In a major move to compete with 90.1/WABE-FM, Georgia Public Broadcasting will be taking over WRAS-FM/88.5 FM signal from 5 a.m.. to 7 p.m. daily with public radio offerings.
The station has been in operation since 1971 and is known as Album 88. At 100,000 watts since 1987, it's one of the strongest signals in the country for a college radio station.
The change happens sometime in June.
This move will help out FM listeners who like to hear public radio talk and news programs from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. when WABE airs classical music. Talk fans have complained for years about WABE's dual role.
GPB, which has been angling for a radio signal in Atlanta for years, has not announced its schedule just yet, but "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" programs will be heard on WRAS. Those are signature shows that receive high ratings for WABE. (I left a message with WABE Chief Operating Officer John Weatherford for his reaction and will update this when I get one.)
According to GPB in its press release, "public service announcements promoting the university will air during" the day. From 7 p.m. to 5 a.m., the station will continue to be programmed by Georgia State students.
Daytime radio broadcasting from Album 88 will be streamed live online from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m.
In an exclusive interview with Teya Ryan, the GPB CEO and president, she said the deal has been in the works for awhile but wasn't signed until 5 p.m. Monday. Wearing a black t-shirt announcing the merger, she said students will also have access to GPB studios to shoot TV programs and receive mentorships from GPB staff. "The potential for career endeavors and learning are far great for the students than there are today," Ryan said.
GPB has committed to at least one 30-minute weekly music-related show hosted by students during their 98-hour weekly schedule thought he schedule itself has not been finalized. They also are planning some local programming on top of purchased shows from the likes of NPR and PBI.
She said GPB over the years has tried an outright purchase of a station but a partnership like this is more feasible.
"Change is hard," she said. "It never comes easy. But what students are getting in the long run will be of very high value for their futures."
GPB will pay GSU $150,000 for an initial two-year deal.
"This new partnership is a proverbial win-win and opens the door for future collaboration,” said Dr. Mark P. Becker, Georgia State president, in the press release. “Our students will have new and exciting opportunities in the changing media landscape, and this partnership allows both GPB and Georgia State to better serve the metro Atlanta region as well as the state."
GSU spokeswoman Andrea Jones said this move had nothing to do with finances: "The money will be used to defray operating costs during the hours we're carrying their programming on our station. This decision was not financially motivated – if that were the case, we could have sold the license. Expanding internship and opportunities for our students was our No. 1 priority."
The station format has changed over the years but has been primarily rock focused. It started with progressive rock, then went punk and new wave in the early 1980s when it received its Album 88 moniker, said Gail Harris, a Decatur resident who worked at WRAS from 1976 to 1993 and organizes alumni reunions. She said later in the 1980s, the station went alternative rock. After commercial rock station 99x debuted in 1992, Album 88 went more indie rock. She said the music has gotten more eclectic in recent years.
Harris said the station was a launching pad for her record label and radio career. "We were family. We all mentored each other. It was an opportunity for leadership for students who took on positions like program director, music director and general management. They were 20 year olds meeting with record executives and going to conventions. It was a magical experience for so many people."
She was upset not just by the news itself but by the way it was conveyed. "I am unhappy with the lack of transparency," Harris said, noting that there was no community debate prior to the surprise announcement.
Ana Zimitravich, the outgoing WRAS general manager and senior at GSU, said she found out along with the rest of the student staff today. "It's a total, complete shock," she said. "I had no idea this change was coming."
She said with this new generation of students who grew up with Pandora and Spotify, getting them to listen to WRAS is a tougher challenge. But the station does have its fans.
"If we're going to survive, "she said, "we're going to have to think strategically about our marketing here on out. This deal in my mind goes against our mission statement, which is to break new music and play music that wouldn't otherwise get played anywhere else."
"We support artists we believe in," she said. "It's going to be harder to do that" with 98 hours a week of analog FM access gone. "This will have a huge effect on our relationship with promoters in the community and promoters at CMJ [the music magazine.] We used to be a major test market for CMJ artists. It's going to be harder for us to be a viable resource for artists and promoters."
The student management at WRAS later in the day out with their own statement you can read here. The statement also includes contact information to GSU management in case folks want to provide after-the-fact feedback.
Here is a segment from the statement:
While we regret the decision greatly, know that neither WRAS staff nor management had any part of this change. Acting unilaterally as the FCC licensee, Georgia State University administration has chosen this route with stated goals of increasing listenership and generating a positive partnership between the institution and GPB.
First, up until the announcement was made this morning, WRAS staff was never of the understanding that our ratings mattered. As a college radio station, the mission of our station has never been to make the rich richer or to give airtime to mainstream music. This being true, we have never been concerned about ratings nor were we aware that the administration was until this morning. Our interests, instead, were delivering quality and diverse music to our listeners and supplying an alternative to mainstream radio.
Spokesman Jones gave this rationale for not giving students or the community advance notice of a move that they must have known would cause push back:
"While students are entrusted to run the station, WRAS is ultimately a university asset. This opens the door for long-term opportunities between GPB and Georgia State. Terms of the contract evolved over time, and we shared the decision as soon as it was signed."
She also said ratings are not a factor in this deal and whether the partnership will be expanded after two years. (In recent Nielsen Audio ratings, WRAS typically pulls in a modest 0.2 or 0.3 rating, better than Georgia Tech's WREK.)
Mike Savage, a WRAS alum and former GPB radio employee, said GPB executives have been trying to gain access to the Atlanta market for decades and this is a first step toward GPB eventually taking over the entire station.
GPB tried to create a similar partnership in 2007 with WREK-FM, the Georgia Tech radio station, according to a story in Creative Loafing. But it never happened.
GPB radio covers all of Georgia except Atlanta, by far the most populous city in the state. "From a public radio perspective," wrote Savage, who is now general manager of Purdue University's public radio station WBAA in Indiana, "this poses a serious challenge to WABE. Although public radio stations are not supposed to be competitors in the same market, it does happen i.e. Boston (WBUR & WGBH and Salt Lake City (KUER & KCPW)."
Savage added: "I believe this is a power play by GPB to potentially cripple WABE with whom they have never had a very good relationship with."
Ryan said she has nothing but respect for what Public Broadcasting Atlanta (which runs WABE-FM.) "My philosophy is, the more public radio, the better."
Not surprisingly, many WRAS alums are none too pleased by this development and have voiced their complaints on social media.
Heather Murphy, a former program director at WRAS in the early 1990s and senior writer at HLN, said WRAS alum are trying to figure out an effective way to mobilize against this move.
"It was clear to me then that GSU didn't appreciate the value of WRAS to its students or the community," Murphy wrote in an email Wednesday morning. "The experience of working at WRAS far outweighed the lessons offered in the classroom. I could not have transitioned to the professional world so quickly and easily without the contacts and experience I had from working at WRAS."
She believes "this is likely the beginning of the end of WRAS, a truly tragic end for one of the most unique cultural outlets and learning resources in the country."
Ed Hula, a WRAS alum, in PeachPundit called this a royal "screw up" for GSU.
There are generations of people who benefited from exposure to the music of WRAS. I, and many other students, went to GSU specifically because of WRAS and the chance to work there. Not only that, but I challenge you to find more than three people who worked at WRAS and didn’t love every second of it. Will GPB deliver that same impact, and be that formative for so many people? Absolutely not. Especially because on an initial reading of the announcement, there seems to be at best, a minimal amount of new content that will be aired on 88.5.
Another alum Dan Lynn sent me this email in capital block letters:
WRAS IS GETTING TAKEN OVER BY GPB AND THE ALUMS ARE PISSED. THIS IS SO WRONG. SO MANY OF US HAVE CAREERS BECAUSE OF THIS STATION AND NOW GPB IS STEALING A 100,000 WATT STATION? THE STRONGEST STUDENT RUN STATION IN THE USA? WOW. THE NEWS HAS SPREAD FAST TO CALIFORNIA, WHERE ALUMS WORK FOR DISNEY.
RICHARD BELCHER AND CHUCK DOWDLE GOT THEIR STARTS THERE. WE NEED TO FIGHT BACK, RODNEY. WE NEED YOUR HELP,
Lynn said in a subsequent, calmer email, that when he was there, the station interviewed U2 and the Go Go's and had Elvis Costello guest DJ. Van Halen visited, he recalled.
Jill Melancon, who hosted the Georgia Music Show from 1986 to 1988, recalled playing the predecessors to the Black Crowes and Collective Soul.
Zachary Lancaster, production director in 2010 and 2011, said R.E.M. and OutKast had their first public airplay on WRAS.
If you want to see what WRAS looks like, they produced a video earlier this year: