What does Georgia State’s 88.5/WRAS-FM merger mean for Atlanta?

It’s been characterized as a corporate takeover of one of the most independent college radio stations in America, a forced marriage of two Atlanta institutions: the powerhouse Georgia Public Broadcasting and Georgia State University’s student-led 88.5/WRAS-FM.

But behind the deal, which both institutions sealed last month, lay hard realities that almost made it inevitable in a nationally changing college radio market — even as it hit WRAS supporters like a brick and raised the hackles of what has been metro Atlanta’s lone (and now competing) public radio station.

GPB, Georgia’s premier public broadcaster, began operating a statewide public radio network in the mid-1980s but never had a dedicated station in Atlanta. Georgia State, a rapidly growing star of the state University System, wanted expanded radio and television programming and more professional opportunities for its students.

Officials from both trumpet the “partnership” as one of opportunities for both institutions. Disc jockey and former WRAS General Manager Ana Zimitravich, who notes the university did not inform students until the deal was completed, said it stifles a unique voice in the Atlanta radio market and ends a historic run. WRAS, founded in 1971, grew over time to broadcast on a 100,000-watt signal — a power matched by few college radio stations nationally and the very reason it found a suitor.

“They presented this to us like it was a gift or an opportunity,” Zimitravich said of the merger, which was set to begin last Monday until university officials delayed it to June 29.

“I worked really had to ensure we were following the policies that had been preached to us,” she said. “I worked hard to make sure the administration never had a reason to do something like this. I thought this could only happen if we weren’t following the rules, doing things we weren’t supposed to do.”

Georgia State announced May 6 that it had entered into the GPB contract, allowing the broadcaster to take over the station’s FM daily airspace from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. Under the deal, students will be left with the remaining evening and overnight hours and a weekly half-hour magazine radio program about music and culture. They also gain access to a GPB television station and studio facility between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. GPB also promises to let them stream music all day online.

Partnership discussions between GPB and Georgia State have gone on for years, but neither the timing nor the technology was quite right. With the advent of digital television and expansion of digital radio, the current deal with its offerings for students was a good fit and could open the door for work with Georgia’s film industry, university President Mark Becker said Friday.

When the announcement came, the reaction was immediate. Within hours the news had spread throughout the city, a #SaveWRAS social media campaign was launched, and a group of school alumni planned to begin a nonprofit organization to fight the format switch and ultimately fund station initiatives.

In an ideal world, station supporters hoped Georgia State will simply kill the deal and leave WRAS in its current student-run form. WRAS leaders are optimistic, but not naive.

“We still hope they terminate the contract altogether,” said Josh Martin, who just completed a term as WRAS’ program director. “If not, we are still working on options to make everyone happy.”

The deal has also reverberated nationally, highlighted by the fact that this type of student-station takeover is not unique to Georgia.

“We go through periods like this where we see stations being sold off,” said Robert Quicke, an associate communications professor at William Paterson University in New Jersey and founder of the College Radio Day movement.

The movement launched in 2011, the year Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., sold the signal to its campus station to the city’s public radio station. The University of San Francisco also sold its station in 2011, and a year before Rice University in Texas sold its station’s license and frequency and became a full-time classical music and arts station.

“I don’t think (college radio) will ever disappear but will possibly take a different form,” Quicke said. He is among those who noted WRAS made a name for itself early by championing new bands including R.E.M. and Outkast. Its programming, too, is as diverse as the interests of its students. It’s often the only place on Atlanta’s radio dial to hear, say, experimental electronica or acoustic punk.

To that end, Quicke likens college radio to fine art: It’s not the medium for everyone, but if it disappeared tomorrow, “think how much less rich our culture would be,” he said. “College radio will never be mainstream. It’s not meant to be. It has a track record of playing things that no one else does.”

Under the new “news and information” format, it will also compete directly with 90.1/WABE-FM. That station, which bills itself as Georgia’s first public radio station, signed on the air Sept. 13, 1948. “We weren’t surprised; I would say more disappointed,” WABE President and CEO Milton Clipper said. “It does create duplication. In this case, it seems as if the transaction comes really at the expense of the students.”

WABE Chief Operating Officer John Weatherford said the station expects an impact with the deal and is already strategically planning to deal with it, although he declined to give specifics for competitive reasons.

Both GPB and university officials stressed last week that they had every intention of preserving a 24-hour student-run music station — even if it only streamed online during the day. They also stressed their intent to keep students involved in programming choices — one of the primary fears of those fighting the merger.

“Each social media post, email and phone call has been taken very seriously regarding this matter,” GPB spokeswoman Mandy Wilson said in an email. “For years, GPB has had a strong statewide presence. Establishing a bureau in Atlanta will help us initiate substantive conversations between Atlanta and the rest of the state.”