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.