How WABE responded when GPB came to town

Longtime public radio station hires new reporters, shifts classical programming to digital channel

Starting next week, longtime listeners of WABE-FM (90.1) should expect less Bach and Brahms and more Beltline and Kasim.

On Jan. 12, Atlanta’s oldest public radio station will politely sweep classical music to a digital channel and roll out more news, arts, and culture programming. Station officials have begun that ambitious push by hiring a news director with a big-public radio pedigree and spending more than $500,000 to hire nearly a dozen reporters. Let the competition begin.

The unprecedented expansion of on-air offerings is the first counter-punch to Georgia Public Broadcasting’s entry into Atlanta’s public radio realm. Though WABE officials say the changes are part of a long-planned strategic shift, hundreds of internal emails obtained by Creative Loafing show that the 66-year-old station has the state-backed broadcaster on its mind — and big plans for 2015.

On May 6, the day GPB announced the WRAS deal, a barrage of consultants, staffers from other public radio institutions, and other supporters offered support and services to WABE management. GPB’s now-former Chief Operating Officer Bob Olive emailed WABE COO John Weatherford with an offer to talk about the deal. Former GPB news director Susanna Capelouto, who left in 2011 to work for CNN Radio, sent Weatherford a message to discuss the deal’s implications. Weatherford fired off several emails to the station’s contacts with National Public Radio, American Public Media, and Public Radio International.

“Were you aware of this?” Weatherford wrote in multiple emails to those WABE content providers. He further inquired, “Should(n’t we already have) talk(ed)?”

Mac Holladay, one board member overseeing WABE, described GPB’s deal as both a “frontal assault” and a “direct attack.” In an email to WABE CEO Milton Clipper, board member Charles E. Taylor feared that GPB would “kill” WABE in daytime news programing.

“We were too late to the party,” Taylor wrote.

“Never panic and always keep your pants on!” Clipper replied, adding that station officials would need to accelerate the rollout of their strategic plan.

Following the WRAS deal announcement, numerous WABE listeners wrote to station officials urging them to remain committed to classical music, despite a continuing national trend to drop such programming in favor of news. Others sought clarification about WABE’s role in the deal. Some sustaining members called and emailed station officials asking to immediately cancel their membership, mistakenly thinking that WABE was affiliated with GPB.

WABE officials several days later responded with a post, titled “WABE Stays the Course,” that pledged to “continue to provide the high quality news, arts and cultural programming that listeners have come to rely on” from the station. It also explained how GPB was a separate, unaffiliated organization.

WABE management that month watched how people negatively responded to the GPB deal, emailing each other excerpts from comment sections and noting calls to boycott the state media network. They also asked WABE listeners for their thoughts about the deal — and whether they preferred listening to news or classical music. Based on the survey results, officials concluded in a report that shifting away from classical music to more news programming would have a greater most long-term benefit for the station.

Station officials slowly took steps to respond to GPB, which had set the ambitious goal of poaching at least 15 percent of WABE’s audience within one year, according to WABE Director of Radio Production David Barasoain. WABE board member Andrew Feiler urged station officials to accelerate plans with “more sweeping change than was previously envisioned.”

In an email to Weatherford, a fundraising consultant began discussing “counter-moves” including the expansion of news programming, looking into exclusive radio syndication partnerships, and branding initiatives distinguishing the station from its new competition. WABE’s COO requested an internal report outlining “worst, best, and middle”-case scenarios for how WRAS would impact the station’s membership levels.

GPB debuted on WRAS at the end of June. WABE’s board, following multiple committee meetings to discuss the station’s response, published an open letter in early July that lambasted GPB execs for unnecessarily duplicating nationally syndicated programming already available to local listeners, its wasteful use of taxpayer dollars, and the silencing of diverse student programming on WRAS. They urged station officials to cancel the deal altogether or alter its plans significantly to complement WABE’s mission. GPB Board Chairman Michael McDougald replied in another letter saying that the state media network was “responding to the high demand we have heard for years.”

WABE station officials then ramped up efforts leading to its eventual programming shift. They agreed to pay local nonprofit consultant Pam Sugarman $8,000 to help implement WABE’s strategic plan over the course of 2014. Several people from other news outlets — Global Atlanta’s Kiplyn Primus, longtime Atlanta journalist Maria Saporta, and ArtsATL’s Cathy Fox — all reached out to WABE about potential collaborations.

Meanwhile, Weatherford began interviewing candidates to permanently lead its newsroom, including John Haas, a seven-year “Marketplace” veteran who had edited WABE reporter segments for national broadcasts. In his cover letter, he pledged to help “transform the station as GPB enters the Atlanta market.” WABE offered Haas the position in early August. He formally started his new role in late September. Longtime WABE journalist Charles Edwards, who became the station’s interim news director in February 2013, left two months ago to join Atlanta-based public relations firm Jackson Spalding.

In September, WABE Chief Financial Officer Tina Arbes finalized the station’s financial plans for the 2015 fiscal year. Public Broadcasting Atlanta, WABE’s parent organization, would operate with a $13.5 million budget that came with goals to nearly double sustaining membership revenue while maintaining ad rates despite having a new direct competitor. The station would invest $561,000 into a new initiative that calls for the creation of 13 additional positions, according to Arbes.

WABE management during the fall held meetings to finalize the newsroom expansion and discuss how to announce the changes. Haas visited with KPCC-FM (89.3) officials and staffers to learn more about the California station’s operations and past expansion plans, which included a capital campaign to fund new reporter positions. Weatherford, stressing the immediate need to hire more than a half-dozen new staffers, told Haas that WABE should explore a similar model once the programming changes took place.

Officials wanted listeners to view the lineup changes as a further commitment to local news, arts, and culture coverage — not a move made in response to GPB. They also hoped to promote to the programming shift as a positive move for classical music fans by giving the genre more overall airtime. Before the station issued a press release trumpeting the change, CL reported in a Nov. 6 story that “Second Cup Concerts” and “City Café” would no longer be available on WABE’s primary broadcast. The news prompted backlash from some of the station’s devout classical music fans.

“Guys, I thought our message was that these changes had been in the works for a long time and were driven by our strategy and not by GPB’s actions,” Feiler wrote in an email asking about the CL story. “… The message here is inconsistent with the messaging strategy as I understood it.”

Officials followed the announcement by distributing an internal document that explained to staffers how the changes to WABE would be “investing in what listeners want most” while ensuring that classical music “will continue to have a place” with the station. The document also emphasizes that WABE’s changes did not come in response to GPB and addresses the future of Reitzes.

“We hope Lois will continue to be with WABE for years to come,” the document says. “Lois plays a key role in our new plan.”

Since then, WABE has hired new reporters (Amy Kiley, Molly Samuel, Tasnim Shamma), promoted at least one freelancer to a full-time staff position, and bolstered its stable of freelancers. New local contributors most notably include Capelouto as a part-time freelancer and Saporta as a weekly guest contributor. In the coming weeks, officials are expected to hire several more reporters, including two journalists for the overnight shift.

After months of planning, WABE listeners will be able to hear more local news than at any point since the station’s inception in the late 1940s. Current “Morning Edition” host Steve Goss will be on the air for an additional hour, Reitzes will debut a two-hour arts and culture show, and local “All Things Considered” host Denis O’Hayer and producer Rose Scott will commandeer a two-hour afternoon slot for a “newsmagazine” program featuring in-depth analysis and long-form reporting.

Much like GPB’s Atlanta debut forced an influential independent institution off the air, WABE’s next phase also has consequences. The sounds of classical music that once defined WABE’s airwaves throughout late mornings and early afternoons will be available only on the station’s digital WABE: Classics subchannel.

Those changes, which are probably unpopular with older, deep-pocketed classical music fans, could undermine the station’s lofty membership goals. But with GPB nipping at its heels, WABE has finally doubled down on news. Though officials at both stations are quick to note that most major metro markets have two healthy stations, the upcoming year could decide whether that holds true in Atlanta. As a station manager from WBUR-FM (90.9), one of two public radio stations in Boston, told Weatherford on the day GPB’s WRAS deal became public: “Welcome to the jungle.”