Oh, I’m not talking about Georgia State’s treatment of actual buildings. Quite the contrary, the school is quite fond of property acquisition and maintenance as of late. Instead, I’m talking about its treatment of WRAS and its student management.
In less than a month, Georgia State is turning over 14 hours a day (including all drive time) of its 100,000 watt 88.5 transmission to Georgia Public Broadcasting in a “partnership.” Georgia State is more than happy to remind you it’s not selling the transmitter. Look at it as a rental agreement to alleviate transmitter costs:
“Hey, GPB, this transmitter already has a tenant. But what say you take on the upkeep and throw us some vague promises of partnerships, internships and statewide Georgia State promotion? We’ll just push our Album 88 students that have been living in this transmission space to the online/digital back shed during prime radio hours.”
That’s a slumlord move.
The thing about it is: the longer you aren’t a slumlord, the more it hurts to the tenants when you become one. During its 40+ years of owning the transmitter, Georgia State University took care of it. They hired the engineers that kept the transmitter running and they left Album 88 alone. They were the reputable landlord of college radio.
But of course, it’s held in contempt by some that WRAS has been kind of a big deal in the college radio world for a long time. “Why don’t you play something we know?” some ask, as if they have a clue what responsibilities lie with the left side of a radio dial. They shrug off local and national accolades for WRAS’ work, even though it sends a huge signal that Georgia State students are on the forefront of the next big things in media.
WRAS didn’t have to use its reputation to further Georgia State any more than just awesomeness by association. But it did (and does) the PSAs for other organizations on campus. It broadcasted football even when it wasn’t drawing. Most DJs probably didn’t volunteer for the groups they were reading PSAs about. Enthusiasm for athletics at a non-traditional campus usually rivals a libertarian’s love for tax hikes.
That was Album 88 providing a service in good faith to its university. Doing its part to help its university grow. Their reward is Georgia State taking more than half of their airtime and booting over half of those PSAs and Georgia State athletic broadcasts in the process. A slumlord usually doesn’t just claim one victim.
WRAS DJs put in the time with the 100,000 watt transmission of 88.5 FM that Georgia State administrators haven’t. They slaved over the programming for 40+ years. They went across the nation and found the music industry doing nothing but respect what they do. They found a loyal audience of Atlanta listeners that told them, “Thank you for giving us something that no other station in Atlanta does.” Their biggest reward has always been the influence and prestige that being a 24/7, 100,000 watt analog station provides.
But see, the Georgia State overseers are promising “more.” GPB’s broadcast is statewide. Oh sure, the Georgia State content that gets put on this statewide feed probably adds up to 45 minutes a week, but just think of the odds of those 45 minutes coinciding with our donors’ listening patterns! Just think of the TV possibilities! Think of them even though they’ve been promised in terms so ambiguous, “We’ll get back to you” would be an improvement.
Georgia State is too focused on what they think the students are getting and keeping to see what they are having given up for them. A good landlord offers a feeling of security and a great reputation. Now WRAS DJs are unsure about either.
Functionally, the station and its budget remains the same. But with clauses offering future “good faith” negotiations in the future and implied expectations of a ratings-based model from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m., how secure could a student feel? The general impression across the Atlanta community is the same one students are getting: Georgia State is cushioning the blow for when GPB comes back for the rest of the airtime later, and maybe even the transmitter.
That compromises the fun-loving spirit that makes college radio. Sure, operating a licensed station is a great responsibility, but isn’t the FCC one big brother enough? Do we need GPB looking over the other?
Album 88 without the transmitter was (and is) a great college radio station. But Album 88 with the transmitter is a powerful one. More than 40 years of Georgia State trusting Album 88 students to make good use of 88.5 has given a school with next-to-no tradition a sense of place and history to so many of its alumni.
Sure, you could argue there will be still way more influence to the “new” Album 88 than from 90 percent of college radio stations in America. You might even be right. LPFM or internet-only is the way of the road for most college stations.
But the J. Mack school wouldn’t settle for that explanation if they dropped from Top 25 to Top 50 in a business school ranking. Volunteering for WRAS means something. It gets students excited. It fosters pride in the students. National college radio publications and record labels give WRAS a credence they would never give 99 percent (not 90 percent, 99 percent) of the rest of the country’s college radio.
Telling students that they’ll get to do the same stuff, just on a smaller scale is like a white flag. A white flag in the face of stations like 100,000 watt WREK right down the street, whose school (Georgia Tech) stood tall and said “no thank you very much” when GPB put their coffers in its face a few years ago.
It’s also dismissive of what the Communication department has already accomplished. The department already operates alongside the Atlanta Film Festival, launched the Digital Arts & Entertainment Lab, joined the Georgia NewsLab initiative and sets students up with plenty of media-related internships.
This makes the desperation of this arrangement unwarranted. It’s giving up being one of the five most influential college radio stations in the country for the vague promise of GPB internships that aren’t needed that badly. All to tell WRAS volunteers, “You shouldn’t be out to be influential in what you do.”
And worst of all, the PR following this back room contract has been laced with all of the dehumanization that Donald Sterling could want (minus the overt racism).
Georgia State administrators can plead the value of this agreement— its tantalizing promise of statewide exposure for Georgia State work and “unprecedented access” for Georgia State students, no matter how vaguely defined. However one might disagree, there’s a level of sincerity in that. To the level of loss for Album 88 staffers and alumni, however, it’s nothing but tone-deafness.
It’s callous to hastily call student management to a meeting to tell them about a deal like this after the contract is signed. Moreso to do it less than a month until the arrangement kicks in. And it’s practically on the level of cartoon-villainy to blame backlash to the deal on “misconceptions” and doing all but saying in so many words, “Oh, you’ll get over it.”
(To be fair, GPB employees sure know how to act like mustache-twirling Mr. Stinchleys. It takes a certain tact to have shirts ready to show off to the Twitterverse less than an hour after a bunch of hard-working college students watch their institution and a 43-year tradition get rocked to its core.)
The phrase “it’s as if they don’t care” gets tossed around rather cavalierly, but it’s absolutely true here. Not a word said about appreciating the sacrifice that WRAS students are (involuntarily) making. Not a statement like, “We know this is hard for students, there is a tremendous legacy here.” It would be nice if the president said something like,“This will be a big step for our school but we wouldn’t be where we are as an institution without the tremendous contribution of WRAS thus far.”
The PR here amounts to “you still have your budget and studio time, just take your streaming/digital time and be happy.” All that’s missing a “binky” and a condescending pat on the head.
Georgia State, don’t tell me in a few weeks when I (don’t) turn my radio dial to 88.5 FM that I’m (not) going to GPB’s apartment. That’s a crock. I know you kicked rent-paying, community-serving Album 88 because it’s more convenient to try to pursue prestige through a bland, predictable NPR partnership rather than doing the work and care necessary to ensure that Album 88 is a bigger part of your recruiting.
Just know that slumlords don’t usually make it their business to ask former renters for “alumni donations. If they did, we all know they wouldn’t get any.