For 43 years, turning your radio to 88.5 FM throughout a great deal of Georgia would lead you to WRAS Atlanta, the student-run station of Georgia State University. Known for eclectic mixes of new music, a variety of specialty shows and its 100,000-watt signal, a rarity for college radio, WRAS (or Album 88 as it became known) carved out a niche in Atlanta radio.
As of June 29, however, turning to 88.5 during the weekday hours of 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. leads to National Public Radio broadcasting. Through a deal with Georgia State, Georgia Public Broadcasting acquired the station to host talk radio. WRAS would be available online, but the students would only be on terrestrial radio during the night and early morning hours.
Students, former staff members and supporters of the student station have mobilized swiftly since news of the deal broke on May 6, taking to social media and forming organizations such as Album 88 Alumni and Save WRAS.
“I found it out via Facebook and then watched my newsfeed become just nothing but posts about the deal,” said Mikey Johnson, an Atlanta musician who started the Facebook page that kickstarted Save WRAS. “I had to be at work at 4 p.m. that day, so at 3 I made a page, then called Boycott GPB on 88.5, I think. Within 24 hours, I came back and had 3,000 likes on the page and thought ‘Okay, well, I guess I’m going to have to do something then.’”
GPB acquired the station in return for $150,000 and a deal for Georgia State students to get internships and access to GPB’s television studios. Students will also produce a 30-minute music show for GPB. The specifics of these student benefits have yet to arise.
Controversy beyond GPB’s takeover of the airwaves itself has swirled around the issue regularly, however.
The takeover, settled in a closed-door deal that students were not made aware of, was announced on a date when station management was switching over to largely fresh faces and finals were still going, putting the station in a vulnerable state. While the contract was purported to be initially for two years, the deal automatically renews every two years until 2020, at which point it begins to renew every eight years.
“The way the whole thing went down just doesn’t seem like the best way to do things,” Johnson said.
GPB’s programming often replicates pre-existing programming from WABE Atlanta, another public radio station in Atlanta. WABE has cited the waste of tax dollars going into another public radio station playing the same broadcast. GPB rebuts that their broadcast provides the only purely talk radio station in Atlanta, as WABE plays classical music during some of its hours.
Matters of legality have entered the fray as well. In 2013, the Georgia State Activity Fee Committee approved the purchase of a new transmitter for the station. That transmitter, purchased with student money, has arrived at the station but has not been installed yet.
While the transmitter was being purchased, Georgia State continued talks of the takeover with GPB and kept the public broadcasting company informed on the transmitter’s delivery. The Student Press Law Center attorney advocate states this could be considered a constructive fraud.
With all of this in mind, Save WRAS has been continuing its fight, and the Album 88 Alumni proposed an alternative plan to Becker in June, comprised of internships and mentoring for media students, if the GPB contract was canceled. Becker praised the plan but declined to cancel the deal in exchange.
The movement has swelled since May, as artists ranging from Bradford Cox of Deerhunter to R.E.M. expressed discontent with the situation. Atlanta institutions have spread the word, such as Adult Swim with a WRAS bump.
“I don’t know why they [GPB] would feel that taking over a No. 1 college radio station would do anything but reflect poorly on them,” Johnson said.
Save WRAS has organized fundraisers and events for the cause, and the group’s Facebook page has reached over 9,000 likes. Some headway has been made, as further meetings with administrations have continued and through negotiation, students managed to improve their weekend schedule with hours of 6 p.m. to 8 a.m.
However, Georgia State has given no inclination toward ending the deal despite the backlash. For the time being, GPB will remain in control of the frequency, leaving the students with an online stream and limited hours.
“Everyone else has Internet radio,” Johnson said. “WRAS was special, and it needs to continue.”