WRAS students, alums fight GPB partnership - but will it work?

Georgia State University knew if they revealed their plans to give 98 hours a week of 88.5/WRAS-FM's airtime to Georgia Public Broadcasting before the deal was signed, the outrage might have made it difficult for them to pull it off. So instead, they did it in secret and announced the deal to students and the public at large after the fact.

The students who work at WRAS were in shell shock the first day. But now that reality has set in, they are fighting back the best way they can, even though they know the train is already out of the station and GSU president Mark Becker is not exactly open to changing his mind.

To make matters worse, they see the timing as deliberate. Most students have left campus now that finals are over. And this is the time when WRAS has just changed student management. Their key advisor, Jeff Walker, who has been the station's rock for more than three decades, is coincidentally (or not) retiring in July and keeping his mouth shut, caught in the middle of a controversy not of his making.

The students are not going rogue on the radio. They have followed management's request to keep things neutral on the air. But that isn't' stopping them from trying other means to kick up a fuss.

Hashtag? Check. (#SaveWRAS)

Facebook page? Of course. (https://www.facebook.com/savemywras?fref=photo, which now has 5,273 followers)

Website? Check. (savewras.com)

Petition? Check. (Sign up here. There are 8,300-plus names)

Special logo? Got it!

wras protest

They encouraged graduates to place #saveWRAS logos on their caps Saturday. Several reportedly tried to hand out stickers at graduation at the Georgia Dome and the university shuttle but were booted out. So they retreated to the Georgia Dome MARTA station.

They are now on a full-court media press, courting sympathetic journalists for coverage, before the change is set to happen sometime early next month.

Ana Zimitravich, the outgoing general manager for WRAS who plans to stay through the summer, has spoken out the most. I stopped by the station for a couple of hours last Thursday and the students are trying their best to be optimistic.

"We're trying to facilitate our listeners and students and alumni," Zimitravich said.

They are calling WRAS alumni to get them energized and hope they can cause enough headaches with GSU management to at least delay or possibly change the arrangement. (Several alum are meeting Monday night to see what they can do to bring pressure on GSU.) If they can convince some heavy hitters to withhold donations, that might have an impact. (The contract enables GSU to end the deal at any time over the two years, with 30 days notice.) They are reading the contract and the charter for the station trying to find loopholes for possible legal action.

"They've been talking about it as a trial period," said Josh Martin, outgoing program director, in a follow-up interview Monday. "But the legal wording allows it to be instantly renewed until 2020." He said the contract also makes it possible for GPB to eventually share the radio license with GSU.

"We're resilient," he said. "We're in a lot better place than we were organization wise than we were last Friday. We're working with alumni. We're talking to people in the music industry."

"There is  a larger termination clause in the contract," he added. "We're doing everything we can to make that happen."

They are requesting a meeting with Becker and are organizing a benefit concert.

Ziggy (left), the incoming assistant promotions director,  earlier this week made calls to alums. He consults with Ana (right) CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com

The clock is ticking and the impact of this change, students believe, will be severe.

By losing the analog channel, they believe they will lose virtually anyone listening in the car or on their home alarm clocks, where FM radio is mostly easily accessed. They will now have to rely on folks to seek them out on smartphones, tablets, laptops and the like or the small number of folks who have a special HD radio.

(The station, in its current incarnation, draws about 65,000 listeners a week vs. 400,000 for WABE-FM, according to Nielsen Audio. Its ratings are around 0.2 or 0.3 compared to a 3 share for WABE.)

Currently, the station gives away tickets to concerts all over town. Will those venues even bother anymore? Will record labels want to still to send them new music? How will their schedules look now? Which specialty shows may have to be sacrificed?

What should they air at 7 p.m. now that the president says they are given this great opportunity to draw bigger audiences?

"It has to be something nonabrasive," Zimitravich said. "It also has to be consistent programming at 7. Right now, it's something different every day."

Zimitravich said GSU management broached ratings and demographics to her last week in a way she had never heard before.

To date, the students have approached college radio as a learning tool and a way to expose listeners to music they wouldn't hear on commercial radio. Zimitravich said ratings and demographics were never a primary concern - or much of a concern at all - until the GSU brass brought it up last week with this partnership announcement.  They were given no warning whatsoever about such issues.

Now it appears they are going to have to care to some degree.

The students feel that trading 98 hours a week of 100,000 watt listening time for a promised 30-minute music show isn't a worthy trade off. If anything, it proves the FM dial still has value in this day and age of Spotify and Pandora.

"If it didn't have value, they would have given GPB the HD channel," Zimitravich said.

They are skeptical about opportunities GPB is promising them (though they know management is painting them as ingrates, as a result.) They feel the university sacrificed the radio station students for the film students, who will have access to a GPB digital studio to create original programming.

"It's sacrificing the radio in favor of TV," Zimitravich said.

They feel betrayed by GSU management and railroaded because they were given zero input into this change. Vice President of Student Affairs Doug Covey, said Martin, had said nothing but supportive things about WRAS before this announcement but is now touting it as a win-win for everyone. (Covey told Doug Richards at 11 Alive: " I feel confident that over time, once we start realizing the benefits of this collaboration, I think people will look back in a few years and say this was really a good move.")

Zimitravich said it's likely GPB programming will draw more listeners than what they had been airing. As a result, she believes the station will ultimately go 24/7 GPB after the two-year deal is up. 'They've been trying to buy us out for years," she said.

WRAS will not ostensibly change in terms of how it operates day to day. It will keep its space the GSU University Center. GPB won't be taking over any of its studios. It's just the impact to the outside world that will change.

The studio itself is a rock and roll museum with original vinyl going back decades filling one room, stickers of bands long forgotten all along the cabinets and posters and commemorative gold records lining the walls:  Van Halen. The B-52s. The Go Go's. Weezer. Soundgarden. The Indigo Girls. Arrested Development. Chris Isaak. INXS. Cracker.

The WRAS office wall features records from the Go Go's and the B-52s that go back decades. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com
New WRAS GM Alayna Fabricius faces a very different world than her predecessor. She was the first student told about the new partnership last Tuesday. This schedule, she said, will change quite a bit. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com
The WRAS vinyl room packed with classic vinyl going back to the 1970s. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com
On Thursday afternoon, May 9, a dozen students were rallying the troops via phone and social media. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com
GSU student and DJ Cubah Dougsiyeh.
Arrested Development, the Atlanta group, got plenty of love from WRAS during its heyday. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com
Singer Chris Isaak was once alternative enough to get love from WRAS. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com

Past stories about this situation:

5/7/14: Q&A with GSU president Mark Becker

5/7/14: Public radio talk fans will benefit from new partnership

5/6/14: GSU/GPB deal over WRAS catches community by surprise

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About the Author

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