Paradise lost

Update: On May 30, GSU announced it would postpone the GPB takeover of WRAS to June 29.

When you get up Saturday morning, consider finding a way to listen to WRAS from 10am to noon.  Most of us listen to it via FM radio at 88.5, but there are apps and streams and such that also make it available.

This will be the final Saturday that WRAS will play a brilliant program called Adventures in Paradise, which calls itself “your weekly source of classic Exotica, Tropicalia, Calypso, Surf Rock, Lounge Singers, Rhumba, Mambo, Samba, Bossa Nova, and other Sunshine Music.”  It’s a madcap, inspiring and very entertaining way to start a weekend.

A week from Saturday, Georgia Public Broadcasting promises to replace Adventures in Paradise with reruns of Car Talk, the syndicated show featuring two auto mechanics.  10325140_480072262126543_7708899296937720419_n

Georgia State University has simply handed over most of WRAS-FM’s programming to GPB, and both entities have endured a much-deserved shitstorm over the last months. Said shitstorm is observable on GPB’s own Facebook page, or by visiting #saveWRAS on Twitter and such.

It’s deserved because WRAS is local, clever, influential, student-run and transgenerational.  It is arguably the best college radio station in America.  It’s stunning that GSU simply handed it over to GPB (minus evening and graveyard shift programming).  The secrecy of the deal, and its unveiling as students were leaving campus at the conclusion of the spring semester, makes it heavyhanded and ugly.

GSU president Mark Becker finally met with WRAS staff after-the-fact, and staff came away with an impression that some modifications would take place (two weeks later, none has been announced).

10404436_481481095318993_6932548418442056698_nMeantime, GPB is rapidly becoming the bad guy as they slowly roll out a programming lineup that will be rife with reruns of nationally syndicated shows like Car Talk and Prairie Home Companion, shows that are already quite available in Atlanta on WABE.

As I’ve written earlier, I like GPB but I love WRAS.  There are backstage people at GPB I absolutely adore.  It grieves me to see them having to keep their heads down as the shitstorm flies.  (Poor Bill Nigut is listed as part of GPB’s new lineup, and is now becoming the face of evil in this controversy. Nigut has told me he found out about the WRAS takeover at the same time everyone else did.)

GPB is an honorable entity.  It’s smart and avoids the foolishness of commercial broadcasting (pledge drives notwithstanding, Chip Rogers notwithstanding).  Along with WABE, GPB covers Georgia’s capitol more thoroughly than most of Atlanta’s TV stations.  GPB is fighting the good fight.  GSU made the mistake, but GPB will be the face of it June 2.

Whenever GPB raises its WRAS-takeover profile, it only seems to make it worse.  The latest is a GPB press release that inadvertently highlights just how screwed-over students are in this deal.  Cue the soothing radio voice as you read:

Our partnership with Georgia State University helps Georgia State students open the door to their future. Now, internships in a professional media operation will be available to provide practical on the job experience that matters to potential employers.

Each year, interns play a vital role throughout GPB’s operations working alongside professionals in areas including television production, news, new media and beyond. (…)

In addition, students will also produce a 30-minute music program that will air as part of GPB’s new programming schedule from 5 a.m. – 7 p.m. on 88.5.

In other words, in exchange for 14 hours of students-produced content seven days a week, students get internships at GPB!  And a thirty minute radio show!

All so GPB can run syndicated programming, plus a show hosted by Nigut.

Like Putin’s walk into Crimea, this takeover seems inevitable and unstoppable.  GPB may lose a few donors in the short term, but is well positioned to eventually expand its takeover of WRAS.  GSU’s secretiveness while cutting this deal shows that isn’t about Georgia State students, or a unique locally-produced entity with a 43 year history and a national profile.  It’s about power politics.

Unless GPB decides otherwise.  Its foot is irretrievably in the door at WRAS.  But a compromise that gives WRAS back to students for most of the week — and maybe all of the weekends — would go a long way toward creating some some short-term goodwill for GPB as it launches.

Meantime, I’m going to listen to Adventures in Paradise one more time Saturday.  It will be a really crappy start to my weekend.

#saveWRAS

WRAS matters

The best thing about Atlanta Georgia is WRAS, the Georgia State University radio station at 88.5 FM.  In a city with many great attributes, WRAS is the best of them.10330228_10152322747342107_1419655363576821531_n

The first night I lived in Atlanta in May 1986, I found WRAS by scanning through the lower end of the FM dial.  I vividly remember hearing a band I’d never heard before called The Jazz Butcher.  The band name stuck with me, the music was fun and the radio station remained my go-to for music in the 28 years since.  (Embedded above, Stump was another early find, with its refrain “Charlton Heston put his vest on” and it’s weird croaky rhythm.)

WRAS was, at once, wildly unpredictable yet the most consistently programmed radio station in Atlanta.  Every other commercial radio station in town has shifted focus or formats too numerous to count.  But WRAS has always been a radio station with a mission:  Play great, accessible music unheard elsewhere on radio — with an emphasis on artists unsigned by major record labels.

Georgia State president Mark Becker has made a puzzling decision to “partner” WRAS with Georgia Public Broadcasting. The benefits for Georgia State are nebulous, except to give its president and his friends (and GSU donors) another radio station with a news-talk format that they prefer to the strange yet wonderful noises that have emanated from 88.5 since 1971.  They’re trading in 14 hours of student programming per day for vague promises of exposure on the fringes of GPB’s statewide network.  It’s a great win for GPB, which has understandably craved an Atlanta radio presence.  Way to go, GPB.

I like GPB, but I love WRAS.  The decision to gut this radio station is ugly and sad.  In a world where radio is becoming increasingly homogenized and corporate and syndicated, GSU has cheerfully thrown in the towel to those impulses.  GSU’s spin that ‘WRAS isn’t going away because it will still be on the internet and on FM overnight’ just makes the taste worse.  Colleges everywhere have internet radio stations with tens of listeners.  Georgia State was, purportedly, the only all-student-run radio station in America, and it has a burly 100,000 watt FM radio signal.

WRAS was good for students.  With a volunteer staff of about 70 students, WRAS has the personnel footprint of a football team.  Students who have worked at WRAS have parlayed the experience into real-world post-graduation careers, with the added benefit of giving their listeners music they never would have heard on any other radio station.  Many of them are now on the march to forge a compromise with GSU, which excluded students and alumni from its decision.

WRAS studio at Georgia State University

WRAS studio at Georgia State University

Radio listeners are accustomed to getting their faves torn away by the cruel realities of corporate radio ownership.  One can argue that this is no different, that WRAS was bound to be seized at some point by GSU as an underutilized “asset,” and reshaped into something more ratings-friendly — even though WRAS never subscribed to any ratings services because nobody at GSU cared about the ratings.  Prior to the Becker regime, WRAS was viewed as a lab run by volunteer students — which delivered real-world feedback from listeners, and from the music industry that viewed WRAS as a tastemaker nationally and valued spots on its playlists.

You can argue about the relevance of radio, but the tug-of-war over this one shows that local radio ain’t dead yet — despite years of predictions that it would die by way of satellite or Pandora.

Now GSU is creating yet another radio station largely drained of its unique, local programming.  Way to go, GSU.

What in Atlanta is better than WRAS?  Start by disqualifying everything that hasn’t been consistently great for 43 years.  Maybe Piedmont Park is a contender.  Perhaps certain colleges and houses of worship qualify.  Certainly WREK and WCLK deserve consideration (WREK’s musical variations tend to be too jarring to make it accessible to my ears, however.  If I liked jazz, which I don’t, then I’d be a WCLK fan.)

But none is better than WRAS, a true Atlanta gem.  GSU ought to reconsider.

News that’s not news

Something awful happened to my industry on September 11, 2001.  On that date, we stopped using our news judgment.  Not all of it, of course.  But in many important ways, we allowed pranksters to start running our lives, deciding how we would use our resources and what we would cover.

July 2011, outside an Atlanta bank branch. AJC photo

July 2011, outside an Atlanta bank branch. AJC photo

In the first twenty years of what passes for my career in the news biz, we would mostly ignore bomb threats and suspicious package calls.

Sure, a bomb threat would mean evacuating hundreds of people from a courthouse or school.  It would mean the presence of lights-flashing cop cars and “bomb disposal unit” trucks, accompanied by cops with bomb gear and trained dogs and maybe a remote-controlled robot on wheels.  The visuals were compelling.  The false drama of will there or won’t there be a mushroom cloud at any moment would be somewhat compelling.

But we all but ignored it.  And it was the right thing to do.

We ignored it — Lord help us, did we really do this? — because we felt a sense of responsibility to discourage copycats.  (Certainly, part of our motivation to discourage copycats was rooted in our desire to minimize devotion of news resources to such stuff.)

And there was never a debate.   It was a given.  TV shops might send a photog to a bomb threat, just to be there in the unlikely event of an actual mushroom cloud; if they had a photog available.

June 2013, outside Georgia capitol.  AJC photo

June 2013, outside Georgia capitol. AJC photo

But a live truck?  Not likely.  A reporter?  They were, hopefully, too busy covering actual news generated by non-pranksters.  Covering events that were, 9999 times out of 10,000 likely to be hoaxes was considered a waste of resources and a breach of our responsibility to the community.  It sounds so quaint now.

Then starting in September 2001, all bomb threats instantly had the whiff of Al Qaeda behind them.  Never mind that real terrorists probably had bigger fish to fry than local courthouses and schools in Georgia. At that point, defending “the homeland” became a national fixation.  Cable news began running bottom-of-the-screen crawls to lend greater urgency to everything.  Local news struggled to contribute something relevant to the national story.

Jefferson Middle School in Jackson Co. 11Alive image

Jefferson Middle School in Jackson Co. 11Alive image

So we bowed to the pranksters who called in bogus bomb threats.  Add to that the kids who drop notes threatening to do harm inside school buildings.  During one two-day period last week, at least seven public schools in Georgia went on lockdown.  In one of them, a kid brought a gun to school but harmed nobody.  The others were hoaxes.

Now, off we go.  We send helicopters.  We dispatch crews in live trucks, interviewing evacuees or worried parents, reporting the inevitable hoax yet still passing it off as news.  More than a dozen years after 9/11, we still do it.

Our newsrooms are now staffed with people whose careers didn’t blossom until after 9/11.  They don’t even realize that there was a time when newsrooms exercised actual discretion in such matters.

These same folks are also plugged into social media, which is a tremendous resource for raw intel.  If it’s getting tweeted, then the word is getting out.  If “the word” is confirmed by news professionals, shouldn’t we report it too?   Can we let Twitter beat us on stories of bomb threats and such?

Hell yes we can.

Let social media have the scoop on bomb threats.  The word will still get out.  Y’all don’t need us for that.

Meantime, let the pros devote their resources to the stories that the social media amateurs don’t learn until they see it in the commercial news media.

We get our resources and our credibility back.  We regain some of the sense of responsibility we willingly gave up more than twelve years ago.

Pranksters will continue to try to manipulate police and government by creating hoaxes.  Sadly, they lack the discretion to ignore their pranks.

But the news media has that discretion.  We used to call it “news judgment.”  We ought to start using it again.

Guns everywhere

Brant Sanderlin, AJC

Brant Sanderlin, AJC

You’ll find lots of self-congratulation — but rarely much news — when a Governor signs a bill into law.  But Gov. Nathan Deal’s signing of HB60 — the “guns everywhere” bill — had some entertaining twists.  Some observations:

There were perhaps two hundred supporters at the outdoor pavilion along the Coosawattee River in Ellijay to watch.  I didn’t see a single person of color.

There were guns everywhere.  The holstered handgun was the accessory of choice among supporters.

Chattanooga Times Free Press / AP photo

Chattanooga Times Free Press / AP photo

One supporter held a full-sized old school Georgia flag with the confederate battle emblem.  It probably got in every TV story.

House Speaker David Ralston’s statement to the roaring crowd that “it is a community where we cling to religion and guns” was the rhetorical highlight.

When Rep. John Meadows (R-Calhoun) gave a welcoming statement saying he’d “even welcome the news media.  (Pause) I’m not sure why,” it was tempting to answer out loud “because you love the first amendment as much as you love the second amendment.”  But that would have just started an argument.

Gov. Deal seemed stumped when I asked him three times, in various ways, why guns continue to be banished from the state capitol.  Deal is usually pretty nimble on his feet, but he never answered the question.  My story on WXIA featured the exchange.

The issue about guns in the capitol was a rare opportunity to ask a challenging question that expressed viewpoints  by those for and against broader gun rights.  I suspect it will be asked again in the fall debates.  Presumably, Gov. Deal (and Sen. Jason Carter, who supported the measure) will have formulated a coherent answer by then.

On the other hand, Greg Bluestein of the AJC and Jonathan Shapiro of WABE radio asked questions that were more relevant to issues raised by the new law.  It’s always fun to see a WABE reporter gathering news outside the perimeter.

Riley, left, gets into position

Riley, left, gets into position

As he walked to his car, I asked Deal if he was “afraid” to have guns in the capitol.  He didn’t answer, and we chose to edit out that question because it sounded disrespectful.

That night, the AJC reported that Carter also dodged a reporter trying to question him about the gun law.

Our video of Gov. Deal walking to his car prominently featured the shoulder of Chris Riley, Deal’s chief of staff.  When Riley saw us by the Governor’s black SUV, he positioned himself in front of the camera lens, and leaned into the lens as WXIA photog Luke Carter tried to move to get a clear shot.  It was the discreet version of the hand-in-the-lens shot.  Riley apologized to Carter afterward.  Well played, Riley.

After the event, I ran into two lawmakers at a restaurant who drove from metro Atlanta to support the event.  In a poorly phrased question, I asked them if they thought I was “a dick” for raising the issue about guns at the capitol.  “Not at all,” one of them said.  “That’s what it’s all about.”

The cheap suit

My favorite suit right now is one I purchased for $150 on eBay.  Its label says “Kenneth Cole / Reaction.”  It was listed as $300 retail.  It’s the proverbial cheap suit.

El cheapo

El cheapo

Yet the wife actually went “ooh!” last time I put it on, and without irony.  The label says it’s composed of 85 percent polyester and 15 percent rayon.  It has proven water resistant qualities.  Presumably, it’s durable and fireproof. And it looks OK on my lumpy frame.

I know many adult male professionals who never wear suits.  But lawyers, politicians and TV reporters are saddled with the burden of purchasing and wearing suits.  Lawyers and TV anchors can be frequently seen in thousand dollar-plus tailored suits.

The rest of us with more modest paychecks have to dress accordingly.  I know plenty of TV reporters who sing the praises of their cheap suits.  Their go-to typically is K&G Men’s Warehouse.  It’s also the go-to for police detectives, a profession whose couture and salaries are more mismatched than most.

Less cheap

Less cheap

My go-to is eBay, first suggested by my sister who is a public defender.  I’ve bought at least five suits off eBay.  All of them were new (verified by the fact that the pants were unhemmed).  Three of them were Hickey-Freeman brand, and had tags sewn in that indicated retail prices that were substantially higher than the two to three hundred dollars I paid for them.  They are my “expensive” suits.

Portia Bruner: Clearance rack dress, thrift store belt.

Portia Bruner: Clearance rack dress, thrift store belt.

But lately I’m more sold on the cheap suits, and I’m not alone.

My friend Portia Bruner has created a thread on Facebook that shows her (looking great) in garments she has purchased at thrift stores.  Portia is a reporter and substitute anchor at WAGA, and a mom with two adorable boys in private school.  In other words, she is understandably budget-minded.

Valerie Hoff, WXIA

Valerie Hoff, WXIA

My coworker Valerie Hoff is a walking bargain-bin promotion, as detailed on her Ways to Save site and in random anecdotes I frequently overhear from her desk.  The WXIA anchor/reporter views bargain hunting as a sport.  Like Portia, she wears the cheap stuff with style.

I purchased the “Kenneth Cole / Reaction” suit by accident.  I needed a suit for a costume.  The suit that arrived in the mail had a subtle color that surprised me.  When I put it on, I was horrified that it not only lacked the costumey quality I’d expected, but also looked better than some of my pricier suits.

This points to one of the pitfalls of ordering a suit from eBay:  You may get surprised.  But it may be a pleasant surprise.

Last word:  Cheap neckties.

 

Death star 2

I’m overdue to write something nice about WSB.

Jeff Dore's workplace ID badge

Jeff Dore’s workplace ID badge

This occurred to me as I was attending the sendoff the station threw for Jeff Dore, purportedly the first-ever WSB general assignment reporter to retire from the station. If that raises an eyebrow, that’s on you.  I’m being nice.

Here’s the biggest compliment I can give to the station against whom I’ve competed for the last 28 years:  I almost never hear its employees gripe about their workplace.  (There’s one notable exception, but it dates to 2006.)

And they could.  WSB’s dayside reporters have to run a gauntlet of hour-long newscasts at noon, 4, 5 and 6pm.  Except for the folks enterprising investigative stuff, reporters typically have to deliver material for at least two of those newscasts each day.  It has the schedule of a sweat shop.

(My favorite thing to see is when John Bachman covers a story during the day, then anchors their 4pm newscast, then gets shoved out the door in rush hour traffic to do a live shot at 6 on the story he’d covered previously.  4pm co-anchor Erin Coleman gets the same inglorious treatment.  You kids in college want to be news anchors?  Talk to those two first.)

Bachman and I cover some dreary meeting related to the new Falcons stadium, Nov. 2012

Bachman and I cover some dreary meeting related to the new Falcons stadium, Nov. 2012

Yet the affable Bachman, whose daddy is a recently-retired longtime anchor at WHO-TV in Des Moines Iowa, is the embodiment of a WSB employee who has no gripes.

The station’s esprit de corps was evident at Dore’s function.  The event’s energy emanated from the troops, not the station’s management (which had sprung for the tab and food at Uncle Julio’s on Peachtree Rd.)

From my view across the proverbial street (a viewpoint from which I am committed to the righteous cause of strengthening WXIA and crushing WSB), here are some notes on my grudging admiration for my doomed competitor.

Although they work their field hands pretty hard, there’s no ambivalence about their expectations.  You’ll produce pieces for two or more newscasts each day. You will be in a live truck.  And you won’t let one of those other Atlanta TV stations yapping at your heels beat you on a story.

Even if you’re sent on some meaningless “breaking news,” you’ll sell it as such because it is happening now.  You’d best get those flashing lights and / or crime scene tape behind you in your live shot.

Your photogs will take their cameras off their tripods during live shots, and you will gesture emphatically toward whatever building or other mise en scene is behind you.  Or you’ll display a piece of paper held in your hand or some other prop.

In return, you’ll be the best-compensated local news crews in town.  You’ll have ample benefits and vacation time.

You’ll have an abundance of competent backup in a newsroom that has mostly retained the type of employees downsized from other newsrooms.

You’ll use gear that is well-maintained and will never fail you due to neglect or budgetary issues.  As a result, you will rarely waste time wrestling with issues that aren’t related to covering news.

You’ll not be saddled with gimmickry or efforts to re-invent your craft.  You’ll use video, words, audio and graphics to efficiently and clearly tell your stories, same as you always have.

If there are updates in technology, you’ll have them before anybody else. (Except for HD video in the field.  But while HD looks better on TV, the standard def video you’ve been using is easier to work with, uses less hard drive space and is faster to process.  So your delay was worker-friendly.  And your vast audience never really noticed nor cared that the other stations used HD first.)

Mike Dreadan

Mike Dreadan

You’ll work for managers you respect.  Your news director, Mike Dreaden, is a guy who came up through the ranks.  When I’ve heard WSB personnel utter his name in the field, it has always been in respectful tones.  The evidence indicates he possesses a functioning human heart.

And you’ll do all this for an audience that seemingly can’t get enough of your product.

I’ve written a thing or two that have challenged my friends at WSB, mostly about their attitude and their priorities.  I stand by it.  But their work is solid.  And as local TV stations go, it appears to be a quality place of employment.

They’ll miss Dore.  He was unfailingly great to be around in the field.  He was a graceful and humorous storyteller in a shop that tends to be very nuts-and-bolts.  But they’ve managed to succeed in Monica’s absence.  Dore would be the first to tell you that they’ll do OK without him.

So here’s my slow hand-clap for WSB.  You guys aren’t half bad.

And we will bury you.

Our fan base

His eyes were lidded.  His speech was slurred.  He identified me as “Drag Ringus.”  I had told him my real name, but that was how it came out of his mouth.

Reilly uses his Ninja powers to control a spectator

Reilly uses his Ninja powers to control a spectator

Although he hung around our live truck for a solid 90 minutes Friday, I didn’t catch his name.  There’s a line one walks when encountering persistent lingerers out in the field.  Your instinct is to discourage them.  But you don’t want to make them hostile, either.

Plus, we were more-or-less stuck in our location.  Dan Reilly and I were in a live truck.  Our microwave shot had been set.  We were producing a piece for the 6.

Our encounters with people out in the world — the expected and the unexpected — are part of what make the job interesting.  But sometimes they corner you when you’re trying to make a deadline.  Friday, my new friend had nothing better to do for 90 minutes but hang around our live truck.

He wasn’t an unpleasant man.  He was well groomed.  There was, as cops say, an “odor of alcoholic beverage on his breath.”  But it wasn’t overpowering.

Sometimes, he would make conversation that was more-or-less coherent.  He brought up the missing airliner.  He mentioned the Falcons.  My responses were brief but respectful.

He surprised me when he asked me if WXIA anchor Karyn Greer would “cheat on her husband.”  You mean, with you?  I asked.  “Well, yeah!”

I told him there was no chance whatsoever.

Yet he still hung around.  We were busy, and I tried to look it.

Sometimes, writing for the web is an afterthought.  On this day, I did it with great urgency.  As he persisted in engaging me, I pointed out that I was trying to make a deadline.  He backed off for a few minutes.  A woman walked past our truck and he hoofed after her.  She outpaced him and lost him.  He returned to our truck within minutes.

When air time came, Dan and I went to the sidewalk and our friend got kind of excited.  I told him I needed his help:  I need for you to help with crowd control.  Keep the crazy people away.    There was no crowd — he was it.  But he nodded his head agreeably.  At one point, he fumbled around in his pants pocket.  A small baggie appeared.  “What’s in the baggie?” I asked him.  I got no answer.

I was actually secretly rooting for him to disrupt my live shot.  It was Friday and my story was kind of dull.  Although he was a bit of a pest, he seemed to be a gentle soul.  I figured he would quietly photobomb me.

But whenever he moved toward camera range, Reilly would give him the stink eye and point to a spot behind him.  The man obediently stayed put.

As we concluded, we parted agreeably.  He never panhandled us, typically a pro forma part of our encounters with our lingering fans.  I choose to believe he was so dazzled by his encounter with a Real TV News Crew, he may have forgotten to do that.