As I composed this post, supporters of student radio programming on WRAS-FM were assembling at a protest at Georgia Public Broadcasting (GPB) headquarters in Atlanta. The peaceful protest by SaveWRAS supporters is part of a larger effort to spread the word about changes at the Georgia State University radio station in order to either stop the deal or make substantial changes to it in order to allow for more student FM airtime. As of Sunday, June 29, GPB has been airing public radio talk programming during daytime hours over WRAS-FM. Student programming now airs online during the day and over WRAS-FM at night.
Student Press Law Center published an interesting perspective on some of the legal issues surrounding the GPB/WRAS deal. Adam Goldstein writes, “…it sounds like some Georgia State administrators are under the impression they’re bound to their agreement with Georgia Public Broadcasting. If that would so, it would represent an astonishing development in the law. I made a little chart to explain precisely why Georgia State should be able to walk away from the GPB partnership and accept the Alumni offer, if it chooses to do so.” In an included infographic, Goldstein argues that GPB can’t sue GSU in order to enforce the contract because “you can’t sue yourself.” He shows that both organizations are under the umbrella of the state of Georgia.
On Creative Loafing, Chad Radford reflected on the impact of the loss of daytime student programming over WRAS-FM. He writes,
GPB’s takeover has ruined my morning drive. The CD player in my car hasn’t worked for a few years, so the radio has been locked on 88.5 FM. The student voice of Geroge [sic] State has been a tastemaker for more than 40 years, and listening to the music on 88.5 FM always instilled in me a sense of being dialed in to a larger world of modern independent music. Like many others, I found myself pulling out my phone to Shazaam what I was hearing multiple times every morning. More than simple entertainment, it was and still is a vital and progressive voice for the city, and one of Atlanta’s true cultural assets. Now it’s been replaced during most of the daylight hours, largely by the same NPR programming that we already get via WABE. Time to buy a new CD player for the car.”
Speaking of competing Atlanta public radio station WABE (aka Public Broadcasting Atlanta), its Chairman Louis Sullivan penned an open letter to GPB and GSU leadership, arguing that the WRAS deal was not in the best interest of Georgia State students, WRAS, or Atlanta. In the open letter, WABE writes,
The recent agreement between Georgia Public Broadcasting (GPB) and Georgia State University (GSU) regarding radio station WRAS is bad public policy—fiscally, substantively, and procedurally. This transaction should be revisited by the parties and it should be significantly modified or rescinded.
At its essence, this agreement involves GPB spending Georgia tax dollars to duplicate a public broadcasting service being provided by Public Broadcasting Atlanta (PBA), which operates radio station WABE to the metropolitan Atlanta listening audience since 1971. In the process, the broadcast voice at WRAS—a valuable, well-regarded GSU student-run radio station with its diverse programming—is being silenced.”
In a lengthy response, GPB’s Chairman Michael McDougald writes about WABE’s concerns over duplication of programming, saying,
Importantly, Atlantans will now have the choice of listening to an all-news, all-information public radio station or to a classical music station. This is a long overdue choice for our city. Before this partnership, Atlanta was the ONLY top ten radio market in the United States that did not have an all-news and information public radio station…
We have enormous respect for WABE’s efforts, but we firmly believe that, especially in today’s fragmented media marketplace, we should do everything possible to encourage more original reporting and an overall increase in public radio listening. At certain times of the day there will be some duplication of syndicated programs or stories from NPR, mostly in the drive-time hours between our two radio stations. This is typical in many top cities with multiple public radio stations.”
Although the letter outlines various educational partnerships, it doesn’t say much about how the deal is affecting student programmers at WRAS. McDougald says,
…We understand that there is a great deal of concern about the change in the daytime hours on WRAS, particularly from GSU alumni. The University has repeatedly addressed these concerns and explained their motivation for the partnership. GSU students will continue to program WRAS 70 hours a week on the analog channel and 24/7 on a digital stream. Importantly, WRAS is not going away.”
Although it hasn’t been mentioned much in reporting about the situation at WRAS, in April 2013 the Georgia State University Student Activity Fee Committee approved a proposal to replace the WRAS transmitter. Estimated costs at the time were between $676,000 and $750,000. Meeting minutes also reference a construction permit to “install its main antenna on a downtown tower, allowing for a much improved signal in North Georgia, especially on campus, and in the Georgia Dome.” A few months earlier, discussions were well underway between GPB and GSU. An early draft agreement from January 2013 even proposes that GPB would help pay for the cost of a transmitter. The old proposal suggests that GSU and GPB would partner “to acquire bond dollars to cover all one-time costs of transitioning WRAS to digital broadcast…” Throughout the conversations between GSU and GPB, GPB was kept up to date about the timeline for WRAS’ new transmitter.
According to Georgia State email correspondence, the new transmitter was delivered in late April 2014. Interestingly, around this time (late April), Georgia State’s Vice President for Student Affairs Douglass Covey resigned from the board of Public Broadcasting Atlanta (which runs competing public radio station WABE). The GSU/GPB agreement was announced publicly in May 2014. Although the new transmitter has yet to be installed, it’s been pointed out that since student fees were used to pay for something that will be largely used by GPB, it could be construed as a misuse of student funds or even fraud. Updates about the situation at WRAS can be found on the Save WRAS Facebook page, Save WRAS website, and on Twitter at SaveWRAS and #SaveWRAS.
In other college radio news, Portland State University’s application for a new LPFM station (for use by its student radio station KPSU) was removed from its MX group this week because it has fewer points than the other applicants. As Paul noted yesterday, KPSU lost a diversity point because Portland State’s governing organization (the Oregon State Board of Higher Education) holds other radio interests.
Radio Survivor will continue to monitor the situation at WRAS. We report on college radio news every Friday in our College Radio Watch column.
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