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College Radio Watch: Protests over Future of WRAS Continue, With WABE Critiquing the Deal as Well

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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6 Responses to College Radio Watch: Protests over Future of WRAS Continue, With WABE Critiquing the Deal as Well

  1. Jerry Drawhorn July 11, 2014 at 6:26 pm #

    I find it interesting that the fact that the FCC required student organizations to obtain the imprimatur of the Board of Regents of the University they were associated with in order to obtain a broadcasting license…no student radio station was awarded a license without such a link. Despite being adults with full citizen rights (at least after 1971 when they were finally given the right to vote), and showing the acumen to organize and manage most of these stations over decades, that paternalistic policy has not shifted an inch. ASFAIK…they are now being penalized for that association in applying for a LPFM license.

    In the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s they had to be associated with an educational institution to qualify as an NCE despite the lack of involvement of the those institutions in doing little more than acting as a disciplinarian when the stations crossed the line and embarrass the “other interests” of these licensees. Now, when those Educational institutions have more than one student station under their umbrella students are foreclosed from becoming independent if there is another station under that license-holder hundreds of miles away.

    The FCC needs to allow student-based groups the right to establish independent boards that hold the license, particularly if these boards are local, and contain a mix of campus and off-campus members. In fact, perhaps all campus based stations should be allowed, if they can establish that the BoR have only a nominal role in their operations ceding day to day management to students or a campus board made up of non-administrative officials should have this right. It would prevent such situations as has occurred repeatedly in the last decade and recognize that student stations are rarely servants of some Communications program or Administrators daily oversight of fully paid employees.

  2. Jerry Drawhorn July 11, 2014 at 6:46 pm #

    It seems to me that PSU students at least have a chance because Reed College is still in the mix in Portland and would potentially win the competition if they brought in a group of INDEPENDENT PSU faculty , students and staff.

    A much more problematical situation is down the coast in Monterey…where the FCC has essentially taken CSU Monterey Bay out of the running and given the sole channel over to Iglesia Pentecostal Church, which I assume would have far less opportunity for a broader community access.

  3. Jennifer Waits July 11, 2014 at 7:13 pm #

    Thanks, Jerry. I hadn’t noticed the situation with CSU-Monterey.

  4. John O. Broomall, Sr. July 12, 2014 at 10:49 am #

    My consulting firm, Christian Community Broadcasters, represents Iglesia Pentacostal Church. We have contacted CSU Monterey and offered to assist them in finding a 24/7 channel and for their Spanish-speaking students to be involved with I.P.C.’s station which will meet its commitment to have a studio open to the public twenty hours a week.

  5. Sherrod DeGrippo July 12, 2014 at 4:18 pm #

    This is infuriating. I will never ever forgive GSU for selling out students. This is fraud plain and simple.

  6. SpaceyG on Twitter July 13, 2014 at 5:42 am #

    I wouldn’t trust Douglass Covey to walk my dog to the curb. What a duplicitous super sneak. Ugh, just ugh.

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