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The other side of the WRAS deal: GSU's mad dash to create a TV production center from scratch

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  • Andux/Wikimedia Commons
  • It's one thing to announce a partnership. It's another to create 84 hours of programming with little resources.

Last May, Georgia State University President Mark Becker announced a two-year, $150,000 deal that gave Georgia Public Broadcasting rights to broadcast nearly 100 weekly hours on Album 88, WRAS-88.5. FM. The nationally-recognized college radio station had been previously managed by students since it first went on the air in 1971. Becker said the agreement, which enabled GPB to enter metro Atlanta’s radio market for the first time, would give undergraduate students “unprecedented access” to GPB internships and TV programming experience.

But according to hundreds of GSU emails obtained through Open Records Requests, the university might have underestimated the task at hand. In the wake of the controversial deal, GSU professors preparing for summer leave were suddenly tasked with essentially assembling an entire TV channel without adequate funding and staff. The emails paint a portrait of a hectic dash to create half of the programming required for GPB Knowledge, one of the state media network’s subchannels. Along the way, multiple GSU professors raised questions as to whether the department could meet the contract’s requirements.

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For the past five months, GSU staffers have scrambled to develop a TV production operation expected to produce 84 hours of weekly "noncommercial education" programming. The TV contract, a separate agreement from the WRAS radio deal, will last for up to 50 years, automatically renewing every two years until April 2020, and every eight years after that point until the contract expires. Much like the radio contract, either side has the ability to terminate the TV agreement for various reasons <a href=“ https://www.scribd.com/doc/222406815/Georgia-State-Georgia-Public-Broadcasting-Agreement-Part-Two”>such as failure to fulfill its obligations.

“The TV and radio contracts were negotiated at the same time and speak to the overall partnership between Georgia State and GPB,” GSU spokeswoman Andrea Jones says. “They are two parts of a whole.”

GPB retains full control over GPB Knowledge, including which GSU programming airs on the station, and must be given at least 60-days notice about the content created for broadcast. If GSU can't come up with the agreed-upon content, the school is responsible for half the costs associated with purchasing syndicated programming to fill those time slots. However, GPB would consult with GSU about those costs ahead of time. The contract also requires the university to provide video content that meets Federal Communications Commission requirements, comes with closed captioning, and can be viewed on 480i standard definition television.

One day after the WRAS deal's announcement, GSU Department of Communications Chair David Cheshier told his colleagues that the GPB-GSU partnership would “provide significant educational opportunities to GSU journalism and film majors.” He acknowledged growing opposition to the deal over a lack of student involvement in the negotiation process. But he encouraged faculty members to "not jump to conclusions based on the more extreme depictions” of the deal. In response, a couple of staffers noted that some people already thought the agreement benefited the school more than the students.

"There is a perception that the department is reaping the benefits of the merger while WRAS student and station autonomy and programming is gutted” GSU Associate Professor of Communication Niklas Vollmer replied on May 8.

The following week, Cheshier began to schedule meetings with GSU staffers to discuss the TV production efforts. GSU faculty members, some of which were optimistic about the project, began to offer initial suggestions about the limitations of creating original programming, curating video content from third-party sources, and potential legal issues. In mid-June, Cheshier started drafting and sharing a formal memo outlining staffing needs, facility requirements, and a project timeline for TV production that would later be sent to College of Arts and Sciences Dean Bill Long. Here’s an excerpt from June 23 draft:

The “Intergovernmental Digital Television Subchannel Programming Agreement” enables us to program a subchannel to broadcast statewide cultural affairs and arts content. Rather than the time- and labor-intensive work of producing original content, our concept is that other organizations will submit HD-recorded content to GSU. We, in turn, will post-produce that content to help make it ready for broadcast (credits, formatted to timeslot, closed captioned). We have contractual flexibility to program the channel in other ways so long as we’re consistent with the educational mandate of the core GPB license.

This programming model enables a significant student training experience that will benefit many students. It’s the lowest-cost programming model of which we’re aware. The content model serves the full state of Georgia, allowing GSU to brand content without seeming only to offer parochial content. The model is scalable: the contract allows us to solicit funded sponsorships, which we can use to pay to produce original programming over time.

Cheshier's memo projected the estimated TV production costs at $240,000 for the first year. Those figures included four staff positions with salaries ranging from $25,000 to $75,000, graduate student funding worth $36,000, and an undergraduate work-study budget of $40,000. Cheshier today confirmed to CL the annual budget remains the same amount. Most of the budget will go toward funding staff positions responsible for getting students involved with GPB Knowledge. Additional cash will pay for facility renovations, closed captioning costs, production SUV’s, post-production software, and a connection to GPB’s TV feed.

“We are not using contract funds from GPB to expand television operations,” Cheshier tells CL. "These funds are committed to WRAS. Rather, because it helps us implement a strategic plan goal in the TV production education area, we are cost sharing the expenses between the central university, the College of Arts and Sciences, and the Department of Communication.”

Cheshier warned in late June, however, that GSU staffers needed to move quickly to have the TV production operation up and running by June 2015. To do that, he said, work needed to begin immediately to get content partners lined up during the summer and open the school's post-production operation in the fall. He noted that the original content, given time and resource constraints, should be minimal at first with the goal of expanding original programming at a later date.

“The timeline is brutal, but I don't see any other way to get the work done but to front load July and August," Cheshier wrote on June 23.

In another email, Cheshier vents to his colleague Mary Stuckey, director of the communications department’s graduate program, that he's "continuing to drown in GPB partnership work, which is like an octopus that won’t let me go and keeps pulling me back under the water." Around that time, he asked other GSU professors to help with the "important imperative to adequately resource this initiative and the reality that there are no resources.”

He followed his initial plea days later with a "GPB-GSU Project Work" outline that divvied up responsibilities among staffers. Some GSU employees offered their assistance, while others expressed major concerns about work related to the TV production. Sheldon Schiffer, an associate professor of communications, requested more detailed information about his vaguely assigned duties and questioned the feasibility of meeting the requirements laid out in the GPB deal.

"I am sure you are aware, this will be a massive logistical Gordian knot," Schiffer writes to Cheshier in a June 27 email, one of numerous lengthy messages between the two that week. Cheshier replied that the GPB-GSU contract requires everyone to chip in and do extra work for the good of the department. "It's a beast, to be sure," Cheshier says.

When asked by CL about those concerns, Cheshier says a faculty group, including those employees, worked together to produce the production budget that took those questions into consideration.

“Launching a 12-hour-a-day TV channel with all original content is ambitious, and we have known all along that we would need to resource operations,” Cheshier tells CL. “But the university leadership has provided us with the resources we feel are necessary to fulfill our part of the contract.”

Meetings between GSU and GPB continued over the summer regarding technical issues such as high-resolution formatting, connectivity concerns, and closed captioning costs. Details about GSU internships, university classes at GPB’s Midtown headquarters, and a future co-op program similar to Mercer University’s partnership with the state media network were also talked about in those conversations. Months later, some of the closed captioning costs are still unknown, but Cheshier tells CL that GSU remains committed to fulfilling its side of the contract and has received guidance from GPB on the technical matter.

Last month, Cheshier told CL the GPB partnership would provide up to 200 students majoring journalism and film with important professional TV training in areas such as fieldwork, post-production, closed captioning, and marketing. The communications department is looking to expand GPB internship and production opportunities as the partnership develops, Cheshier said.

Many of those efforts are expected to ramp up once positions tied to the GPB contract are filled. The search for the school’s new Digital Arts Entertainment Lab director, which will eventually oversee the GPB Knowledge production, will likely start this fall and continue into next spring.

“We are taping content for the channel already, which we started in the middle of September,” Cheshier tells CL. “It's low key for now while we finalize the position hiring, but once a week we are recording a major event for later post-production, in production crews that include students and our current staff.”

Despite GPB Knowledge’s progress, the latest round of emails has raised even more questions with opponents of the GPB-GSU contract. Save WRAS member Lynn Medcalf tells CL that she thinks both contracts benefit GPB far more than students. She’s most upset about the lack of transparency from both public entities about the partnership and the failure to involve students in a deal that had been secretly in the works since 2012.

"It's very troubling that they'd have this kind of subterfuge around something that's is in the public's interest,” Medcalf says. “These are publicly funded institutions. Georgia State University and Georgia Public Broadcasting gets funding from taxpayer dollars. They have to operate in the light of day and they're not doing so."

The Georgia Public Telecommunications Commission, which oversees GPB’s operations, will hold its next meeting on Oct. 15 at 10:00 a.m.


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