Cover Story: Album 88’s future is up in the air

After 43 years of student-run radio, GSU secretly decided to flip WRAS to daytime talk. What does GPB’s takeover mean for WRAS 88.5 FM?

On January 18, 1971, Georgia State University Dean of Students Kenneth England welcomed WRAS (88.5 FM) listeners to the station’s broadcast debut. In a Southern accent and amid some minor technical difficulties, he described the college radio station’s mission to offer daily, continuous programming “operated by and for the students of the university.” Just before the music rotation kicked off for the first time with the epic introduction to Richard Strauss’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra” (widely known for its placement in 2001: A Space Odyssey) followed by George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord,” the dean opined about the importance of student-run radio.

“There are people who distrust student expression,” England said. “I am not one of those. I believe students, in the best sense of the word, after meditation and care and practice, are as likely to express themselves well as any other group of citizens.”

WRAS was born in an era when diverse, independent media was highly valued. Over the course of four decades, WRAS has changed the lives of many students, listeners, and musicians involved with its airwaves. Scores of media professionals have spun records at one of the most powerful student-run radio station in the United States with its 100,000-watt signal. WRAS has thrived in Atlanta’s withering, homogenous radio market filled with mainstream commercial stations by spinning a diverse array of music, including pop, punk, hip-hop, hardcore, tropicalia, electronica, and soul. (Full disclosure: Creative Loafing and WRAS have an active marketing partnership on air and in print to promote concerts and events.) Over the years, Album 88 has received credit for helping launch the careers of local artists such as R.E.M., OutKast, and Deerhunter. The station is a treasured local institution and, up until recently, remained one of the last bastions of pure, unadulterated college radio.

But GSU President Mark Becker has threatened to dismantle Album 88’s cultural legacy. As the 2013-14 school year was winding down, and students were focused on finals and graduation, Becker signed off on a secret deal to hand over the station’s most precious airtime to Georgia Public Broadcasting. On June 2, the state media network will take over daytime programming with 14 hours of talk radio from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. The two-year, $150,000 deal will allow the state media news network to enter Atlanta’s radio market for the first time in its 54-year history. In the process, the 43-year-old student voice of Georgia State University could effectively be gutted.

GSU’s administration has painted the radio partnership as a positive move that will benefit students, expand listenership, and promote the university. Many WRAS college students, alumni, and supporters have blasted the decision over what they consider to be a lack of transparency, disregard for student input, and an unwise decision that strips student DJs of nearly 100 hours of weekly radio time. School administrators say the move is a done deal. But the station’s advocates are gearing up for a lengthy battle to save the beloved station.

“They want to take all of it,” outgoing WRAS Music Director Fray DeVore said at a #SaveWRAS fundraiser on May 15. “We’re not going to go without a fight.”

The WRAS agreement blindsided Atlanta. Few were caught more off guard than WRAS’ student staffers. On the morning of May 6, five faculty members — Becker, Senior Vice President of Student Affairs Douglass Covey, Student*University Center Director Boyd Beckwith, Student Media Advisor Bryce McNeil, and WRAS Operations Manager Jeff Walker — informed the station’s management about the new partnership. Later that morning, Becker made a formal announcement about the deal to the general public. He proclaimed the partnership a “proverbial win-win” for the university and, most importantly to him, its students. The news rippled throughout local and national media. CMJ, CNN, and the Huffington Post all covered the GPB-GSU deal.

“Our students will have new and exciting opportunities in the changing media landscape, and this partnership allows both GPB and Georgia State to better serve the metro Atlanta region as well as the state,” Becker said in a statement.

The partnership effectively splits the radio station into two separate daily programming blocks. From 5 a.m. to 7 p.m., GPB will broadcast an assortment of local news, including newly announced shows from veteran Atlanta journalist Bill Nigut and former WNYC host Celeste Headlee, and nationally syndicated content from National Public Radio, Public Radio International, and American Public Media. Students will program the remaining 10 hours in the evening and early morning. Students will also continue to operate the station’s 24-hour Internet radio stream.

In exchange for the coveted airtime, students will get “unprecedented access” to GPB-TV station resources, including an unspecified number of opportunities to work with its professional journalists, according to a joint statement from GPB and GSU. During GPB’s weekly 98 hours of daytime programming, the state media network will feature a weekly 30-minute “student music program” requiring GPB approval. Becker says he hopes the show becomes nationally syndicated and further increases the station’s listenership. Covey says the partnership would also benefit film and video students and allow student programming to be aired on GPB’s channel up to 12 hours per day to most of the area’s Comcast subscribers.

The $150,000 GSU receives will cover operation costs and is the maximum amount the Federal Communications Commission allows non-commercial radio stations to exchange in such a deal. The two-year contract, which GSU officials have described as a trial run, will renew automatically every two years until 2020. After that, it jumps up to eight-year automatic renewals until 2064. Because it’s an intergovernmental contract, Becker said the school agreed to a 50-year term with automatic renewals instead of a shorter time frame. But either side can void the contract at any time upon giving one year’s notice.

The deal lets GSU consider what’s known as a shared time arrangement the first year. That provision would allow the university to split ownership of its FCC license with GPB, a move that would essentially make the state media network a part-owner instead of a lessee. If the FCC approved the deal, larger amounts of cash could be exchanged between the two institutions. The university holds WRAS’ station license. And it’s an asset that, if sold in its entirety, could be worth up to $25 million.

For now, Becker says the school has no intention of entering into a shared license arrangement or to sell the lucrative asset. But there’s still plenty of concern over the mere possibility. Outgoing WRAS Program Director Josh Martin says the contract’s wording opens the door up for a potential sale. Recent remarks from GSU spokeswoman Andrea Jones speak directly to the issue: “While students are entrusted to run the station, WRAS is ultimately a university asset,” she said.

The agreement’s terms, and the covert manner in which GSU administrators negotiated those terms,drew the ire of WRAS staffers, station alumni, and longtime supporters in the days after the announcement. Despite WRAS’ long-standing student-run tradition, GSU administrators kept them out of conversations regarding the station’s future. According to internal emails obtained by the Signal, the school’s student newspaper, discussions about the partnership dated back until at least September 2013.

“I am disgusted with their strategy,” DeVore says. “They waited until the last day of classes, right when our new management started, and a lot of longtime DJs are graduating.”

Since the news broke, thousands of supporters have signed petitions, shared #SaveWRAS messages on social media, and threatened to boycott GPB. At GSU’s commencement on May 10, graduates placed “Save WRAS” stickers on their caps as a form of silent protest. Multiple groups affiliated with the university have denounced the decision, including a coalition of former WRAS managers and Signal editors, who have urged GPB and GSU to “scrap this dishonestly created arrangement and renegotiate in good faith.”

But Becker has not budged from his original position. When CL initially asked Becker if he’d consider a different kind of agreement, one created with input from students and alumni, he said that there’s no looking back.

“This agreement is a partnership that GSU entered into because it’s good for the students, it’s good for the students at WRAS, and it’s good for the students who are going to get some new opportunities,” Becker said two days after the announcement, before the WRAS backlash had snowballed. “I know they don’t understand that right now. They’re upset. They don’t see that it’s actually an opportunity for them.”

Becker’s initial stance sparked a kind of culture war between GSU’s administration and Album 88 devotees. For its entire existence, the station has been defined by its unique range of student voices. Despite the president’s claims, WRAS supporters are livid about the loss of independent programming for programming that already exists on other local stations. Most WRAS DJs have remained neutral on the radio, an obvious mouthpiece for their message, for fear of jeopardizing their airtime. Because GSU holds the license, Becker can revoke access at his discretion. At a public university funded by taxpayers, students and alumni have taken issue with the president’s secret, unilateral decision-making, which they say contradicts the institution’s mission.

“Your assertion that ‘anything with this level of complexity and this level of benefit really is not the kind of thing you can play out in a public forum’ is exactly, 100 percent wrong,” Student Press Law Center Executive Director Frank LoMonte wrote in a scathing letter to Becker. “Things that are ‘beneficial’ will be understood and welcomed by the people they are intended to benefit, unless you hold those people — your students — in such low regard that you believe they are incapable of being reasoned with.”

Becker’s critics say he lacks a true understanding of WRAS’ history, its importance to students, and its cultural significance. There’s also been some speculation that the president’s moves are politically motivated. Given GPB’s ties to Gov. Nathan Deal’s office, and the relatively one-sided nature of the agreement, Becker could be seeking a bargaining chip to help further the school’s ongoing Downtown expansion. Whatever the motives, one thing remains clear to WRAS supporters: The administration is clueless about what will be lost with the forthcoming format switch.

WSB-TV Investigative Reporter Richard Belcher, WRAS’ first general manager, had never hosted a radio segment prior to the station’s 1971 debut. For nearly two years, he recruited students, trained DJs, and organized WRAS’ launch plan. The station’s first broadcast was so important to him that he wore a suit for the occasion. The opportunity to create programming, and to learn from his mistakes along the way, changed the aspiring journalist’s life and helped him land his first job with WGST radio.

“I wouldn’t be where I am today without that experience,” Belcher says.

Outgoing WRAS General Manager Ana Zimitravich, one of the students leading the fight to save the station, says she’s learned more about management, nonprofits, radio, and professionalism through her work with the station than in any of her marketing classes. The ability to learn those skills, plus having the freedom to make important decisions from a powerful platform, has defined her college experience.

“It’s not just that WRAS is a tradition and people appreciate it for what it is, students doing our best, we’re the most professional student-run radio station in the world,” Zimitravich says. “It’s more than just a big 100,000-watt sandbox that we play in.”

The WRAS takeover has raised concerns throughout the music industry far beyond the city limits. Hannah Carlen, radio director for the Secretly Label Group, whose roster includes artists such as Bon Iver, Antony and the Johnsons, Phosphorescent, and dozens of other active indie rock musicians, says the WRAS format switch represents a huge blow to the “most towering, storied example of student-run college radio left” in the United States. GPB’s takeover, she says, greatly diminishes opportunities offered to GSU students without adding much benefit.

“You cannot replicate what college radio gives to students,” Carlen says. “What GPB is offering is pretty easy to replicate in terms of student value. The tremendous amount of authorship and power that students get from learning about running a station is not.”

The impact of student authorship is most evident in the number of artists the station has helped. It’s difficult to determine WRAS’ full impact on the careers of musicians, but a quick step inside the office shows the station’s reach. Hundreds of record label stickers cover the cabinets, band thank-you letters are taped on the shelves, and signed artist posters plaster the walls. Framed records from everyone from Arrested Development to Van Halen adorn the walls, each one personally sent from artists and music execs as tokens of appreciation. Also hanging on one WRAS’ office wall: a commemorative gold record, tape, and CD from the Indigo Girls for the station’s support of the folk duo leading up to the eponymous 1989 major-label debut.

“In the early days, we had a single in ‘85, then an EP in ‘86, and a full-length record in ‘87 that WRAS played that were all independent releases,” says Amy Ray, one half of the Grammy Award-winning duo. “They were early supporters ... We would’ve never been able to do as well as we did in Atlanta without them.”

Despite GSU officials’ continued support for the GPB partnership, WRAS’ advocates are digging in for what some think could be a long fight to preserve the station’s integrity. Last week, about 50 station alumni strategized about how to move forward in dealing with GSU officials. In a subsequent statement, more than 40 WRAS alumni pledged to withdraw all financial donations to their alma mater until GSU “completely and irrevocably terminates its contract with GPB with respect to any WRAS interference whatsoever.”

At the alumni meeting, discussions went past phone calls and petitions to examine ways to fight the contract. Out of that planning session, alumni have begun looking into forming a nonprofit to raise cash to offset potential legal expenses. Other alumni are exploring additional options to challenge the deal. With enough pressure on either GSU or GPB, supporters think they could force them to nix the contract through a number of different termination clauses. Both parties have “convenience” clauses that would allow them to opt out of the contract for any reason upon giving the other partner 12 months’ notice.

Unlike GPB’s 2007 attempt to strike a similar deal with Georgia Tech’s student-run WREK (91.1 FM), Martin says GSU students involved with WRAS have no legal recourse. WREK’s successful defense was thanks, in part, to the fact that a 10-member group called the Radio Communications Board oversees the station. Five students serve on the board, giving them a voice in the station’s management.

“There was enough feedback from the community and outcry from the students that the sale didn’t go through,” says Charlie Bennett, WREK’s faculty advisor. “And a lot of people had a more clear vision of what WREK meant to Georgia Tech and Atlanta.”

On May 15, nearly 300 WRAS supporters packed into the Drunken Unicorn for a benefit concert, where they raised approximately $2,400 to fund the upcoming fight. DeVore and fellow WRAS DJ Marvin Evangelista brought students and alumni up to speed during a Q&A about withholding alumni donations, planning student protests, and other future strategies.

The next morning, Zimitravich, Martin, current General Manager Alayna Fabricius, and current urban music director Jenny Nesvetailova met with Becker, Covey, and other GSU officials behind closed doors to discuss the station’s future. The dialogue marked the first time both sides had chatted since the GPB-GSU partnership was announced. Covey, who claims he understands their concerns, says the university “certainly intends to honor our contractual obligations under the new agreement.” Becker has committed to future conversations to hash out potential alternatives to help meet students’ demands in the near future.

For WRAS student leadership, the ability to sit at the table marked an important first step toward salvaging student involvement in the station. “Hopefully they’ll continue to work with us to try and make WRAS a partner and not just a bargaining chip,” Zimitravich says.

Zimitravich, Martin, Fabricius, and Nesvetailova presented GSU officials with a 10-year strategic plan that outlines how WRAS can grow and operate in what they consider the best interests of GSU students. They pointed to KEXP (90.3 FM), a Seattle-based public radio station partially run by University of Washington students, and how the station has achieved international recognition through its SXSW showcases, in-studio sessions, and event fundraising. It’s not entirely student run, as WRAS’ student leaders would prefer, but it’s a station that’s managed to use its airwaves to benefit both the students and the university.

“The future is still uncertain,” Fabricius says. “But we do feel a little bit more optimistic.”