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.

 

 

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About live apt fire

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.

24 thoughts on “The implausible partnership

  1. I am Jack's conscience

    Excellent analysis and commentary, Mr. Richards, as always. As an employee of GPB, I wanted to shed some light on what is to be expected from the students at GSU moving forward. In particular, the promise of internships and content creation.

    Firstly, as you so eloquently stated – there are few content providers in the world that can reliably push out 12 hours of original content a day. CNN and Fox are the first two that spring to mind, but even then – a lot of their content is pre-packaged and/or reruns, and they have a staff of thousands. GPB is, at best, a shoestring operation. A gleaming tower of television technology that’s nearly unequaled in the southeastern US, and is run by a dedicated, but shrinking skeleton crew. As much as they’d like to be able to produce that amount of content, the stark reality is that through Teya’s own business practices and those of her underlings – the real brains of the operation are leaving that ship at a startling pace (or being forced out).

    In the trenches, the work environment at GPB is caustic and poisonous since leadership continues to push an ever-shrinking workforce to maintain levels of production that are untenable and lead to poor products and eventual burnout. They can’t keep editors on the payroll due to the incredible workload and poor management. Even freelance editors – the sharks of the freelance world – have shown up, worked a week, and walked away from their projects because there are just too many bad things going on there to make it worthwhile. One Emmy winning editor took to calling GPB’s edit rooms “pits of despair”.

    The station simply can’t keep the really great staff on the payroll because they are not willing to invest in the human capital citing budget cuts as the reason. In reality, they have hired people post budget-freeze for very generous salaries, so that excuse doesn’t hold up. Do a search for “Georgia Public Telecommunications” on the state salary database. It’s an eye opener seeing who gets paid what, and then drawing lines from that info into Teya’s management circle, and then from that inner circle to “who used to work with Teya at CNN”. Teya’s a shrewd business lady, though, so she’s hidden a lot of her ex Turner cohorts within GPB by paying them as contractors. No-bid, “sole source” contracts, at that.

    Teya isn’t shy about silencing opposition, either. There have been two past GPB employees in particular – both admired and respected on a national-level, both long-time, dedicated employees – that were flat-out fired for bringing these salary and workload issues to light. Just last week, they fired another key staffer who had grown weary of the workload and oppressive management and had begun to make some noise. Over and over again – the remaining staff saw what happens when you speak up to management, so they keep their heads down and soldier on.

    Its not all bad, though! Those GSU students that DO get internships? Here’s what you can expect: transcribing and logging. Lots and lots of both. Don’t think for a second that you’ll actually get to touch any of the field cameras, the $300k switchers, or the studio cams. If you’re really, really lucky – you MIGHT get to edit something because as hard-up as the station is right now, they’re practically willing to let monkeys edit their pieces.

    You’ll also get to see first-hand how not to run a television station, and you’ll be eye-witness to textbook examples of mismanagement. So hey – you’ve got that going for you!

    Reply
  2. Sherrod DeGrippo

    I’m not going to stop paying attention. This is egregious. I spoke with Bill Nigut on the phone yesterday for 45 minutes, voicing my anger and disappointment. I’m a grownup and a professional and I have supported WRAS for 20 years. I believe in student-run, student-programmed airwaves. “The 100,000 watt STUDENT voice” has been silenced and it’s dirty and underhanded. I will continue to pursue ousting Becker, Ryan and Ott. I want firings over this. It is unacceptable and a travesty!

    Thank you for your reports, Doug. You’ve been wonderful at covering this and I appreciate all of the information you’ve put out there.

    Reply
  3. Tracy Snell

    I greatly appreciate your tenacity concerning this tragedy encompassing not only the GSU students, but the entire Atlanta community.

    What a heartbreaker to hear “Redundant Radio” on my favorite radio station. The very same broadcast just south of the already well established 90.1.
    In the past I have been an avid listener of NPR programming. Now I find it an easy thing to sacrifice.

    Reply
  4. Ryan

    Becker’s “leadership” through this situation has certainly been confusing at best. His rationale throughout has left my scratching my head. It really seems like there has to be more to the story that has happened behind closed doors. I don’t mean to be a conspiracy theorist, but its just the only way his actions make sense. He just can’t be that dimwitted otherwise. GSU should be very worried about it’s future in the hands of such a “leader.”

    Reply
  5. Adam devore

    Perfectly put, thanks Doug for your indepth reporting and perspective!
    When they actually decided to annouce plans to snatch Turner Field, it was perfectly timed to try to sweep the WRAS/GPB story under the rug

    Reply
  6. Reid Laurens

    Very well said, and a chilling first-person account which adds a new dimension to this sad, sorry story.

    Reply
  7. Thomoz

    Mark Becker is a statistician by education and career. What does a statistician know about culture, art and the arts community, or broadcasting anyway? Evidence says: not a goddamn thing. GPB tried for a decade to get WREKs frequency but the students and alumni were aware of those attempts to muscle in and shot each opportunity to screw the students down.

    A friend who really knows business management suggested that Becker already has an exit strategy for his (either voluntary or involuntary) exit from GSU. What “carrot” was dangled in front of him may not be public knowledge for some time. At any rate, he obviously has no regard for the school he runs or the students who make his employment possible. I can’t wait for this idiot to disappear.

    Reply
  8. j Davis

    … And the student activity fee will finance the new transmitters for GPB’s Atlanta fund raising stage…

    …on top GPB paying $50k a year to potentially raise up to a Million dollars while the students continue to fund WRAS at approximately $200.

    Stick value on WRAS is probably $15 million.

    All of the GSU students and the community would have been better off if GSU had simply told WRAS staff they had to fundraise their budget instead of drinking from the fee well.

    Maybe someone at the business school can give Mr. Becker a short course in asset value and ROI. GPB is certainly getting a great Return…

    Reply
  9. Jim Keel

    My GSU experience was not much better. But WRAS, and the culture of downtown life, drew me in to the school.

    I’m not entirely familiar with the FCC license, and ownership of the WRAS call letters, but I believe a total boycott of students working for GPB/WRAS could effectively shut the whole thing down. Student clubs CANNOT operate without students, and a group of students could easily form a separate radio club (or better yet, incorporate a non-profit radio station for students… and remove the GSM “leadership” from any control). The symbol of Atlanta is a Phoenix, rising from the ashes. Album88 should do JUST THAT, and claim a chunk of the spectrum for the city. Member supported Album88 has a nice ring to it, but the board should seat dedicated alum and student representatives, the best is yet to come.

    Reply
  10. Dr. Gerrell Drahorn

    Hi Doug…have you actually peeked at the terms of the Intergovernmental Agreement for the Sub-Channel TV. Yes the GSU Communications Students are responsible for programming from 6 PM to 6AM 365 days a year.

    GSU has to give GPTC the schedule of all the programs 60 Days in advance!

    But I thought that this little clause under 4.(h) “Programming” most interesting. “In the event that GSU does not provide Programming for any time during which it has the right under his Agreement to provide Programming for the stations, GPTC may (but will not be required to) broadcast programming material of its own choosing….GSU will be responsible for reimbursing Fifty percent (50%) of GPTC’s acquisition expenses of a nationally distributed public television service (such as Create or World) if the number of hours of Programming does not adequately fill the schedule for the Sub-channel Broadcast day…”

    So GSU will now be responsible for paying for vast amounts of broadcast material – SELECTED BY Teya Ryan and GPTC – for broadcast on this supposedly student access station. Wonder how much the costs for “Masterpiece Theater” and “BBC Late Night” are? Better find out, because GSU has just acquired the White Elephant for paying for that stuff.

    One wonders if this was simply some big kickback scam to help out GPTC by using Student Tuition increases????

    Reply
  11. Erik Bagby

    Simply put, follow the money. Just like the colossal “Race to Waste” stadium project here in my home county (Cobb) has been wrought with corruption and secrecy, the theft of WRAS from the students by Becker and his cronies goes all the way to the gold dome. Make no mistake, it stinks, and in time once all the dust settles, we will all see who the perpetrators are. Sadly, at that point, it may be a long road ahead to recover what has been STOLEN from us. Rest assured we should not give up the fight for what is ours and ensure that those responsible get justice. And justice WILL be served in due time.

    Reply
  12. Elaine

    How is GSU the leading school for TV journalism when SCAD has been teaching it for the last 30 years using some of the top of the line equipment? And that does not count the technical colleges like Chattahoochee Tech. I can’t say for others, but for me GPB did not get a larger market share. I won’t be listening to them on either station.

    Reply
  13. Tina Trent

    How about all of you get your hands out of our pockets, starting with GPB and PBS but also including WRAS? Why am I subsidizing a silk-stocking media empire that uses our tax dollars through its stations, physical facilities, and “nonprofit” political clout to bluntly promote one side of many contentious political issues — from Common Core, to regional and federal tax fights, to health and environmental policies, to hate crime laws (I witnessed the cash they poured into that one personally), to other crime policy, to affirmative action in private and government hiring and college admissions?

    Doug, you’re reasonably unhappy over taxpayer-funded institutions (GPB and GSU) taking a biased rather than neutral position on a comparatively irrelevant (though emotional) subject — who controls a college radio station at a public university. Now take a look at all the bigger issues in which they present only one side, through PBS Teachers (which is an enormous slice of their enterprise and taxpayer-sourced income in Georgia and nationally), or the conferences they hold at their station and campus that are really biased lobbying activities under a veneer of 501-c3 cover, or PBS’ coverage of a score of topics. Those are real problems.

    When I was on the left, and lobbying, I was repeatedly taken aback by the pro-left biased stances on several issues taken by certain, cough, prominent political reporters in the Atlanta market (I am not referring to you). But at least I wasn’t paying for that particular bias with my tax dollars — these were private outlets. However, when I began to fight against the hate crimes bill, I was aghast at how GPB used my money to openly lobby for the pro-hate crimes law side, not only through programming but also through educational materials they created for public classrooms in which they have exclusive access to shill their views. The bias was shameless and larded with repulsive and unjust insinuations of prejudice. That is a real and constant problem, the only solution for which is to strip PBS, CPB and PBS Teachers of all public funding and sweetheart deals with the public educational establishment. They often claim they can go it on their own: they should be forced to do so.

    And to Eric Bagby and others: you don’t own WRAS, so it cannot be stolen from you. You are hardly a definable victim of “injustice” on the grounds that you can’t spin records all day at facilities (not limited to WRAS’ immediate budget, of course) paid for primarily by the taxpayers. The taxpayers are providing you with a heavily subsidized education, including subsidized tuition funding through loans and grants, and while training for a media career may be part of that education, such training will apparently be included in the new arrangement — all still paid for by the taxpayers. So stop whining and take a stab at being grateful for the extremely generous subsidies you are receiving (not to mention the nice salaries your adolescently acting-out tenured professors draw while underpaid adjuncts and graduate students do the heavy lifting in the non-fun survey, writing, and other work-intensive courses).

    If you still want your own station, use the internet and pay for it yourself. Plenty of people do just that. But now that you all have discovered the existence of political bias you don’t like in publicly-funded institutions such as GSU and GPB, I sincerely encourage you to follow that train of thought to all of its logical conclusions, even when you do not agree with the position being excluded or misrepresented. Your education will be far better for it.

    Reply
    1. Tim Traynor

      Hey Teya or Tanya.
      It’s cool how you created that Tina Trent troll account.
      Lol didn’t read.
      Actually I did. You just don’t get it.
      Let me put it in perspective:
      If the school took a football team or other thing alums take pride in away, everyone would say it was stolen from them too.
      Like a football team, WRAS IS FUNDED BY STUDENT FEEs.
      Also. Many listeners nation wide have come to love WRAS over the years. That love is a form of ownership. Here is how, GSU starts a radio station to further the status of the school and win over hearts and minds to the GSU is awesome team. PEople buy into that and it gives them a sense of pride in the school. The school doesn’t own that.
      Now go tell whoever from GPB told you to write that.

      Reply
        1. tim traynor

          Thanks for the heads up Dave. Yikes, I guess now that GPB is in the lead (dare I say won,) its time for the TeaParty/FoxNews creative writing journalists to chime in.
          Tina, what are your views on climate change?

          Reply
  14. Dr. Gerrell Drahorn

    Tina…most STUDENT college radio stations started as small 10 watt vehicles founded by an alliance of engineering students and kids who wanted to play music. They didn’t take any money from tax-payers…they scavenged for equipment, usually hand-me-down transmitters and amps, put together their own “boards”, got space in some dorm basement or in the Student Union (i.e Student money) and had no salaried staff. The REQUIREMENT by the FCC was that to b’cast students had to get the affiliation of their University. So the Regents hold the license, even though the didn’t contribute a smidgen to the stations. Students usually received some money from the Student government (from student “activities” fees…again not taxpayer $$$) and the rest was generated from fundraisers, record swaps, concerts, and underwriters. The WRAS transmitter, as noted above – is paid for by student money (“Reserves” technically – money set aside each year to deal with just such contingencies).

    Reply
  15. Natasha Stark

    Having just left GSU for employment elsewhere, I can triple co-sign on what Doug is saying. And yes Ryan, Becker et.al. ARE this dumb-witted. Everything they do is all unicorns and rainbows with no plan for success, implementation, or execution. Trying to follow their reasoning and logic is pretty much akin to trying to assemble a Chinese dragon from instructions written in Russian when your native language is German.

    Just last Tuesday I was told that PeopleSoft is not an accounting system EVEN THOUGH there is no way to conduct any sort of financial/accounting activity at GSU outside of PeopleSoft (yes, technically I know it is an ERP). I’ve handed people budgets who looked at them and asked me what they were looking at. I’ve sat in meetings with VPs where all these pipe dreams were being sold and when I asked what the plan was for implementation I was told that it was “a very good question” and that there was “a lot of uncertainty”. They literally have no plan for anything, no interest in trying to develop one, and they lack the skill set to do so even if they were interested. And they are too arrogant and full of themselves to stoop to the level of listening to anyone besides themselves and their yes men.

    So it is no surprise to me that Becker was bewildered by the response and backlash to the WRAS debacle because that is how they do EVERYTHING ~ act first and then scramble around trying to figure out how to beat their square peg into a round hole when it inevitably goes off the rails. As a 2x alum I am sorely vexed at what GSU has become since Becker got there. I just hope they don’t do any permanent damage that cannot be undone when they crash and burn and the next group has to come in and do clean up.

    Reply
  16. Dave Bearse

    Is GPB and / or GSU anywhere close to being staffed and equipped to produce 12 hours of daily TV programming?

    Sure. Teya Ryan can tap experienced professional Chip Rogers.

    Reply
  17. Dr. Gerrell Drawhorn

    Dave~ Word on the ground is that GSU’s Dept. of Communications/TV is shocked at this proposal that they will have to produce 84 hours of “high quality” student material for broadcast each week. They’re lucky to get that much out of students in a Semester as end of term projects. And the contract states that if GSU doesn’t get the programs to GPTV 90 days before they are scheduled for broadcast, GPTV can assign their own selected programming to fill the time.

    But GPB doesn’t have to produce that material.

    Guess what, GSU is required to pay 50% of the acquisition fees for such material. That will likely be thousands of hours a year…at hundreds of dollars per program.

    Turns out the FCC doesn’t allow a station to obtain a sub-channel for its own use unless they can guarantee to use it for broadcasting something. GPB obtained those channels and didn’t want to lose them. They also didn’t want to pay “full-freight” on purchasing syndicated material. The solution: Nail GSU for half the costs.

    But who is going to be bound to paying these fees? The students? The Communications Department (it would be just like Becker to use that threat as an “incentive” to make the Department “more productive”)? Or the Presidents Office budget…meaning cut-backs on his travel, staff, and office decoration? Let me guess, it won’t be the latter.

    Reply
  18. Mr. Gato

    It sucks the students lost their radio station but I am glad I can listen to NPR programming all day now. When I moved to Atlanta seven years ago, I was shocked that the only public radio station in town was force-feeding classical music. I fault WABE for what happened to Album 88 and for my hatred of the classics.

    Reply

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