Georgia State student radio staff 'shocked' by deal turning over daytime programming to state's public broadcasting network

GEORGIA — A deal will give daytime programming hours on Georgia State University’s WRAS-FM to professionals and relegate student deejays to evening and overnight time slots and online streams.

The deal, announced Tuesday, establishes a two-year partnership between Georgia State University, which holds the license to WRAS, and Georgia Public Broadcasting, a state network of public television and radio stations.

The decision has angered and shocked WRAS staff, who were kept in the dark until after the university’s contract with GPB was finalized. They’re worried the deal will force students to change the way they operate and could ultimately result in either the sale of the station or nighttime programming being turned over to GPB as well.

“It is a very, very big change that we had no idea was coming,” said Ana Zimitravich, a senior who served as the station’s general manager for the past two years.

GPB has 17 radio stations that broadcast across most of the state except Atlanta. The deal will give the public network a chance to reach that market — the ninth-largest in the U.S. — during prime time radio hours, from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m., beginning in June.

The daytime lineup is still being developed, but will follow a talk radio format that will broadcast locally produced shows as well as national shows produced by National Public Radio, Public Radio International and American Public Media, according to a statement from the university. GPB’s daytime programming will be up against WABE 90.1, an NPR-affiliate in Atlanta that broadcasts a mix of NPR shows and classical music sets.

Representatives from GPB could not be reached for comment.

Students will continue to be responsible for broadcasts 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but during the time that GPB is broadcasting over WRAS 88.5, the students’ programming will go out on the station’s HD radio channel and on its online stream. In the evenings, programming on the FM station will revert back to student DJs.

The daytime hours represent the bulk of WRAS programming, said Dar Zaccaro, the station’s music director. New DJs start out on graveyard shifts, from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m., and work their way up to hosting daytime “rotations.” Those two-hour blocks throughout the day are a chance for more experienced DJs to play new, independent music that listeners might not otherwise hear.

Both Zimitravich and Alayna Fabricius, the station’s current general manager, said they worry the split programming will affect partnerships WRAS has with music distributors and local concert venues, who donate concert tickets for giveaways. WRAS broadcasts to a key test market in the southeast, but the limited FM hours will cut down who they reach, she said.

“Why would they continue an agreement with us when it’s only WRAS half the time?” Zimitravich asked.

In interviews, university officials characterized the hand-off between GPB and WRAS staff as a technical one that would not have much impact on students’ day-to-day operations. Douglass Covey, Georgia State’s vice president of student affairs, acknowledged the importance of daytime programming to radio generally but emphasized that students’ experience in the studio would remain the same. The hope, he said, is that GPB’s larger audience will stick around for WRAS programming after 7 p.m.

“We have the potential to build a larger audience overall,” Covey said.

Ratings and listenership have never previously been a big priority for WRAS staff, Zimitravich said — the goal was to be an outlet for music that otherwise wouldn’t make it on the air. But the conversations they had with administrators Tuesday left both women feeling as though ratings would play a bigger role in the future.

“They want the listeners that we’re going to gain from GPB’s programming, they want them to stick around after it ends,” Fabricius said. “What they have suggested to me is that they want the programming to be more accessible, particularly at the seven o’clock hour.

“I feel like if we don’t keep those listeners around, then when they review this contract in two years and they see that we were unable to do that, then I believe that they will take it to 24-hour (GPB) programming.”

Covey said the university has no issues with the WRAS listener base and no plans to sell the station, which he described as a valuable asset. There have been offers in the past to buy the station, which the university has declined.

“Of course you like to have a popular station, but there’s been no pressure on the station to improve listenership,” he said. “WRAS has been very successful, and we’re very, very proud of the station. This is in no way a response to their performance.”

The university sees the partnership as a way to increase Georgia State’s exposure around the state. As part of the deal, GPB will run public service announcements related to the university on their television and radio stations. GPB will also broadcast a weekly 30-minute radio music show developed by Georgia State students across all 17 of its stations. Georgia State students will have access to GPB television studios, and there is also the potential for student internships at GPB.

The specifics of this part of the arrangement are still being worked out, said Andrea Jones, a spokeswoman for the school. They are not detailed in the contract signed Monday, which calls for GPB to pay Georgia State $150,000 over the two years to defray operating costs.

WRAS staff said the benefits to the university and GPB are clear, but they don’t see how the deal benefits the station. The deal cuts away at student autonomy, Fabricius said.

“They made it sound like a partnership, but it’s a unilateral takeover,” Fabricius said. “There is definitely more of a benefit for GPB than us.”

As the license holder, Georgia State is entitled to change programming and operate the station as they see fit, said Greg Weston, the president of College Broadcasters Inc., a group that represents student radio, television and webcasting organizations. But it’s unfortunate that students weren’t involved in the decision ahead of time, he said.

“It seems very troubling that there seems to have been no dialogue with the students at all,” he said. “You would think the university would have given the students an opportunity to discuss it.”

Negotiations between Georgia State and GPB have been ongoing for months, Covey said. The contract was signed late Monday afternoon. WRAS students learned of the agreement “concurrently” with staff at GPB, he said.

Fabricius said she was blindsided when she heard the news. She was asked Friday to schedule meetings with staff to discuss changes, but said she wasn’t told what the changes would be. On Tuesday, administrators told her the news first.

“It was very hard for me to wrap my head around what is happening,” she said. “I’m still kind of mad at myself today for not thinking more quickly on my feet during the meeting and asking ‘why wasn’t I consulted on this?’ I mean, what the hell.”

Students were also surprised by the news Tuesday that their longtime adviser, Jeff Walker, plans to retire at the end of the school year. Bryce McNeil, who advises Georgia State’s student newspaper, student television station and literary magazine, will take over advising duties.

McNeil, a former WRAS DJ and general manager himself, said he understands the pride students have for the station and why they’re frustrated at Tuesday’s news.

“I know how much people care about the station, so I fully expect a powerful response,” he said.

So far, the response has taken shape in the form of a petition that as of Wednesday evening had more than 3,000 signatures. On air today, DJs have told listeners about the news and asked them to share questions, comments and thoughts with them. Fabricius said they plan to share those responses with the university.

On social media, WRAS supporters are asking that people upset by the decision contact the university’s president. They’ve also asked alumni to withhold donations.

McNeil said his job will be to help students make the best of the situation.

“Whenever I take over, I’m going to do the best that I can to see that the station will continue to do great work,” he said.

Contact Gregory by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 125.