Here and away

This is a transitional time in Atlanta TV news.  Here are some notes. 

Paul Crawley with an admirer

Paul Crawley with an admirer

Paul Crawley.  The WXIA reporter is retiring at the end of this month.  I’ve been a fan of this guy since I first started competing with him in 1986.  As a coworker since 2009, I’ve seen Crawley consistently be the most prepared reporter in the morning editorial meeting, with the best array of story ideas.  His anecdotes from our industry, told during slow moments at trials, stakeouts, legislative hearings and in the newsroom, nearly always came with wry insight or a belly laugh or both.  His execution and professionalism are top-drawer.  Plus, Crawley is the king of screwball comedy.  I will be very sorry to see him leave.

Angel Eyes

Angel Eyes

Cook with Ken Rodriguez

Cook with Ken Rodriguez

Ken Cook.  WAGA’s chief meteorologist was arguably the best in town — level headed and charismatic, with the ever-present mustache that evoked Lee Van Cleef’s “Angel Eyes” character in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.  Cook’s career in Atlanta TV weather set a durability record that may never be eclipsed.  Cook was always fun to be around, a guy who welcomed the intrusions of reporters seeking personal forecasts.  He was also very good at deflating the weather-coverage ambitions of excitable news managers who overanalyzed the gravity of upcoming storms.  But when Cook looked at the charts and said “yeah, it’s gonna be bad,” you knew the threat was credible.  WXIA’s Chesley McNeil is cut from Cook’s mold.  So is…

Chris Holcomb

Chris Holcomb

Chris Holcomb.  The WXIA meteorologist emerged from the fringe schedule to become the station’s chief meteorologist last week.  Among the staff’s chattering classes, it was a no-brainer.  When the decision was announced, the raucous cheering exceeded any I’ve ever heard in a newsroom.  He’s that good, and that good a guy.

Blayne Alexander

Blayne Alexander

Blayne Alexander.  The one-woman-band reporter has quietly elevated to WXIA’s fill-in anchor rotation.  If there had been a big announcement a la Holcomb, it might have gotten a similar cheer.  Our industry is a brighter place with Bleezey in it.

The implausible partnership

Sunday, Georgia State University consummated its bewildering decision to transfer control of most of the programming on WRAS-FM to Georgia Public Broadcasting.

GPB has expanded its audience with the flip of a switch and a negligible transfer of cash.  Broadcasters dream of such stuff.  It is probably the crowning career achievement of GPB’s president and CEO, Teya Ryan.

Teya Ryan

Teya Ryan

Somehow, Ryan sweet-talked GSU president Mark Becker into handing over GSU’s most unique and nationally-recognized asset, its 100,000 watt FM station, in exchange for vague promises of internships at GPB and TV programming opportunities.  Becker is in the thrall of Georgia’s new film industry presence, and justifies the gutting of WRAS as a way to get an unspecified number of GSU students “experiential” TV and film opportunities.

GPB was cunning and opportunistic.  But Becker is the guy who gave it away.

Here’s my favorite part of the GSU press release issued last week:  Through the partnership, Georgia State students will be involved in producing 12 hours of daily programming every day of the year on GPB’s digital television network. 

It sounds great in a press release, but raises an obvious question:  Is GPB and / or GSU anywhere close to being staffed and equipped to produce 12 hours of daily TV programming?

By comparison, WAGA produces ten and a half hours of local news programming every weekday.  WAGA has scores of overworked professionals making pretty good money grinding out all that content, under deadline, every day.

Does GPB / GSU even have a plan for those twelve hours of daily TV programming?  Or a clue as to how to use college students to produce it?

Given my first-hand experience as a GSU communications instructor, it seems a bit implausible.  Here’s the thumbnail:

In the spring of 2009, I was tasked to teach broadcast writing and production, “JOURN 4740 News for Telecommunications.”  The class would include a video component.  Midway into the semester, I would assign stories.  Students would shoot and edit them on GSU equipment.

GSU charged students an extra $100 fee for use of GSU video cameras.  And then — I learned that GSU had failed to allocate cameras to my class.  Nobody told the equipment guy about my class.  The students got no cameras.  But GSU refused to refund the fee to the students!  I was horrified.

GSU justified taking the fee because the students still had access to a video editing lab — to edit video they couldn’t shoot.

Most of my 17 students were not nearly as surprised as I was.  Most were due to graduate that spring.  They’d viewed it as more of the same at GSU.

From last week’s press release:  With its strong and growing connections to the dynamic Atlanta film industry, Georgia State is the premier institution in Georgia for film and broadcast study. Its film and journalism programs are among the largest of their kind in the nation, with more than 2,000 undergraduate students. 

Wow!  What an awesome school GSU has become in the five years since my pathetic experience there as a communications instructor.  It is all undoubtedly due to the amazing work of Dr. Becker, who showed up as president the same year.

I interviewed Dr. Becker this spring, and it took a very weird turn.

Dr. Mark Becker

Dr. Mark Becker

I had set up an interview with him about GSU’s property expansion downtown, and the school’s potential interest in available property at Turner Field, Underground and elsewhere.  When publicist Andrea Jones put me on his schedule the morning of April 8, I noted that the date coincided with the Braves’ home opener.  I told her that if Becker said anything interesting about GSU’s interest in the Turner Field property, it would be especially timely.

That morning, Becker affably told me that yes, GSU was interested in Turner Field’s potential as student housing and a mixed-use development space.  In response to a question, he also mused that he could see repurposing Turner Field into a football stadium for GSU.  In person, Becker seemed down-to-earth, likeable and forthcoming.

Good story, right?  It was the first time GSU’s president had confirmed interest in developing that area after the Braves leave for Cobb County in 2017.

The next day, GSU’s online publication The Signal tried to verify the story.  Becker, through Jones, told The Signal that I had “manufactured” the story.

For whatever reason, Becker had decided to backpedal on the tentative interest he’d expressed to me about Turner Field.  The obfuscation to The Signal was laughable, though, given that 11Alive’s web site and video showed the actual words coming from Dr. Becker’s actual mouth.

Image of GSU's Turner Field plan

Image of GSU’s Turner Field plan

I didn’t take it personally (I didn’t learn about The Signal piece until several weeks later).  But it delivered an odd snapshot of a doctorate-holding man who, despite advance notice of the subject of our interview, had apparently given little forethought to what he might say.

A month later, GSU revealed its official offer for the Turner Field property.  GSU produced artwork of a mixed-use development, and a stadium retrofitted for football — verifying what Becker had told me in my “manufactured” story.

And on the same day, GSU announced its stunning giveaway of WRAS.

BnEM5z3CcAAmUYbStudents, alumni and listeners of WRAS raised a shitstorm that seemed to catch Becker by surprise.  Somewhat paralleling his experience with me, he began backpedaling his decision — first, by delaying the takeover; then, by issuing last week’s press release saying “The university is pursuing options to secure daytime broadcast time for WRAS after the [GPB] partnership is initiated…”

The same press release describes WRAS as GSU’s  “heralded student-run radio station,” a too-late acknowledgement that this radio station is more than merely another university “asset.”

Sunday, WRAS played NPR programming that duplicated WABE’s programming.  This week, it will play drive-time programming that will largely duplicate WABE’s NPR programming.  Except for nighttime and graveyard shifts, the original, groundbreaking, community-based, student-produced content will be gone.

The “heralded” student run station — the one that Becker now knows had a groundbreaking 43-year history —  is now dead on radio most of the day.  The student-programmed HD signal GSU promised doesn’t exist yet.  The student-programmed daytime web stream barely exists.  The apps to hear the daytime student programming sometimes work, sometimes don’t.  The GPB internships don’t start til 2015.

Sorry, kids.

That’s the GSU I experienced in 2009.

And Becker?  He appears to be trying to show students that he didn’t really mean to screw them out of their student-run radio station.  Kinda like he didn’t really mean to tell me about his designs on Turner Field — but then jumped in and did it anyway, embracing it weeks later.
It suggests the fix is in for GSU to fully embrace its new GPB “partnership” — once both parties think GSU students and WRAS backers have stopped paying attention.

 

 

The daily grovel

Tough crowd: Lisa, Marcita and Molly.

Tough crowd: Lisa, Marcita and Molly.

“You look very nice today, Molly.”

“Pft” was her response, followed by a sharp look that let me know I was wasting my breath.  Molly Baker, WXIA’s 7pm producer, always looks nice. It was no secret I needed a decision that would seal my fate for the day.  My initial approach was hamhanded and pathetic.

“What about me?”  Marcita’s desk adjoins Molly’s.  She saw an opportunity to exploit my growing embarrassment, and took it.  “Don’t I look nice too?”  Marcita Thomas produces the 6pm newscast.

Rarely does a day pass when I don’t end up at the cubicle pod dominated, during daylight hours, by Molly and Marcita.  I am nearly always there with hat in hand, hoping to sweet talk a few extra seconds out of them for whatever awesome TV story I’m producing for that night’s newscast.

The grovel begins:  Doug at Marcita's desk

The grovel begins: Doug at Marcita’s desk

Although I will typically approach a specific producer about a specific newscast, all ears in the pod will perk up.  Judgments are made, not only about the outrageousness of my request for fifteen extra seconds of time, but also for the logic offered.  Style points are added and subtracted, depending on my level of humility and / or humor. But the response to any request for additional time is almost always a cold calculation, regardless of how charming I try to be and how flawless my logic is.

Lisa Turner, who produces weekend newscasts and often steps in for nightly newscasts as needed, is the most Type A of the three.  When I approach her for extra time, the initial answer is often an incredulous outburst, high in volume and pitch.  I’ve learned to wait for the eruption to subside as she starts to do the math in her head.

Like Molly and Marcita, Lisa strives to be agreeable.  Problem is that every knucklehead assigned to a 1:20 slot in a newscast seems to want / need more time within the finite confines of the thirty-minute broadcast.

Molly is the towering upper Midwesterner who betrays an occasional Fargo-type accent.  Marcita has deeper Atlanta roots and is the only producer in the room who predates my 2009 arrival at WXIA.  Both retain an admirable, evenhanded Zen quality about them even as some of their excitable co-workers are pronouncing stories to be “huge” while the details are only beginning to dribble out.

Eighty percent of the time, they say “yes” when I’ve offered a proper grovel.  When they say “no,” they mean business.

Producers have only a measure of control over the time slots allotted in their newscasts.  Loquacious anchors and weathercasters will ramble on sometimes, buoyed by the certainty of their own cleverness; reporters doing live shots will go long out of a sense of if you’re gonna make me stand out here, then by gosh, you’ll get an earful. 

Bottom line is, if a producer wants me to stay within an allotted time, I’ll try to bust my hump (and even gut my story) to do it.  Because she’ll remember if I don’t.  And next time, I want her to say “yes” when I come groveling.

 

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.”