The Day the Music Died

Why the GPB “partnership” is a death sentence for WRAS and why we must take action to preserve the integrity of student media overall

At 10:30 a.m. yesterday morning on the next-to-last day of finals, Georgia State broke the news to a small meeting of WRAS management staff that it would be selling off the student-run station’s daytime broadcasting rights to Georgia Public Broadcasting.

Hosted last minute and without much forewarning, the meeting was scarcely attended. And yet before even most DJs learned of the station’s forced format change, GPB’s Senior Executive Producer Bill Nigut was busy gleefully taking pictures about how cool their new 88.5 FM t-shirts will look.

How swell.

For more than 40 years, WRAS has filled a crucial niche in the Atlanta media market. Defined by its unwillingness to confine itself to the singles that so often dominate the airwaves, WRAS, or Album 88 as it is sometimes known, has been ranked as one of the best college stations in the country and has often been the first to “break” new artists like R.E.M. to Outkast.

However, the clandestine format change announced yesterday fundamentally threatens that carefully cultured identity in a deal that leaves students wanting for more.

While the arrangement between Georgia State and WRAS has been pitched as an opportunity to grow the station and allow greater access to GPB’s resources in a “partnership,” there’s simply no way this deal comes anywhere close to a reasonable definition of a partnership.

Partners do not surprise one another. Partners reach fair agreements. Partners act in good faith.

And yet, that’s not what’s happened here. Indeed, a partnership cannot exist if both parties aren’t treated equally and the “deal” is accomplished in secret without complete consent – as is the case with this takeover of the station. 

For any that still believe this was done with the best interests of the students in mind, consider this: Nothing happened by magic. This deal was not something that “just happened” or landed on President Mark Becker’s desk to sign. Rather, it was a carefully designed agreement that took months, if not years, to plan. We know that because GPB employes have known about it for at least some time.

It’s no coincidence then that officials decided to formalize this deal on May 6, one day before the end of the semester and just a week after the new WRAS general manager took over. With the semester at a close, this was a calculated decision to exclude students from the decision-making process and to preclude any kind of physical protest.

As a side note, it’s worth mentioning that any news organization like GPB that claims to value goals like transparency and accountability while working in secret to rob students of their right to the airwaves is both ludicrous and hypocritical.

Don’t get me wrong, though.

I’m an ardent supporter of public radio in Atlanta. In fact, I’m the type of person that sits through pledge drives and doesn’t change the channel because I think the concept of publicly shaming freeloading listeners while simultaneously asking for their money is great, funny even. And I’m happy to say that I finally committed as a sustaining member to WABE last year because I believe in public radio. I look at it as an investment in our future and a reflection of what kind of society we want as a whole.

Done right, I think a partnership between Georgia State via WRAS and Georgia Public Broadcasting could be a great opportunity for students, much like the school has partnered with WSB-TV and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution to create the Georgia News Lab.

However, public radio cannot come at the expense of student radio. It’s just that simple.

Like other student media outlets, WRAS occupies a principal position on campus because of its unique mission and ability to reach large audiences.

Tracing its roots to the late 60s, WRAS has developed such a cult following that several of the DJ’s have told me that if it wasn’t for the 100,000-watt station, the most powerful strength of any college station in the United States, they may have never come to Georgia State in the first place. Indeed, with a range far beyond the I-285 perimeter, WRAS truly is “the voice of the students” and the most recognizable manifestation of the university in the Atlanta area.

To compromise the educational mission of WRAS by selling its daytime broadcasting rights off reveals – at best – a startling lack of judgement by Georgia State’s administration, most notably by President Mark Becker, and at worst a profound lack of respect for the autonomy that student media demands to operate properly.

As editor-in-chief of The Signal this year, I had the distinction of serving on the Committee on Student Communications, an advisory committee chaired by the Student*University Center director and designed to independently “interview candidates to fill the editorial and managerial positions for each of the student-operated media, to make recommendations for general policy to the Dean of Students, and to resolve disputes between members,” according to the GSU Catalogue

And as far as I can tell, this committee is supposed to be the official conduit through which any major proposals – such as selling off the broadcasting rights for the school’s radio station – must go through. That’s certainly what the “making recommendations for general policy” part of the description sounds like it would entail, right?

And yet, no student or faculty member serving on the committee was consulted during this process. It almost makes you wonder what’s the point of having the CSC Committee in the first place… so much so that I even asked the new Student*University Center director. I’m still waiting for a response, but I’m not holding my breath.

Update: Student*University Center Director Boyd Beckwith has responded to my question. His response is almost comical in how depreciating it is. Here’s the conversation on Twitter if you want to keep up with it.

So my words are not lost, though, let me be clear: The writing is on the wall for WRAS. This is but the first step in eliminating student-run radio from Georgia State altogether. If not now, then perhaps in two years after the contract is up. With this move, the Georgia State administration is sending a clear signal that it does not value the input of student media and that you cannot trust President Becker to do the right thing unless something changes.

So what can we do?

In a statement by the WRAS staff yesterday afternoon, the station is calling for listeners to call President Becker’s office directly, and already some have created a Facebook group to boycott GPB on WRAS, garnering more than 1,000 likes in less than a day. Still others have created a petition to “stop Georgia Public Broadcasting’s takeover” of Album 88. And ,of course, other student media organizations like The Signal have begun to rally behind WRAS.

Those are all great first steps, but I strongly feel drastic action by the staff may be necessary to truly reverse this process.

If you know me personally, then you might know that I generally think most protests are a waste of time. However, large-scale protests at Georgia State have proven to be effective in the past and could work again given the right motivation, assuming WRAS staffers have the gumption to commit.

Nearly two years ago, the collective staff of the student newspaper The Red & Black at the University of Georgia organized a walkout to protest proposed leadership changes. They called the movement Red & Dead and launched a social media blitz to generate a buzz, attracting national media attention to their cause. The result?

They won. Completely.

Though a walkout might seem drastic, it’s worth considering that it could be the only way to the save the station we so cherish. I mean, think about it, what better way is there for a station to protest than to let its signal go dark, if only for a few hours? Or even just set a single track to repeat all day?

If the staff really thinks that WRAS will be the same after the switch, then perhaps all they need to do is issue their statement and be done. But if not…

Well, let me humbly offer my suggestion for the walkout soundtrack with Neil Young’s “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black).”

To quote, “Rock & Roll is here to say. It’s better to burn out than to fade away.”




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This is the personal page of Chris Shattuck -- an Atlanta-based media professional with a background in business reporting, nonprofits and agency PR.

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