WABE’s board of directors: GPB’s WRAS takeover is a ‘waste of Georgia’s tax dollars’

It is a waste of Georgia’s tax dollars that could be better allocated elsewhere’

Aside from the occasional on-air clarification that, yes, Georgia Public Broadcasting and WABE 90.1 FM are two different media outlets, Atlanta’s longtime NPR affiliate has remained quiet about the state media network’s entry into the metro area’s radio market.

But earlier this afternoon, WABE’s board of directors published an open letter that lambasts GPB execs and GSU officials for coming to terms on the WRAS 88.5 FM agreement — one that takes away between 12 and 14 hours of daytime broadcast time from students DJs.

In the open letter, WABE board members call the partnership “bad public policy” and urged both GPB and GSU to either alter or cancel the deal. The station’s board members write:

GPB has announced its plans to broadcast on WRAS two widely listened to National Public Radio (NPR) shows, Morning Edition and All Things Considered, at exactly the same time that WABE airs these programs. This is an unwarranted duplication of service. It is a waste of Georgia’s tax dollars that could be better allocated elsewhere. Given the obvious and pressing budgetary needs of state and local governments in these challenging times, there can be no justification for Georgia’s tax dollars being used to bring a duplicate product to the Atlanta marketplace.

When GPB and PBA are placed side by side, they present significantly different fiscal situations. GPB is subsidized heavily by Georgia tax dollars for its operations; at best, what can be gleaned from GPB’s financial statements is that, in 2013, GPB received $13.4 million in state appropriations, some 47% of its annual operating budget.

By contrast, PBA operates a $12.6 million budget without any state or local taxpayer dollars for its operations. Twenty years ago, PBA was receiving about $1 million annually in a direct appropriation from the Atlanta Public Schools (APS) for its $4 million budget. By paying close attention to the public media needs of the Atlanta community and offering programming and services which meet those needs, PBA, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, completely eliminated the Atlanta taxpayer operating support which APS’ annual appropriation represented, became self-sufficient, more than tripled its operating budget, and dramatically increased its audience share. This was achieved by significantly broadening its individual membership and institutional underwriting support.

WABE board members not only point out that the station operates without state or local taxpayer funds, but say its programming will continue to evolve to meet Atlanta listeners’ needs. They explain that the process has already started with the recent expansion of news, arts, and culture programming.

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In addition, WABE board members criticize GPB for duplicating news programming already aired throughout metro Atlanta. In the process, they say GPB silenced the “valuable, well-regarded GSU student-run radio station with its diverse programming,” all while leaving out key WRAS stakeholders from offering input into the deal.

At the end of the letter, the WABE board questions GPB’s motives for striking the WRAS deal, especially within the greater context of public broadcasting’s mission:

The transaction begs the question of why GPB has pursued this arrangement. The apparent reason is that, notwithstanding its very high amount of Georgia taxpayer funding, GPB desires to cut into PBA’s Atlanta community fundraising base. GPB’s management characterizes its actions as “competition.” Unfortunately, with this characterization, GPB is missing the mark badly. Competition in public broadcasting is not intended to mimic the practices of commercial broadcasting. Noncommercial broadcasting is carried out on behalf of the public trust and the resources available to such broadcasting are limited. Public broadcasting, as a national institution, remains constantly vigilant about maintaining its public and community support. One public broadcasting service using its Georgia taxpayer funded position to undermine the Atlanta community support of another public broadcasting service is irresponsible.

As fellow public broadcasters, GPB and PBA should be colleagues, instead of competitors. PBA is licensed to serve Atlanta; GPB’s focus is the State of Georgia. Our missions should be complementary in such a way that we work together to broaden and improve our services. The WRAS agreement is antithetical to the spirit of collaboration and to the stewardship of the limited resources entrusted to us for providing services to the public. We call upon those involved at GPB, GSU, and the Board of Regents to rethink this matter and to recognize the impending waste of Georgia taxpayer dollars, duplication of services, and the elimination of a vital and distinct student run radio voice in our community. We believe that if this happens, a different conclusion will be reached and a more enlightened course of action will be pursued.

You can read the complete open letter from WABE’s board of directors here. We’ve sent a line to GPB for comment. If we hear back, we’ll post an update.