radio programming and said that there will be pressure on WRAS to hold onto those listeners into the evening. Because of that, the students may have to consider changing the format to attract public radio listeners. She said, “Format change goes against everything that we held dear” about the alternative-music leaning WRAS. Zimitravich added, “It’s really heart-breaking that college radio is not important to our university.”
With such a powerful FM signal in Atlanta, WRAS has been an attractive target for competing broadcasters for many years. Zimitravich said that GBP as well as some religious broadcasters had tried to buy the frequency in the past, but that the university had been convinced to hang on to the license. She said that she fears that this deal may be the first step towards the license getting sold off. She also said that the current station staff is “furious” and that it’s a huge disappointment that as a members of the Student Media Board they weren’t included in the decision-making process. Following today’s announcement, she told me that other student media groups are now afraid of what may happen to them.
This afternoon, WRAS posted a lengthy statement on its Facebook page that said, in part:
We as a staff are deeply saddened and want to apologize for these changes that, again, are completely out of our control. As mentioned before, the university will assess the contract again in two years and determine where to move forward from there. Since this move is driven so much by listenership, we cannot guarantee how the university will act in the future. This could mean that we either revert back to our original format, stay in the partnership with GPB, or perhaps even switch WRAS over to 24/7 GPB programming. Whatever the case is for the future, we appreciate the listenership and love we have been showered with over the years. If you want to voice any concerns, please contact that powers that be directly.
Radio Survivor will continue to monitor the situation at WRAS. We also report on college radio news every Friday in our College Radio Watch column.