A powerful college radio station finds its wings clipped

Student management of Album 88 entered the Georgia State University Dean of Students office May 6 for a meeting they presumed was not that big a deal.

But it was a very big deal. Douglass Covey, senior vice president of student affairs, gave the students news that left them slack-jawed: Georgia Public Broadcasting was taking over the station’s FM airspace from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily starting June 2.

Josh Martin, a GSU grad student and outgoing program director for 88.5/WRAS-FM, listened with increasing consternation as an upbeat Covey told them they’d be able to keep an online stream and how great that would be. Martin, trying to be respectful, asked, “If it’s so great, why don’t you give GPB the stream?”

Because the FM dial still matters. GPB wants WRAS’ powerful 100,000 watts to air public radio programs such as “All Things Considered” and “Takeaway.”

Bottom line: Album 88 will never be the same.

“So what?” you might think. It’s just college radio, that “left of the dial” world packed with obscure bands, weirdly eclectic specialty shows and slacker jocks.

“A lot of people just sort of write off college radio,” said Rob Quicke, an assistant communications professor at William Paterson University in Wayne, N.J., and creator of College Radio Day, an annual day to celebrate college radio that began in 2010. “But rumors of our death is greatly exaggerated.”

To Quicke, WRAS remains one of the most potent college radio stations in America. “This news is absolutely devastating,” he said.

For more than four decades, WRAS has been Atlanta’s go-to home for alternative non-commercial fare, well respected nationwide among acts, record labels and hard-core music fans.

Promoters give Album 88 reams of free tickets to market shows at venues such as the Earl and the Masquerade. Record labels still woo the student music director with new songs. And bands regularly visit the studios.

Over the years, the student-run operation has helped break artists that eventually became superstars, from U2 and R.E.M. to Weezer and Nirvana, from Arrested Development and Outkast to Arcade Fire and the Black Keys. Hundreds of WRAS alumni have made their imprint in the media world, including Richard Belcher of Channel 2 Action News (the first WRAS GM in 1971) and Jez De Wolff, senior marketing director at Adult Swim, part of the Turner Entertainment empire.

“I would not be where I am in my life without WRAS,” said De Wolff, WRAS general manager in 1999-2000.

In 1992, the rising popularity of WRAS’ music in the mainstream led top 40 station Power 99 to become 99X, which became one of the biggest commercial stations of its ilk. “We were always listening to WRAS to see what they were doing,” said Steve Craig, midday host for 99X for most of its run and now a jock at 97.1/The River. “We took them very seriously. They had a finger on the pulse. They lived that particular lifestyle we were trying to reflect.”

To this day, Album 88’s cramped offices are a rock ‘n’ roll museum of sorts going back to the 1970s with gold records from the B-52s, the Indigo Girls and Soundgarden. One room features decades-old vinyl that DJs are encouraged to raid. A schedule on a big board in the main studio features quirky shows such as “New Theory” (chillwave and ambient pop) and “Fight the Power” (video-game and anime themed music).

WRAS’ outsized influence has been goosed by its signal strength. Currently, its estimated weekly listenership is 60,000 people, according to Nielsen.

Since 1987, the station emanates 100,000 watts, the most powerful signal the Federal Communications Commission will legally allow. Only about a dozen stations in Atlanta can match Album 88’s power, reaching up to 100 miles outside of downtown Atlanta on the FM dial.

Easy access in the car has kept FM relevant, even with the rise of Web-based radio services such as Pandora and Spotify. More than 90 percent of the U.S. population listen to AM/FM radio in a given week, according to a Nielsen Audio study last December. The average person listens to radio 14 hours a week, down from a decade ago but well ahead of Internet listening.

And that’s why GPB — seeking to compete with Public Broadcasting Atlanta’s 90.1/WABE-FM — has been circling the station for decades.

Without the FM dial 98 hours a week, WRAS jocks worry the station will lose a vast majority of its listeners and its ability to help record labels and musicians.

To complicate matters, the 60 students involved with the station remain angry they were left out of the negotiations. GSU President Mark Becker has indicated in interviews that it’s a done deal.

Nonetheless, the rebel spirit of WRAS was quickly realized as the news reverberated among listeners and alumni. Within 48 hours, there was a hashtag (#SaveWRAS), a website (http://savewras.com/) and a Facebook page (“Boycott GPB on 88.5”) A petition has drawn 9,000 names. A benefit concert Thursday at the Drunken Unicorn music club on Ponce de Leon Avenue drew more than 250 supporters.

GSU’s Covey cited greater internship opportunities for GSU students through GPB, access to GPB’s TV studios and a 30-minute weekly student-hosted music show during GPB’s airtime.

Martin said his colleagues are underwhelmed by the promised benefits and met with Covey and Becker on Friday. After the meeting, Martin said he felt a compromise is possible. “The deal is not being canceled,” Martin said. “But they seem to be receptive for changes to make everyone happy. They didn’t understand how much of an impact this will have on the station.”

In response, GSU released a statement: “We had a highly positive and productive meeting and agreed to work with them to explore options.”

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