Last week, it was announced in a press release that Georgia Public Broadcasting (GPB) had entered into a partnership with Georgia State University. GPB now has a two-year renewable contract with the university to broadcast live, from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. at 100,000 watts in Atlanta beginning in the summer. More radio available to all; great, right? Not quite.
GPB will be broadcasting on the student-run WRAS, relegating the students to graveyard shifts. WRAS, winners of a litany of national and local awards, has long been a beacon of what’s right in college and community radio. Students supported local and national music via a powerful broadcast signal. WRAS served as a real hands-on place for students to take ownership of their hard work. It undoubtedly drew students pursuing a career in music or radio.
Another disturbing thing about the press release was the conspicuous omission of student voices (not unlike the situations with WRVU and KUSF). Instead, the univeristy president, Mark P. Becker, spoke for them: “This new partnership is a proverbial win-win and opens the door for future collaboration… Our students will have new and exciting opportunities in the changing media landscape.” But based on the national outcry, from student station staff to community members, GSU alumni and musicians, the statement is suspect.
So what’s going on with the WRAS student staff? Outgoing Promotions Director Lauryn Christy, and outgoing General Manager Anastasia Zimitravic spoke to us about the events of the past week, and what they are doing to fight the change.
When in the process did you find out about the deal?
Christy: We found out after the deal had been signed. We had a last-minute staff meeting [Thursday] morning and the news was broken to staff by Douglass Covey and Boyd Beckwith. No one on staff or management, not even our faculty adviser who’s been with the station since the early ’80s, was informed about this until [then].
Why do you feel that students were not involved in this conversation?
Christy: Despite their ridiculous claims that this is a “win-win” situation, I think they knew that we’d be outraged by this decision and likely assumed that we’d be more likely to accept it if the contracts had already been signed. This station has been completely student-run for 43 years, and they went and completely excluded us and the media heads of our Committee on Student Communication on this deal. Perhaps they incorrectly thought that we would not put up a fight if we felt this was a done deal.
What do you believe was the university’s benefit to this deal?
Christy: I believe the university’s benefit to this deal is their daily access to a subchannel of Georgia Public Broadcasting that should allow them to air sports and Georgia State University information and announcements from the hours of 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. I think that was their main motivation for this deal. They are basically leasing our station, but would not legally be able to make money from the use of our frequency. They could either make a sort of trade or an outright sale of the station. WRAS programming is often preempted though, to this dismay of many listeners, by sports coverage throughout the year, and we constantly rep the university and make GSU-related announcements at the top of every hour. President Becker has said that this would open the door for many future collaborations, so I think the complete benefits that the university will gain from this deal have yet to be made transparent.
What is WRAS’s mission statement?
Zimitravich: WRAS’s mission statement has always been to serve the Atlanta community, the university, and the GSU student body, by providing quality programming that is relevant to the student body and community-at-large. WRAS views its airwaves as an outlet to air music that wouldn’t normally get airplay anywhere else; to support local 501c(3) non-profits; and to broadcast public affairs programming and news that is pertinent to the student body.
Do you feel like this goes against that mission?
Zimitravich: Absolutely. GSU has used WRAS’s airplay as a bargaining chip to gain a state-wide audience for the University. We are unable to serve the community when 14 hours of our analog signal is covered by national programming. Our programming was tailored to the Atlanta community, GPB’s programming will not be. In fact, GPB’s programming will be redundant, as there is already a successful public station in Atlanta: WABE. The University is forcing us to be lost in the sea of online radio. WRAS will be rendered unable to offer the support and exposure to local artists, non-profits and venues, as it has done for the past 43 years. GSU thinks they are giving us an opportunity to grow, but in fact, they are taking our opportunities away.
How will it affect the local and campus music communities? The community at large?
Christy: I think the effects of this on the community will be enormous. The music we play on our station helps drive sales in our local, independent record stores. Our reach in the Metro Atlanta area, coupled with niche programming, allows us to do a variety of ticket giveaways through almost every venue in the area. I served as Promotions Director from 2012-2014 and, on average, I scheduled a couple hundred ticket giveaways per month. A majority of those giveaways were done during drive-time hours, the same hours that GPB plans to use our airwaves for their own programming. Those giveaways are a great bonus to our listeners, yes, but they also bring patrons to local Atlanta businesses nightly and new fans to a variety of local and national artists.
When a band can guarantee a certain amount of patrons in a venue on their home turf, that will influence their national touring options and success. Additionally, we’ve broken so many local artists through airplay on our station. We’re credited for breaking R.E.M., The B-52s, Outkast, Deerhunter, and many others. Just recently I saw local acts The Coathangers and Black Lips charting nationally through CMJ. Removing WRAS daytime programming from our analog listeners will negatively impact the way the station runs, our relationships with the industry, our local shops and businesses, and the musicians that we support.
What are you doing to fight it?
Christy: Oh, the backlash on this is unlike anything I could have ever imagined. Since after the announcement on Tuesday, WRAS has been trending on Twitter in Atlanta with the popular hashtag #saveWRAS. Our official Facebook page has been overflowing with opposition to this takeover. The reach of our posts has increased, this week, by over 2000%. The love and support of our listeners and alumni has been overwhelming. The consensus is not, “Well this is unfortunate.” This is not being accepted. People are willing to fight to keep this station alive, relevant, and in the hands of the student volunteers who have worked to keep it running for 43 years.
We’re getting countless calls, emails, Facebook messages, tweets, and visitors to the station asking about who to contact about this. Those people are then being directed towards the people responsible for this backdoor deal, so that they can be heard. A Facebook page “Boycott GPB on 88.5″ was created by a listener on Tuesday afternoon and has already exceeded 4000 likes. A Change.org petition was made that evening and has already garnered over 5000 signatures. A WRAS tumblr with all of this information has been created. We’ve also been contacted by alumni and various members of the community who want to offer legal counsel, organize protests, boycott GPB, withhold donations to the university, and so on. There’s a silent protest at the GSU Commencement. Grads will wear WRAS stickers on their caps. It’s one thing to be a part of this station and feel camaraderie with listeners when they call or when you meet them at an event, that’s such a great feeling, but to experience the magnitude of thousands of listeners showing their support and their passion for the station… that is truly amazing.
What’s the future look like for WRAS?
Zimitravich: The future for WRAS looks grim. With the loss of our analog broadcast between the hours of 5 a.m. and 7 p.m. every single day, people are going to have a harder time finding us. Especially our older listeners. Without the accessibility that we’ve enjoyed through our analog signal, we fear that our promoter-venue-artist-nonprofit relationships will suffer. What incentive will these patrons have to submit music/tickets/PSAs with us if their exposure is going to be limited? For the past 43 years we have been a viable source for new music, student-related news, non-profit publicity and highly-coveted ticket giveaways; this is all going to change when 100 hours of our analog programming is cloaked by GPB’s talk radio each week. All of our agreements that facilitated the broadcast of student-created programming be rendered useless by this change; all the research-based programming that we were venturing to create will be a moot point. We will not longer be a viable resource for student-related news or the promotion of student groups, clubs and media over the analog air.
In addition to this, our programming schedule will have to change drastically to accommodate the new listeners we are about to acquire from this merger. Currently our schedule includes 16 hours of rotation each day, and 6 hours of specialty programming; with bits of news and public affairs programming sprinkled in here and there. The administrators suggested that we pay attention to our ratings, and choose “accessible” music to air after the GPB programs end at 7 p.m. Hopefully by carefully marketing our analog broadcasts, we can “have the opportunity to increase our listenership”. A listenership that is undoubtedly going to suffer from this agreement.
The GSU administration has made it very clear that ratings and demographics mattered in their decision to share our airtime. It is my fear, that if our demographics continue to linger in the 30-60 range and our ratings continue to suffer in comparison to GPB’s, that we will lose all of our analog to GPB in a deal reevaluation. At the very least, we will be stuck in this airtime sharing agreement until 2028. The GSU administration says that this is a temporary merger, but this is absolutely false. According to the contract, at the end of the initial 2 years there is a Renewal Agreement, which states that the agreement is automatically renewed every 2 years until 2020, after which the agreement is automatically renewed for a successive 8 years. If this contract stands, WRAS will be stuck with the GPB monkey on its back for a very long time.