Q&A with GSU president Mark Becker about WRAS/GPB partnership

The surprise announcement of Georgia Public Broadcasting partnering up with 88.5/WRAS-FM has caused a maelstrom of controversy, kicked up heavily by angry RAS alumni on social media.

Mark Becker, president of GSU, was at the AJC coincidentally today to talk about their proposal to take over Turner Field and I got a few minutes with him to discuss the GPB deal. (You can read details of what is going to happen next month here.)

Here are some excerpts:

Ho: How long has this been in the works?

Becker: There's been conversations on and off for years and years, well before I ever arrived.

Ho: Why now?

Becker: Everything has come together around this being an attractive opportunity for Georgia State University... First off, for the radio side, the WRAS component, the students continue to program 24/7 as they always have. The only difference is that it won't be out on an analog antenna at all times. At times, it will be purely digital, at times, it will be both. On top of that, they get the opportunity to program a new show for a much larger audience and go statewide. That's the music stories piece in the announcement. [It's a 30-minute weekly show created by the students that will be part of the block GPB controls.]

The way this works is RAS will continue to be a student-0perated radio station. GPB does not have editorial oversight over RAS.

Ho: People were talking about that online.

Becker: GPB only has editorial oversight on the music show because it's produced for them. The rest of RAS is student run. What changes is at 5 a.m. in the morning until 7 p.m at night, it flips. Another opportunity for the students is pick up a new group of listeners above and beyond those they already have when the switch flips at 7 p.m. They continue to do a great job and have shows at 7, 8 and 9 where they could potentially grow their listenership.

Ho: A lot of students listen in the evenings.

Becker: If you look at it, the majority of listenership is a more mature audience, older than 30 years old and are not alums. There are many who are and many who are not... It's a great, innovative station and will continue to be and will continue to have its own operating structure. But there's the opportunity to pull in other folks who demographically are already listening to WRAS. Some emails I got say they listen to both WRAS and WABE.

Another component that made us more interested was a year and a half ago, our communications department that runs our film production program in a meeting said they were looking for an opportunity for an outlet for students to produce more film and TV. We have an internal GSU television studio that is not run by students. This provides the same opportunity for students on the film and video side have that radio students have. It expands student opportunities [by allowing them to work at GPB.].. It's a big growing part of Georgia State University. You know what the film industry is doing here. We are a big player here in terms of our programs.

Ho: Some argue that this becomes less appealing for students because they won't be on the analog signal during the day and decrease their influence with recording artists and labels.  Do you agree with that?

Becker: That's only if people want it to be that way. It doesn't have to be that way. There's a lot of digital content out there that's doing quite well that has listenership on par or greater than WRAS. Note that TV is all digital. Radio is going in that direction... With GPB as a partner, they can produce content if it's picked up by this audience that flows over from GPB, they can grow not only the local audience but syndicate and potentially go nationwide throughout the NPR network. The opportunities for the students at RAS are opportunities they've never had before. Look. They are recognized nationally already. But they can up their game by growing their listenership and in this digital world, it doesn't have to be within the 100,000 watt listening area.

Ho: A lot of students felt they were blindsided. They weren't given advance notice or involvement.  Do you feel like that would have complicated things if you had?

Becker: There's no way you could do something complicated like this in the way that some people would have liked to happen.

Ho: What would have happened if you offered a trial balloon?

Becker: That's a hypothetical. I can't tell you what would have happened. I can tell you that anything with this level of complexity and this level of benefit really is not the kind of thing you can play out in a public forum. It just doesn't work. It doesn't happen that way.

Ho: Do you think social media would have gotten crazy?

Becker: Look at what happened over the past 24 hours.

Ho: But it's a done deal.

Becker: But what's happened in the past 24 hours is it's gone on social media and there's been a lot of misconceptions.

Ho: Like people saying the students will lose total control of the station.

Becker: Some of the emails said it's about money. That's patently false. If it was about money, we would have sold the license.

Ho: You're not getting a lot of money from this.

Becker: Exactly.

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About the Author

Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho covers radio and television for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.