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.
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).
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.)
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.