For months now, one of the more titillating -- and very Atlanta -- tempests in a mint julep pitcher has been over programming at WABE, the venerable (some would say calcified) classical music station. The issue has all of the city's familiar themes -- the ever-present racial fault line, the creaky old Atlanta establishment vs. progressive and intellectual newcomers, the failure of Those Who Run Things to run things in the public's interest (as opposed to their own). And, last but not least, the ubiquitous, smothering embrace of Atlanta's own media beast, the voracious Coxtopus.
Atlanta, you see, is anemic unto near death in the public radio department. You can hear more National Public Radio programming, and more stations beaming it, in Augusta or Columbus than in Atlanta. Hell, the backwaters of Mississippi and Alabama are enlightened with oodles more NPR than the South's putative cultural capital, Atlanta.
As media activist Heidi Glick puts it: "I'm from Vermont, and I had my choice of three NPR stations. Here, I have no choice, and the one station that should be broadcasting NPR gives us only a very small amount of what's available. It was shocking to me."
Glick was so shocked that one day, while standing parental watch at the Waldorf School playground in Decatur, she began commiserating with a friend over the lack of NPR programming. "We decided we were tired of talking and we were going to do something," Glick recalls. A revolutionary was born.
A group of activists coalesced, led by Kate Binzen, who like Glick is a full-time mom, and Georgia State philosophy professor Andy Altman. In February, they began attending board meetings of AETC Inc., the nonprofit entity that operates WABE. The station's license is held by Atlanta Public Schools, which in turn contracts management to AETC.
"We thought we'd be listened to at least," Altman sighed last week. Binzen finished: "Then we ran into Lois."
Lois Reitzes is the grande diva of classical music in Atlanta. She is beloved by fans, who get downright faint each evening awaiting her trademark announcement, delivered in a voice sweetened by the tones of triumph, "Six hours of classics begin now!"
The problem, however, isn't exactly Reitzes. There's no doubt that she's passionate about dead European white guys. Compared to the anti-intellectual, politically Neanderthal, just-shy-of-payola crap brought to you by corporate thugs such as Clear Channel and Cox -- Reitzes comes across as an airwave Mother Teresa.
NPR fans, however, depict Reitzes as more of a vengeful Valkyrie. They wanted four more hours of news and talk added to the eight hours of non-music daily programming on WABE. What Atlanta does not hear currently are popular NPR programs such as "Talk of the Nation," "The Diane Rehm Show" and "The Connection." Those require real-time broadcast, which would nix some of Reitzes' midday arias and concertos.
But after many meetings and polite advocacy, Glick and friends ran into resistance as thick and impenetrable as a Prokofiev symphony.
"They would like all talk during the day," Reitzes said, her voice slightly quavering at the outrageousness of the idea, adding as both compliment and warning: "They're very well organized."
Ultimately, WABE's response to the NPR "radioactivists" was: Drop dead.
There are, in fact, two public radio broadcasters in Atlanta. You can hear WABE. In most places inside the Perimeter, you can't listen to Georgia Public Radio because its Federal Communications Commission license (held by the state) restricts it from airing in Atlanta.
Meanwhile, the Atlanta School Board -- a group better known for mismanagement than broadcasting acumen -- is one of the few minority-controlled institutions in the nation running a public broadcast station. The school system also owns WPBA Channel 30, one of two public TV stations broadcasting in the Atlanta area.
At most public broadcasting operations, the popular radio stations attract more loyal contributors than does television. When the two facilities are combined, as with the Atlanta school stations, the radio station's contributors prop up TV operations. AETC board member Kevin Ross remarked at the May meeting of the panel: "[T]he financial strength of the enterprise AETC manages ... is WABE."
In other words, when people call and contribute money during fundraising drives, they may think all they're supporting is the radio station -- but in reality, money is diverted to fund public TV. It's a little bit of bait and switch.
And, why do people open their wallets to WABE? Is it classical music or the station's limited NPR offerings that prompt generosity? Even Reitzes confesses, "The listening audience has two tent poles, [NPR's] 'Morning Edition' and 'All Things Considered.'" Between those, when music is aired, the audience num- bers wane.
The national guru of public radio, David Giovannoni, has been preaching the gospel for years that talk and news draw bigger audiences, and more listeners mean more cash for stations. By that logic, WABE cuts its own support by not increasing NPR programming.
If you listen to San Francisco's KOED, Boston's WBUR or Miami's WLRN, you'll get a healthy diet of hip, even edgy, news and talk (as opposed to the toxic sludge on commercial AM radio) during the day, with classical music, maybe jazz, in the evening. But not in Atlanta. The big irony is that most of the NPR programming that isn't aired is paid for in the current fees anted by WABE. And unlike many NPR stations, WABE has virtually no original news programming and little in the way of news staff.
One would think that a major conflict over a public treasure would get a little news coverage. One would think that if one didn't live in Atlanta. But one does, and in Atlanta the Cox Evil Empire rules.
Cox happens to own WSB-AM (750), the top news-talk station (if you call Neal Boortz's racist-tinged bellowing "talk") on the Atlanta dial. A vigorous slate of smart news and talk on WABE would do what? Um, maybe cut into WSB's ratings?
Reitzes, of all people, bolsters that theory. "Please, never let it be said that I drove someone to Rush [Limbaugh] or Neal Boortz, but people who want news and talk are likely to look for it elsewhere than on WABE."
So, when the citizen activists -- who dubbed themselves the Atlanta Public Radio Initiative -- started making waves to impact airwaves, the AJC ignored them. The newspaper did, however, last month assign its classical music critic, Pierre Ruhe, to write a gushing testimonial (disguised as a news story) to Reitzes and her melodic programming. Ruhe allowed Reitzes to take gentle pokes at her critics -- but the reporter didn't even call the activists.
The AJC also donated op-ed space to WABE general manager Earl Johnson -- but no such courtesy was shown to the other side. The newspaper's only nod to balance was allowing a few critics' letters to get some ink.
The AJC "is just dishonest with the public on this," Binzen told me.
In the mid-1990s, Georgia Public Radio offered to replace AETC and manage WABE for $1 a year. The deal was stillborn. For the school board, relinquishing black control of the station wasn't palatable. Nor was the idea of losing the contributions generated by WABE that subsidize the board's television station.
Keep in mind, the Atlanta establishment is perfectly happy with a paucity of intelligent commentary on the radio. If Georgia Public Radio held WABE's conductor's baton, a sure bet would be that there would be a lot more local radio journalists nosing around Atlanta's sacred cattle herds.
Since the abortive state-local merger, not much happened until the radioactivists started hammering for attention. Their tools have been weapons of mass instruction: a website, hundreds of names on petitions and even more hundreds of e-mails and letters urging WABE to provide more NPR and news programming.
The nut is that Atlanta's FM dial is maxed out. There's no room for both a classical music station and a NPR-leaning station. A challenge to WABE's license would be a good idea -- but the FCC isn't likely to strip a minority institution of a station.
At WABE, the only wisps of compromise have been suggestions such as switching to digital broadcasting, which would allow more stations to crowd onto the dial. However, that would require listeners to buy digital radios -- not a likely scenario in the next several years.
One of Atlanta's foremost public broadcasters -- who has worked for the school board's properties and the state's stations -- says: "I commend the grassroots efforts. It shows that people really do care. Their issue is that they want a better format, and anyone who knows anything about public broadcasting knows that they're right. But the bigger issue is bad management at WABE. It's going to take a tidal wave of public pressure to change that."
Senior Editor John Sugg -- who swears he can whistle Bach's Brandenburg Concertos -- can be reached at 404-614-1241 or at email@example.com.