GPB Radio to operate Atlanta’s WRAS without tax-based funding

Board chair responds to criticism from rival pubcasting outlet

By Sean Meehan

Georgia Public Broadcasting will fund its new daytime public radio news service on Atlanta’s WRAS through private revenues, not state subsidies, according to Michael H. McDougald, a broadcaster who chairs the state network’s governing commission.

GPB “has no intention of using taxpayers’ money to support this new initiative,” McDougald said in an open letter responding to criticism from Public Broadcasting Atlanta, which broadcasts a hybrid format news and music service to the state capitol on WABE-FM. McDougald said the state-owned pubcasting network expects earned revenues to fully support its news and talk programming on WRAS.

GPB took over daytime programming of Georgia State University’s 100,000-watt FM station on June 29 through a channel-sharing agreement with the university. The deal drew criticism from GSU students who previously controlled all programming on the station, supporters of their music service and Public Broadcasting Atlanta, a community licensed public radio and TV service.

In a July 3 open letter that was PBA’s first public statement on GPB’s service expansion, Dr. Louis Sullivan, chair of PBA’s board of directors, called GPB’s entry into the Atlanta market “bad public policy.”

Pointing out that GPB derives nearly half of its funding from state appropriations, Sullivan described GPB’s entry into Atlanta as a waste of taxpayer money. Previously, WABE-FM was the only public radio station in Atlanta airing NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered, which WRAS is airing at the same time as WABE.

Prior to GPB’s daytime takeover of WRAS, Atlanta was the only top 10 market without a full-day public radio news station because WABE devotes its midday schedule to classical music. In his response to Sullivan, McDougald listed several other large markets where multiple stations air NPR news programs, and said he believes that the donor pool in Atlanta can support both stations.

Though he acknowledged some duplicative programming on WRAS and WABE, McDougald  said that both stations produce their own local news coverage for insertion within those programs.

McDougald called for more collaboration and less competition between the two stations, saying that WABE officials have ignored GPB’s proposals to collaborate.

  • redape

    Maybe not taxpayer moneys (and that’s likely wrong as well)…but student moneys, certainly. The GSU Administration went before the Student Activity Fee Committee and requested a new $750,000 transmitter/antenna system for the student group that founded, built, and funded WRAS without University funding for 4 decades. These Administrators failed to tell those on the committee that it would be GPB receiving the bulk of the benefit of that expenditure….not the students. They also used the student-fee salaried Chief Engineer to install their system. That’s embezzlement. It’s like the bank allowing you to take your deposit out for a new car but inserting in the fine print that you can only use your car from 7PM-5AM because the banker’s son needs it during the day. What you say? What gives you the right? Well we do hold your money…which the Regents do with student funds.

    And one of the so-called benefits that GSU will supposedly get is the TV sub-channel. But beware of Greeks bearing gifts. Students have to (mandatory) provide high-quality programming from 6PM to 6AM on the TV station…scheduled and approved by GPB (odd they don’t give GSU that right for their programs on WRAS). What if the students fail to produce that 84 hours a week of programming that meets the standards of GPB??? Well GPB can put on a PBS or other TV show, schedule it at prime time (pushing the students back into the darkness) and CHARGE GSU 50% of the costs to acquire that program for broadcast. So Georgia State and the taxpayers may indeed be paying for this travesty yet…because GPB not only wants a radio station, but wants to have someone else pay for its “second-channel” on TV.

  • Richard Holcomb

    Hogwash. The money provided by the state covers activities that the private funding would otherwise be required for, that’s just a spreadsheet with different headings. And regardless of the source of funds, it doesn’t excuse cannibalizing existing quality programming to stick their finger in the Atlanta market. Start a new station, use public funds if it offers something of value, fine, but don’t steal from the students and the community to get your airtime.

  • Jefrey With One F

    Interesting. How are you funding it right now? Through taxpayer money and student fees.
    GPB Get OFF the Air.

  • reiddavis

    This is a useless distinction. All of the money is fungible across all of the activities GPB funds, and GPB draws half of its revenue from the state. Meanwhile, it will cannibalizing Atlanta donor dollars to seek to support its new local radio entity. PBA and GSU students are right to object. And as a person in my 40s who has supported a number of public media entities in the past, the brazen power grab of this move has turned me from feeling generally positive about GPB to 100% negative. I will never ever support them, and I urge everyone else to do the same.

  • altfactor@hotmail.com

    It will be no more than a year until GPB actually purchases WRAS and begins 24/7 NPR news/information programming there.

    Despite the bad blood between GPB and WABE, I could see GPB purchase WABE so the latter becomes a 24/7 classical-music station under GPB ownership, while WRAS becomes 24/7 news/information.

    That way, listener pledge $$$ from WRAS can help subsidize WABE, since news/information programming beings in big pledge dollars. Music programming usually does not.

    • chipper

      Wait, let me get this straight… you believe that within the next year, GPB is going to be able to come up with an extra $10 – $15 million to purchase WRAS from GSU (money that will come mostly from state tax allocations). Then at some point in the future, come up with as much (if not substantially more) to buy WABE from Atlanta Public Schools.

      You are more likely to be struck by lighting before that happens in Georgia.

      • redape

        Why are you supposing that WRAS is going to cost $10-15 million? Becker gave them half the airtime for $50,000. The FCC has said that NCE licensees cannot monetize their stations like commercial stations. So at best, GSU can charge the amount it has “invested” in the station which is practically nothing…GSU students have fully funded it.

        I do agree that these public radio networks are voracious, though. In Sacramento they took over the college station and started a classical/news format, then took over several other community stations in the region, and then finally had to add another Sacramento frequency splitting their NEWS/Talk and the classical/opera station.

  • Mike Stroud

    My take on the response of GPB chairman Michael McDougald to Dr. Louis Sullivan, chair of PBA:

    1) McDougald espouses the orthodoxy that tastes should be uniform across the country; it does not occur to him that metropolitan Atlantans–on balance, pro and con–might NOT desire a full-time pub radio news/talk outlet. Many are in fact sick of the genre, whether in right- or left-wing form.

    2) Two pious phrases that might well have been lifted out of a civics textbook, “Public radio has proven that it has an extremely important role to play in driving a healthy democracy and a more informed citizenry. Therefore, we think the more news and information made available, the better,” are wishful thinking run amok. To wit: we have a nearly infinite number of outlets for news these days and, to risk oversimplification on this complex subject, ignorance levels on the part of the American public about government, culture, and economics remain as high as before, by most indicators. McDougald is BADLY out of date with these sentiments.

    3) McDougald expects “the marketplace” to support the GPB programming on WRAS. By that, of course, he really means corporate “underwriting” and pledges diverted from WABE. Above all, that seems to be the true motivation for moving into metropolitan Atlanta, despite having had 30 years to do so since GPB radio’s launch back in 1984. A long-standing

    4) Predictably, McDougald trots out the charge of hypocrisy against Public Broadcasting Atlanta for operating channel 30 (WPBA) as “competition” against channel 8 (WGTV) “for decades.” What he is not letting on about is that the Atlanta School System felt the need for in-school TV far back in the 1950s, before the Georgia state legislature even THOUGHT of the idea. Even then, UGA took the first step with the present WGTV–NOT the General Assembly. Another such instance of that is in Charlotte, where a standalone, WTVI, started up before the University of North Carolina expanded its flagship WUNC-TV statewide in the 1960s. Thus, Atlanta/Georgia’s situation is far from aberrant or unusual.

    5) It may well be true that “Atlanta’s citizens are not the only ones in the state that value access to public television and radio,” but demographic studies and common sense prove that they are far more likely to do so than in rural areas–if that were not the case, GPB would not be butting into the metro market after 30 years of serving the rest of the state with pub radio. McDougald indulges some serious disingenuousness here.

    6) While GPB has greater engineering/maintenance overhead being a statewide net, McDougald does not mention that all the TV translators and most of the radio ones carry the same programming–no local origination except on radio, and even at that only a few hours per week maximum. Even with higher rates to PBS, NPR, APM, et al. due to statewide status, the costs are much lower per capita than with WPBA/WABE, I would suspect.

    7) “Commitment to high school sports across the state” has nothing to do with GPB’s core mission and everything to do with getting rural legislators on board to support GPB who otherwise would not–that goes back to the 1990s “Tales of the City” backlash and right-wing populism in general. Football games could easily be shown on cable throughout the state by a commercial provider. It is pork, pure and simple, one manifestation of the time-honored “good ole boy” wheeling and dealing of Southern politics.

    • Mike Stroud

      To complete the broken-off sentence in point #3, “A long-standing cultural and political hatred between state legislators and officials against those in the city and much of Fulton and DeKalb counties explains past reluctance by GPB to set up shop on an Atlanta FM. Up until the recent boom in new media and the coincidental plateauing of NPR’s popularity, GPB played its ambitions low-key. But now, with state revenues in a free fall across the board, and scandal after scandal blackening its name with (especially suburban Atlanta) legislators, it feels it has to act to clip WABE’s wings. GPB is, I suspect, frankly green with envy over WABE’s recent good fortunes. Bottom line, politics and history are just as important as money in this drama, if not more so.”

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