Changes at WRAS will benefit public radio news fans

The partnership between Georgia Public Broadcasting and Georgia State University’s radio station 88.5/WRAS-FM announced Tuesday will benefit fans of public radio news programming who have long complained about rival 90.1/WABE-FM, which airs classical music during much of the day.

So while WABE airs classical music from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily, WRAS plans news and talk programming from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day starting next month.

WABE-FM, which is operated by Public Broadcasting Atlanta, has had the local market largely to itself. With this change, both stations will soon be competing for listeners, pledge drive dollars and underwriting sponsorships.

GPB has radio stations all over the state of Georgia but in its 54-year existence has never had access to Atlanta until now.

Teya Ryan, CEO of GPB, said in an exclusive interview that the organization has tried to buy or partner with stations over the years without any luck until this deal came through. She said she’s excited to offer public radio shows that have never been heard on Atlanta’s FM dial before such as John Hockenberry’s “Takeaway” program. A specific schedule has not been finalized yet.

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She also said she has nothing but respect for rival WABE: “They have a very healthy audience. I’m a classical music lover. We just want to offer something different. Having two strong services in Atlanta is a positive.”

Then again, this move could very well have a negative impact on WABE, said Mike Savage, a WRAS alum and former GPB radio employee who is now general manager at Purdue University’s public radio station WBAA-FM in West Lafayette, Ind. “I believe this is a power play by GPB to potentially cripple WABE, with whom they have never had a very good relationship,” Savage said.

In recent years, WABE-FM has been a very healthy entity, generating more than $1 million during each biannual pledge drive and drawing more than 450,000 average listeners a week. “Morning Edition” is often in the top 5 among most popular radio shows during the morning in Atlanta.

Now “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered” will be heard on both WRAS and WABE, potentially splitting that audience.

John Weatherford, chief operating officer for WABE, promised a statement Wednesday but didn’t provide one by deadline.

Having two NPR stations in one market is not unprecedented. Salt Lake City, Los Angeles and Boston are among several major cities where there are competitors. And on the TV side, both GPB and PBA have offered separate channels for years.

Grayson Daughters, a local media specialist and regular listener to “Morning Edition” on WABE for more than 20 years, said she normally changes the dial at 9 a.m. to 91.9/WCLK-FM, Clark Atlanta University’s jazz station, or the Internet station Radio Paradise. “I can see myself tuning to WRAS now for more NPR talk and news after 9 a.m.,” she said, “particularly if there’s a critical, breaking national news matter.”

WRAS, also known as Album 88 since the early 1980s, has been a student-run operation since 1971. It has specialized in rock music, playing U2, R.E.M. and Outkast before commercial stations would touch them. Alumni from the station, leveraging on-the-job experience at WRAS, now work all over the media world, from Disney to Turner.

Now, students no longer have control over WRAS’ prime listening hours on the FM dial.

Students and alumni felt blindsided when GSU made the announcement Tuesday. “It’s a total complete shock,” said Ana Zimitravich, outgoing WRAS general manager and GSU senior. “I had no idea the change was coming.”

GSU spokeswoman Andrea Jones justified why the university chose to keep the partnership under wraps until it was done: “While students are entrusted to run the station, WRAS is ultimately a university asset. This opens the door for long-term opportunities between GPB and Georgia State. Terms of the contract evolved over time, and we shared the decision as soon as it was signed.”

Even though the students will continue to run the music programming during the day online and on the secondary HD radio channel, Zimitravich said without the reach of the 100,000-watt analog signal 98 hours a week on the FM dial, “it’s going to be harder for us to be a viable resource for artists and promoters.”

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