Wonky WABE

I left local news in 2007 and returned in 2009.  When I began covering stories again, I noticed one eye-opening change in the news market.

Radio news is different.  WSB radio was the most relevant radio game in town in 2007.  Nowadays, that relevance seems to belong to WABE.

I used to run into WSB radio reporters at stories regularly.  Now I see WABE reporters.  They covered the Atlanta mayor race consistently.  WSB radio seemed puzzlingly absent.

I listen to both stations.  WABE produces local news pieces each weekday on a variety of stories.  WABE also regularly produces feature-length stories, like the clear-headed piece Odette Yousef delivered in November on the toothlessness of the Citizen Review Board, which reviews APD conduct.

By contrast, WSB is fixated on breaking news, plus every-six-minutes traffic and weather during drive times.    It still does enterprise reporting, but very rarely.

WSB radio lost staff over the last few years, and now runs a skeleton crew.  It leans pretty heavily on material from WSB-TV.  Richard Sankster reliably covers overnight mayhem.  Sandra Parrish covers the Capitol admirably.

As Rodney Ho notes, WSB’s ratings seem to be slipping, and WABE’s are surprisingly strong.  However, radio ratings are unpredictable; it’s unlikely WABE will ever become a ratings leader.  Audiences crave personalities, pop culture and mayhem.  WABE delivers that stuff too sparingly for most.

The churn in the radio market isn’t surprising.

Radio news mattered a lot when I first started at WAGA in 1986.  Back then, WGST was the city’s premier news station.  WGST also carried talk shows by Neal Boortz and Clark Howard (as well as Dick Williams, Tom Houck, Mike Malloy, “Ralph from Ben Hill” and Tammy Lloyd).

Ludlow Porch

WGST went on its greatest tear when it snagged Braves baseball broadcasts from WSB, at the same time that the Braves went from worst-to-first in 1991.  If you were on the radio in Atlanta, WGST was the place to be.

Meantime, WSB carried Ludlow Porch’s folksy but mostly irrelevant morning show.  Its local news operation seemed to be a shadow of WGST, which audaciously called itself “the news monster.”  Boortz lampooned WSB’s call letters, saying they stood for “we’re so boring.”

WSB fought back admirably, though.  It jettisoned Porch, and grabbed Howard, Boortz and the Braves from WGST.  For a few years, WGST tried to compete but couldn’t.  It’s now a radio signal sadly carrying mostly syndicated programming, with no local news presence whatsoever.   (See comments for a point of view disputing this observation.)

Overqualified: Odette Yousef, WABE

Enter WABE.  It has a tiny staff.  Its reporters almost never cover breaking news — apparently because WABE management knows NPR’s listeners aren’t interested in local carnage.  It covers issues.  It attends news conferences and city council meetings.  Like other news organizations, it repackages stuff from other media and has plenty of room for improvement.  But it’s smart and it’s relevant.

(Last Friday provided a great example.  WABE ignored the “omigod it’s Armageddon” aspect of the snowfall.  Its 8am local news covered gun rights, prison conditions and homeless issues.  It only mentioned the weather during forecasts and just-the-facts recitals of traffic wrecks.)

Unlike web, newspaper and other broadcast media, WABE offers something genuinely unique:  Wonky, commercial-free local radio news.

Speaking of wonky, Yousef actually plays that harp.  Maybe she learned it at Harvard, where she got a degree in economics and east Asian studies and probably never listened to Joy Division.

Unlike its larger media brethren, WABE has a business model that may actually succeed.  It’s dependent on fundraising, not commercials.    If its management (owned by the Atlanta Board of Education, a whole ‘nother issue that I’ll leave alone here) doesn’t lose its nerve, WABE may be the “mainstream media” cockroach that sticks around long after the rest of us are wiped out.

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Doug Richards is a reporter at WXIA-TV. This is his personal blog. WXIA-TV has nothing whatsoever to do with this blog, under any circumstances, in any form. For anything written herein, Doug accepts sole credit and full blame. Follow him on Twitter: @richardsdoug. All rights reserved. Thanks for visiting.

21 thoughts on “Wonky WABE

  1. Radio Executive

    WSB is giving up news. You can hear it in their lack of segment time and lack of coverage. Nine months ago there were serious discussions to eliminate live news between 8pm and 4 am. This will eventually happen to 750. It is sad to see an important resource in the community change direction. Maybe if WGST had remained healthy with competition WSB would have countered. Thank you WABE for making my morning commute easier.

    Reply
  2. Tvshooter

    “(Last Friday provided a great example. WABE ignored the “omigod it’s Armageddon” aspect of the snowfall. Its 8am local news covered gun rights, prison conditions and homeless issues. It only mentioned the weather during forecasts and just-the-facts recitals of traffic wrecks.)”

    You mean they weren’t out warning drivers of the impending ice on the streets? Wow-that just makes me so cynical now, knowing that WABE was not standing at the top of a hill warning people or putting out a flare or something.

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  3. 2reporter

    WSB radio is a point of contention for many of us on the television side.
    Reporters work hours digging for stories with sources and footwork only to have radio lift these pieces without accreditation. They pull the sound and then pretend one of their radio voices broke the story or was covering it. Their news coverage is our news coverage. If you are going to steal our work at least mention the tv reporter or anchor. We all have complained loudly but it goes nowhere.

    Newstalk 750. . . . Plagerism. . . .depend on it!

    Reply
  4. longgone

    Some of the credit for local radio news gathering might go to John Weatherford… former WAGA reporter/producer and one-time edit house owner (now a head honcho at WABE). He has taken over an admittedly skeleton operation and given it purpose. They do a lot with a little. This is just a guess on my part, but John has always loved radio, news and fine music.

    Reply
  5. jcburns

    A couple of years ago we gave up on WABE…back when both the news and basic board-running announcer talent seemed hopelessly second-rate for a city of this size, and their scheduling left many of the NPR News offerings OFF their air. We then used the magic of the internet to listen to…and we financially supported…WUNC Chapel Hill. So I hadn’t really tuned in to a lot of the positive changes which I too would attribute to Weatherford’s caring about news…and was pleasantly surprised when some increased travel around town got me to listening to the station again.
    Odette Yousef, Denis O’Hayer, and colleagues are doing a wonderful job of covering a town filled with important stories.
    We’re back to (happily) giving to WABE because of their vastly improved local news efforts…kinda wish we could designate our contribution to go 100% to local news reporters’ salaries.

    Reply
  6. news whiz

    Radio news doesn’t make money. Boortz and Howard do. Those who listen to the station want opinion, traffic and weather. Times have changed. News is out.

    Reply
  7. Juliea

    WABE is much improved, but could we possibly get something other than non-stop classical music throughout the day? Holy Kamoley!

    Reply
  8. Photoggg

    One can only applaud the efforts of WABE news staff. Denis O’Hayer and Odette Yousef are among the best journalist in Atlanta. However, WABE’s management team lead by Lois Reitzes seem to be in a quest to deprive Atlanta of the best of the local news team as well as the national programing of NPR. For years now, the Creative Loafing has been the sole outlet reporting on the lack of NPR programing on 90.1 which favors many hours of classical music instead. The Loafing has blamed Cox enterprises, owner of WSB radio and the AJC for the lack of NPR between Morning Edition and The World accusing it of conflict of interest. Apparently Cox is among the biggest contributors to WABE and does so to keep NPR programing, such as Talk of the Nation, from competing with local powerhouses Neil Bortz and Clark Howard. WABE favors the classics even thou the donations it asks for twice a year pays for all NPR programing and chooses not to air them. A story from October of ’03 ( http://tinyurl.com/wabestory ) documents the efforts of local residents failing to convince Reitzes and the Atlanta Board of Education to increase NPR programing. What a shame, it would be nice to have the option to listen to intelligent shows, including locally produced ones on 90.1. I would love to see a revival of “60 at 6″, heck, I’ll settle for “30 at 6″ to allow Marketplace to keep its time slot.
    Perhaps an enterprising reporter, or blogger, could do an open records request to find out who its contributors are and how is the money spent at WABE.

    Reply
  9. LBJ

    I am very grateful that WABE is delivering news that matters and has hosts like Steve and Denis we can enjoy listening to. Maybe WSB will learn something before they slide into oblivion – do we really care if there’s yet another apartment fire, if we’re not in it? The thing that WABE must change is the horrible website. Can’t WABE have its own site…with a schedule we can read?

    Reply
  10. excalibur

    Doug, thanks so much for your entertaining and informative blog. I read it every day!

    However, as a WGST employee, I have to say that your comment that we have “no local news presence whatsoever” is both inaccurate and hurtful. Allow me a chance to set the record straight…

    While things have changed from the “Newsmonster” days, the fact is we still have a dedicated team of professionals working every day to provide local news on WGST and the 100+ station Georgia News Network. Like WSB and WABE, we had members of our news staff sleeping in the studios last Thursday night to stay on top of the WX. We have reporters who work the phones hard on breaking stories. We still work to provide extensive legislative coverage. And we are only unstaffed during the overnight hours.

    Last year, we won 8 AP Awards, including Best Newscast. Only WSB won more.

    While it’s true that our limited resources make it difficult for us to get out in the field, and while it’s true that we rely heavily on our news partners at WAGA to fill the gaps, to say that we are non-existant is wrong and demeaning.

    This is not to take away from your (correct) original message, that WABE does a terrific job with their local news coverage despite limited resources. Dennis is one of the best in the city. We share news tips with WABE every day. Incidentally, we also occasionally get calls from 11 Alive’s Information Center to share news tips.

    Reply
    1. Deonilse

      Just to correct the eeornrous WGST “reflection” piece from some idiot named Firebird. Freddy Mertz was a casualty of a horrid PD named Eric Seidel who would ultimately be canned shortly thereafter. Mertz was on GST’s afternoon show from the late Summer of 2001 into the Spring of 2002, had hot phones and a great response from listeners. And, to his credit, Mertz refused to ever trash the previous host, Brian Wilson. Mertz had fun with the Christian fundamentalists, racists, lesbians (of course!) and anything and anyone interesting in the news. I still recall when he had topless dancers in the studio playing the role of deer and asking for mercy, when Georgia liberalized its deer hunting laws. Mourn Kimmer all you want, but when he came on the air, he did a very similar shtick to Mertz, and inherited the momentum Mertz had already been building. Firings suck in this business, but don’t trash a previous host with misinformation. Both hosts were fired for no reason related to the jobs they did.

      Reply
  11. dinko

    Excalibur,
    Not to be mean, but you guys are not on the arbitron ratings radar, nor the car buttons of anyone I know. A proud station nuked by out of town managers. Those of us who have lived here most of our lives can’t be fooled by a long winded post.
    WGST-R.I.P. The end of WGST has not helped WSB, however, it has helped WABE in the vacuum.
    Dinko

    Reply
  12. HistoryJoe

    Excellent topic, WABE has vastly improved in the last 2 years for local news coverage and should be applauded. I’ve been listening since 1992 when I was listening to 750 AM the rest of time (remember the Braves?) and never heard it better from 90.1 than the last few years.

    Reply
  13. gooberpeas

    for what it’s worth, I enjoy the classical music…..that’s about the only reason I listen to WABE…when travelling, as I get out of range of one station, I move up the dial to the next NPR station and generally get classical music for most of the trip.

    Reply
  14. arky

    Why is WABE able to do so much field work with so few people? It doesn’t hurt that they do, by my count, only 11 newscasts a day. By contrast, WGST does 27 and WSB does 48.

    And to “2reporter,” you realize you guys are all part of the same company, right? You’re lucky they mention the TV station at all. When you grab material off the AP wire for your national tells, do you credit them? Do you give a courtesy to ABC when you pull video off of NewsOne?

    Reply
  15. 2reporter

    Newsone is a feed service.
    AP’s prime directive is that of content provider.
    WSB Television is not a feed service but the historic leader of news and information for North Georgia. We are providers of news to our viewers not to our friends in the Cox building basement of West Peachtree. The bulk of WSB radio news content is taken from WSB television. Anyway you cut it, it’s plagerism.

    Reply
  16. itpdude

    I switched off news radio sometime after the run-up to the Iraq invasion of 2003. I could not listen, the situation was so frustrating. But being a bit of a news junky, I had to listen to something and non-news was getting boring so I tried the commies over at NPR. To my amazement, I liked it. Further to my amazement, I found out not all of them were pinko commies.

    I haven’t looked back, however, I wish there was some sort of all day news radio station, particularly FM. The AM around Atlanta can really suck with all the buildings, high power wires, and bridges.

    And does WGST even have an antennae anymore?

    Reply

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