Georgia Public Broadcasting begins daytime programming on WRAS 88.5 amid widespread protests

GEORGIA — Student and alumni efforts to delay or halt the start of Georgia Public Broadcasting over the formerly student-run airwaves of WRAS 88.5 FM have failed, and listeners tuning into the Atlanta station between the hours of 5 a.m. and 7 p.m. will hear talk radio instead of music programming that has been a hallmark of the station since 1971.

The takeover, which was pushed back nearly a month in order for Georgia State University administrators to “explore more options,” proceeded as planned despite a last-minute attempt from alumni to delay it further and the fact that the HD radio channel, where students are to broadcast during the day, is not yet operational.

“That is upsetting,” said Zach Lancaster, president of Album 88 Alumni, a group of former WRAS leaders and deejays. Lancaster said he was disappointed that Georgia State President Mark Becker didn’t suspend the start date despite the technological issues.

“Instead, he chose to march ahead,” Lancaster said.

The agreement has generated intense backlash, including calls to boycott GPB and to stop donating to both the university and the broadcasting network. Democratic state representative Rahn Mayo wrote a letter to GPB asking to postpone the partnership “until school is back in session in the fall,” and Wednesday, the chairman of WABE, Atlanta’s NPR affiliate and GPB’s news competitor, shared an open letter calling the deal “bad public policy — fiscally, substantively, and procedurally.” Nearly 12,000 people have signed petitions protesting the deal.

GSU revealed the partnership with GPB in a meeting with the radio student leaders on May 6. The students were shocked at the news of the partnership, which was arranged without their knowledge. Mike McDougald, the chairman of the Georgia Public Telecommunications Commission, which oversees GPB, said that the discussions of this partnership go “back eight years.”

Under the agreement, GSU students will be allowed to broadcast over the analog signal between 7 p.m. and 5 a.m. The students will also broadcast 24 hours a day on a live online stream and an HD channel. The agreement also calls for GPB to broadcast one ten-second public service announcement about Georgia State per hour during their assigned airtime. A ten-minute weekly segment will be reserved for a Georgia State professor to discuss matters of public interest, and GPB will also air a student-produced half-hour music program weekly.

In return for the daytime programming rights, GPB will pay Georgia State $150,000 for the first two years of the agreement, and a minimum of $100,000 for every year after. The agreement renews every two years until 2020, at which point it will renew automatically for eight years until 2064, or fifty years total.

In a meeting with WRAS students last week, Douglass Covey, the university’s vice president of student affairs, emphasized the university’s “commitment to aggressively pursuing translator frequency for Album 88.” This translator would create a sister station so that Album 88 and GPB can simultaneously broadcast over analog.

The decision to pursue the translator option came after “concerns expressed by students at Album 88 and alumni,” according to a statement from the university. Covey declined to comment. Any such arrangement would take months, if not years, to implement.

In the meantime, the students will broadcast over the online stream, which listeners can also access through apps like TuneIn. When the agreement was announced, WRAS students were told the HD channel would be up and running by the implementation of the partnership. But on Sunday, the day of the change-over, the HD station did not function correctly and still is not working, said Bryce McNeil, the station’s adviser.

The online stream, which WRAS students said typically received low traffic, experienced technical difficulties this weekend, as well.

Jeff Walker, who had been advising the radio station in his role as a GSU assistant vice president, said in an email that the technical difficulties were the result of a server that failed “to reboot properly after a Windows 7 update over the weekend.” The technical issues were limited to Sunday morning, he said, and no recent outages in the online stream have been reported.

Down the road, there could be additional costs associated with the online stream, McNeil said. Right now, the station pays for a streaming package that anticipates an average of about 200 or fewer listeners per quarter. If the station were to go over that average number of listeners per day, it could require the station to pay more fees and abide by additional regulations.

McNeil said he will be in discussion with the station’s general manager on how to “proceed in an affordable and efficient manner.” It’s not clear whether WRAS would pick up the extra costs, or if Georgia State would.

Efforts in all directions to stop or postpone deal

Alumni and non-student supporters have been among the most vocal opponents to the deal, but Lancaster said student radio staff have been equally involved in private conversations and negotiations with administrators.

Lancaster said students are “treading careful ground” and do not want to give administrators a “reason to come through and shut them down and lock the door,” cutting them out of the radio station entirely. The radio station’s student general manager and music director did not return calls for comment. Neither did the general manager or program director who held those positions in May when the deal was first announced.

Album 88 Alumni spent the last month working on an alternative proposal that would take the place of the agreement with GPB and presented it to Becker late last month. A88A reached out to at least 100 alumni and organizations to design “a package that would support the radio station” if the partnership was dropped, Lancaster said.

A88A’s proposal said that if Georgia State terminates its deal with GPB, then the alumni organization will provide programs and experiences involving internships, mentorships, networking and TV broadcasting access for GSU students.

In their proposal, A88A pointed out on multiple occasions that GPB’s purported efforts to provide educational opportunities to students as part of the GPB relationship are “undefined,” “unknown” or “nonexistent.” The proposal also pointed out that the alumni would start providing internships to students in early 2015, roughly six months earlier than GPB’s will be available.

Becker wrote back to the group last week that their proposal “is an ideal complement” to the GSU-GPB partnership “rather than a replacement.” He said that he would pass the information about internship opportunities along to career services.

Lancaster said he was not pleased with the president’s response and that the group is currently discussing what legal actions can be taken against the two public institutions.

“We have very little standing against the actual administration because we are not affected directly by the change,” Lancaster said. “I would support any student that does file a lawsuit against the university.”

Adam Goldstein, the Student Press Law Center’s attorney advocate, said that Album 88 students are not the only people who can file a lawsuit.

“Who has standing changes depending on what grounds you’re suing on,” Goldstein said. “There are contract and First Amendment cases of action only WRAS students have. There are fraud claims that the Student Activity Fee Committee has. And there are educational code claims that all of the taxpayers of Georgia have.”

The SAFC agreed to pay $676,000 in April 2013 to replace the WRAS transmitter after a request by Covey and Jeff Walker, who was the station’s adviser until he retired at the end of June. The transmitter is now being used by GPB during the daytime hours.

“When Walker requested money from SAFC, he was involved in negotiations with GPB,” Goldstein said. “Knowing that it wasn’t going to be spent on students … that’s what they call a constructive fraud.”

Goldstein pointed to regulations in Georgia’s state education code as another avenue by which an interested party could sue. Under the education code, the Board of Regents cannot sell or lease property unless the regents determine the property “can no longer be advantageously used in the system.” Even then, any sale or lease must have the governor’s approval.

The Board of Regents never discussed the partnership and the governor never approved of it, Goldstein said.

Camryn Bradley, vice president of public relations for the Student Government Association, said his organization is working closely with the students and administration to “appease both sides of the situation.” He said that the way the school revealed the partnership was not very transparent.

“As a representative of the student body, I represent the students,” Bradley said. “If there’s a student concern, I definitely want to address it.”

McDougald said the secrecy was necessary because in any business deal, “you don’t just run out and give out all the details.”

“Well, think about it just a minute,” he said. “Thirty thousand students, you’re just gonna slip around and ‘oh yes, here are all the details’?”

Anna Yang, editor-in-chief of The Signal, the student-run newspaper at Georgia State, said that she has interviewed students at the university and the vibe generally is one that is distrustful of administrators. She wonders “if the administration is even considering the students instead of just the PR of the university.”

Students, alumni and supporters marked the first two days of the takeover with protests on Georgia State and GPB’s campuses.

The first protest took place on Sunday on Georgia State’s campus at Hurt Park and roughly coincided with damage to the building that houses the radio station. It’s not clear who organized the protest. At some point after the protest, individuals broke bathroom mirrors and vandalized lockers, McNeil said. Building supervisors asked McNeil to identify faces in security photos of people vandalizing the property and he said that he did not recognize anyone.

The protest on Monday, organized by people “loosely affiliated” with A88A, took place at the GPB headquarters. Photos from The Atlantic Journal-Constitution show GPB President and CEO Teya Ryan walking her dog outside during the protest. The reporter wrote that “she smiled and walked back into the building” but did not speak with protesters.

Lancaster said he believes the protest was a “controlled and measured affair.”

“GPB invited us back,” Lancaster said.

Despite the protests and support of alumni and other college radio stations, McNeil said that the students will ultimately decide how they will deal with this partnership.

“Both parties (students and alumni) equally have the right to be upset about it,” McNeil said. “Each have their own course of action.”

He explained that the students were concerned “about the management of the protests” because it “could reflect badly” on the future of the station.

“They’ve managed to stay relatively calm and rational in the face of all that,” McNeil said.

Contact Spoont by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 127.