GPB's partnership with GSU and WRAS one year later

By RODNEY HO/, originally filed Thursday, August 27, 2015

The blindside, the outrage, the protests. What happened a little over a year ago between Georgia Public Broadcasting and Georgia State University had plenty of drama.

GPB's surprise takeover of 100 hours of Georgia State's beloved WRAS-FM weekly airspace last year pitted a public broadcasting entity seeking an entree into the Atlanta radio market against helpless students who simply love music and radio. In exchange, GPB granted GSU access to a state-wide TV channel to produce original content and expanded intern opportunities.

A year has passed. How are things going?

Naturally, that assessment depends on who you are and who you ask.

Credit: Rodney Ho

Credit: Rodney Ho

Georgia Public Broadcasting

For Georgia Public Broadcasting, the benefits are obvious. It now has access to a full-market FM radio signal it never had before for key hours of the day on 88.5. As for results, it's way too early to provide a full assessment.

GPB only began doing a widespread billboard awareness campaign in the spring on MARTA buses, in malls and off highways (including a prominent one going north on I-85 near Spaghetti Junction.).

During the July quarterly board meeting, GPB president Teya Ryan did not address how much money GPB had invested in WRAS programming or marketing and none of the board members asked. In fact, there was no financial presentation at all. Neither Ryan nor Tanya Ott, vice president for radio, were made available for interviews.

In response to emailed questions, spokeswoman Mandy Wilson said the station has spent a modest $19,000 in billboard marketing through July, which seems awfully low considering the number and ubiquity of the billboard placements. "We plan to move forward in a similar fashion for the remainder of fiscal year 2016," which began in July 1, she wrote.

I have no idea how much money is being spent by GPB on WRAS for original and NPR-related programming. I also do not know how much underwriting they've received from corporations.

The answer I received from Wilson was vague and lacked specificity in terms of dollars: "Appropriate goals were established for underwriting and membership taking into account the newness of the station to the market and they were met.  We continue to see growth there, and we’re planning appropriately going forward."

From a ratings standpoint, 88.5/WRAS pulls in higher ratings with GPB's news/talk programming than it did as a full-time music station. But its numbers are still relatively modest, pulling in about 80,000 weekly listeners and a 0.5 share in July, according to Nielsen Audio. That was up from 0.4 before the billboard campaign and 0.1 or 0.2 when it was purely a music station.

"It’s important to keep in mind that GPB started on the airwaves in June of 2014 cold," Wilson wrote. "Any listenership has been built from the ground up.  Also, looking at those numbers as a whole really is comparing apples and oranges.  You need to break it down as we’ve done into these day-parts to get a true picture of growth.  In fact, we have grown and anyone starting a new service would be pleased with the growth we’re seeing. Public media audiences take time to build, and we’re in this for the long haul."

In comparison, 90.1/WABE-FM, the established public news/talk station in town, typically pulls in shares between 3 to 4 and 350,000 listeners a month.

"Putting these numbers up against WABE is a wholly unfair comparison," Wilson said. "They’ve been in the market over 50 years."

Credit: Rodney Ho

Credit: Rodney Ho

WRAS students

Not surprisingly, WRAS radio students are the biggest losers in this situation.

For a period of time after the announcement, students joined with WRAS alums, who created a non-profit organization Album 88 Alumni and created a Save WRAS page with bumper stickers and T-shirts. They held fundraisers and protests on Georgia State campus and at GPB headquarters in hopes of generating enough public outrage to snuff out the partnership. It didn't work. Management held firm. GSU students not directly affected shrugged. Life moved on.

While some alum and the Student Press Law Center were willing to help students file a lawsuit to stop the partnership, none of the students were willing to sign on.

Some WRAS fans were disappointed with the students. "The grown ups can't do this movement for them," said Grayson Daughters, a fan of the station for 30 years who was very vocal on social media against this deal. "They didn't want to make waves and didn't want to take a stand."

Although the students still have the evening and overnight hours on the FM dial, losing the daytime hours was a big blow to their overall audience. During the day, their listeners can reach them only through TuneIn (which has a modest 2,800 followers), Streema, the station app or its website.

With only a small fraction of their former listeners during the day, DJs have seen requests and reaction to ticket giveaways dwindle. The station was once considered one of the most influential college radio stations in the country in terms of breaking and highlighting new music.

"We used to get tickets to just about everything from the Variety Playhouse, the Masquerade, Star Bar," said Christopher Hoyt, a rising GSU junior and WRAS's promotions director. "We were even getting tickets to movies and festivals. But after the change, there was a dip not only in how much support we got from venues but we couldn't even give all the tickets away."

Hoyt was also dismayed that all the media coverage last year gave many people the impression "our station had been killed. It's much harder to recruit students to come in. We had the lowest number of applicants this summer in awhile. We had to reopen the application window."

He doesn't feel GPB does much to promote WRAS either during the day: "Everything they've done is calculated to detract power from us. I still feel like they want the entire station eventually."

GPB promised a 30-minute weekly music-themed show for WRAS students on the statewide network (including WRAS during the day) but WRAS students have said they didn't trust GPB so there has been no show.

"The parameters have not been established," Hoyt said. "I think there has not been clarity on what the expectations are, about what we can or cannot do."

Wilson, in the email response, said, "We’re ready to move forward when they are."

On the legal front, the students didn't fold completely.

In March, WRAS alums helped the students file an appeal with the Board of Regents (which oversees GSU)  to try to kill the partnership, arguing that student fees set aside for student activities were misused to upgrade the signal in anticipation of the GPB takeover. GSU, using student fees, spent $676,000 for a new transmitter.

The Board of Regents cannot revoke the GPB-GSU contract. But if board members decide GSU is in violation of its rules, the university may have to renegotiate the deal with GPB and include student involvement in a mediation process.  It has yet to respond to the appeal and could choose to do nothing. ("The Board of Regents is not exactly the most transparent or responsive organization in the world," said Zach Lancaster, president of Album 88.5 Alum.)

Douglass Covey, GSU's senior vice president for student affairs who oversees WRAS, said there has been no misuse of funds.

He also said the university fully supports the station: "We have invested in improving the technology and the infrastructure for the station. We're expanding their studio capability for multiple programming streams," he said. "We are renovating the existing movie theater so it can double as a broadcast facility."

Credit: Rodney Ho

Credit: Rodney Ho

Georgia State University film and TV production students

GPB promised new opportunities for GSU students and they appear to be fulfilling that promise.

"Since the beginning of the partnership in June 2014, we've had approximately 20 interns starting with the fall Semester of 2014 and going through the summer semester of 2015," Wilson wrote. "All of these interns have been on a production and journalism track. They have worked on television productions including "Lawmakers" and "Football Fridays in Georgia." They've shot and edited sports pieces for and served as reporters for web pieces. They've also worked in GPB Radio with Celeste Headlee and Bill Nigut on their programs. In addition, they've assisted GPB reporters with research and editing tape."

Wilson said in the spring semester of 2015, 60 students took full classes in GPB studios and 62 more were enrolled in classes who spent some time in studio space. Another 53 students enrolled in a “bootcamp” experience that met every Friday and which trained students specifically for TV operations work relating to GPB channel operations. Combining that with summer enrollments and anticipated fall enrollments, GSU officials have estimated conservatively that at least 300 GSU students will be directly connecting to GPB work, she said.

And while GPB has picked up several GSU students as interns, none have come from WRAS. When approached, "we probably jokingly jeered at them," said Jason Mueller, a senior and DJ at WRAS. "I can't imagine what positions they could provide us that we don't already have here."

The GPB partnership also requires GSU provide 12 hours of daily original programming to one of its secondary channels.

That is a major undertaking and GSU said it's committed to building its film and TV department in response to the growing needs in Georgia, where seasoned tax credits to film production companies in 2008 opened the floodgates for TV and film production in the area. This deal provides GSU students a bigger platform for its content.

In January, GSU hired Bob Judson from SCAD to manage the TV operations. He spent 16 years as head of business development at Crawford Communications and runs his own production company Image Digital Media.

Over the summer, with a relatively small crew of students, Judson has already helped develop several new shows for GPB's Knowledge Channel, which launched June 1.

"We need more students with practical experience," Judson said earlier this summer. "They start producing when they hit the door. I see this as a tremendous win win for everybody involved."

He is working on shows addressing technology innovation, the arts and the environment. You can view some of the early content here on a special GSU YouTube channel.

"We will really come out of the shoot starting in September," Judson said.

Here is the first episode of a travel show "Georgia Detours," which is similar to GPB's existing show "Georgia Traveler."

"We’re very pleased with what we’ve seen from them so far, and look forward to where they’re heading," Wilson said, of GSU's video product so far.  "There has been a tremendous amount of talent and ambition shown, and this is just the beginning."

Credit: Rodney Ho

Credit: Rodney Ho

90.1/ WABE-FM

The arrival of NPR programming on WRAS nudged primary NPR station WABE toward a full-day news/talk format, dropping classical music earlier this year.

Although WABE executives said they had been planning this transition for years, GPB's moves clearly forced their hand. It has expanded its news operations and added brand new news/talk programming featuring Lois Reitzes, Denis O'Hayer and Rose Scott.

So far, WRAS has not deeply impacted WABE ratings, corporate underwriting or individual support. But news/talk costs more money and WABE went on a hiring spree a few months ago to bolster its news staff in preparation for more news/talk programming.

As a result, financially, Public Broadcasting Atlanta - which owns WABE - has opted to dip into reserves for the next couple of years until revenues catch up to costs.

WABE has also hired a new CEO Wonya Lucas, who has deep experience in television marketing and brand strategy at places like TV One, Turner, CNN, the Weather Channel and Discovery. (Read my recent interview with her here.)

Credit: Rodney Ho

Credit: Rodney Ho


For listeners, the changes were a plus or a minus depending on what they like.

The tens of thousands of Atlantans who enjoy college radio were clearly disappointed by the loss of WRAS on the FM dial during the day. And many more who enjoyed classical music during the day remain upset that WABE dropped music in favor of news/talk in January.

But Atlantans who enjoy following local, national and international news have gotten a big boost in options. WABE has bolstered its news/talk offerings on the station and online with an expanded news operation that now numbers 20 (vs. fewer than 5 a decade ago.)

Among GPB's local offereings include GPB's WRAS hosts Celeste Headlee's daily show "On Second Thought" at 9 a.m. and veteran journalist Bill Nigut's weekly deep dive show called "Two Way Street" on the weekend. There is some duplication in programming (e.g. "Morning Edition," "This American Life," "All Things Considered") but GPB does provide several national shows not heard on WABE including "On Point" and "The Takeaway."

Credit: Rodney Ho

Credit: Rodney Ho

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