Category Archives: WABE

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.”

Tone deaf

To the amazement of my friends and the annoyance of my wife, I’ve once again renewed my subscription to the Atlanta Journal Constitution.  In the last year it has re-emerged as a must-read.  Its coverage of government and politics has been vigorous and top notch.  The AJC has been enterprising and investigative.    Because of the AJC, we know about

  • the CRCT cheating scandal
  • the DeKalb schools construction scandal that eventually cost the superintendent his job
  • Governor-elect Nathan Deal’s strong-arming of the Department of Revenue to benefit his business, as well as his personal financial problems
  • John Oxendine’s illegal campaign contributions, which he subsequently returned
  • Gov. Perdue’s use of state resources and contacts to further his private business interests

… and the list goes on.

But the AJC has a curious bunker mentality that is unseemly for a re-emerging news organization.  That mentality became glaringly evident when editor Julia Wallace blew off a scheduled interview with WABE radio last week.

It appeared to start this fall, when the Georgia Voice criticized the AJC for completely ignoring Pride in its print edition.   Pride is a festival recognizing Atlanta’s gay community.  Atlanta’s Pride celebration is one of America’s largest.  (WXIA streamed the Pride parade on 11alive.com.)

Pride is a lot like the Peachtree Road Race.  They’re both predictable festivals, but both draw tens of thousands of people to the city (and a lot of money) for a cultural happening.  The AJC breathlessly covers the Peachtree Road Race (which it also sponsors) every year.

(True, the Peachtree Road Race is a competition, and the AJC covers that part of it as a sports story.  But most of the newsprint spilled is about the cultural part of the event.  Pride and the PRR are comparable in terms of size, impact and Atlanta-style flavor.)

Empty space: Former AJC offices at 72 Marietta St. Creative Loafing photo.

It’s well documented that the AJC moved its office from downtown Atlanta to Dunwoody early this year.  The AJC also announced it would stop endorsing candidates in elections.  It began showcasing conservative commentators and cartoonists, and began deliberately muting its traditionally liberal viewpoint, to the point where it now employs a “bias” editor to weed out lefty tendencies.

In her blog last week, former AJC columnist Maria Saporta suggested that the AJC’s effort to win the hearts of potential suburban subscribers is a loser business-wise and conscience-wise.

“Turning its back on its core readers has been a devastating strategy. To the best of my knowledge, Atlanta Journal-Constitution has lost more readers in the past decade than any other major newspaper in the United States… So the AJC’s attempts to appeal to conservative, Republican suburbanites by alienating its urban readers is not paying off — to the detriment of Atlanta and to the detriment of itself” Saporta writes.

Creative Loafing gave serious treatment to the evolution of the AJC in an article last week, then dressed it up with a hilarious spoof (click on it and read Thomas Wheatley’s text in a mock-up of the “Dunwoody Journal Constitution”) of the newspaper’s suburban drift.  Editor Julia Wallace answered questions for that piece.  Yet she chose to merely release a prepared statement when WABE followed up.  Next time an AJC reporter seeks an interview with a beleaguered newsmaker, that newsmaker can cite Wallace’s approach as sufficient reason to refuse to answer questions.

Thanks, Julia.

Julia Wallace, AJC

I respect the AJC’s struggle to survive, and the hard choices its management has had to make to cut costs and become more customer-friendly.

On the other hand, I can’t respect its refusal to even mention Pride in its print editions.  It seems like blatant cowardice, based on fear of alienating its all-important readership in the conservative (and in many quarters, homophobic) suburbs.

And I can’t respect Wallace’s cowardly refusal to answer WABE’s questions.  It seems that the editor of a major newspaper would understand the kind of signal that sends to those pondering interview requests from AJC reporters.

A great newspaper ought to show no fear.

Wallace missed an opportunity to tell WABE a great story about the AJC’s renewal.   Despite some unsettling tone deafness,  I continue to root for the AJC.  It’s a much better newspaper than it was two years ago, and worth the price I pay to get it from my driveway every morning.

I wish I’d have broken those stories.

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.

Something about Mary

It’s not easy to irritate the cadre of reporters assigned to cover your campaign for Mayor.  But it can be done.  Exhibit A is Mary Norwood, the onetime frontrunner in the Atlanta mayor’s race.

On Wednesday, Norwood called a news conference at 4pm, a curiously out-of-context “tribute to veterans.”  It was Veterans Day, but it had an odd “let’s state the obvious” quality about it:  We love our veterans.

Norwood’s people knew that three of the four local TV stations had newscasts at 4pm or 5pm.  The 4pm news conference was a headache, timing-wise, for the TV folks covering it.

norwood - reed

Kasim Reed with Lisa Borders, 11.11.09

Earlier that afternoon, third-place finisher Lisa Borders endorsed Kasim Reed in the runoff.  Norwood had lobbied for the same endorsement.  Her people knew that reporters were covering the “tribute to veterans” for one reason:  To get Norwood’s take on the Borders endorsement.

So here’s how it went down:

Norwood unhelpfully walked into the room downtown at 4:15pm, fifteen minutes late.

With no podium available, TV photogs clipped a bunch of lavaliere mics to Norwood’s jacket.  She launched into her veterans appreciation spiel.  A half-dozen or so armed forces veterans stood alongside her, mostly silently.

A TV reporter asked a question about the Borders endorsement.  Norwood gave a broad, unspecific answer.

mary norwood vets

Mary Norwood, with veterans 11.11.09

Another TV reporter rephrased the question.  Norwood rephrased her unspecific answer.

At this point, Norwood’s spokewoman Zee Bradford stepped in front of the candidate and began to abruptly remove the microphones clipped to the candidate.  With her back to the cameras, Bradford muttered something about another upcoming event on the schedule.

Another reporter barked a question to Norwood.  The candidate awkwardly walked away.

The next day, the Norwood campaign called a news conference to respond to endorsements of Reed by Borders and former Governor Roy Barnes.  But as Ernie Suggs reported in the AJC (in a piece headlined “Where is Mary Norwood?”), Norwood was a no-show.  Bradford told reporters that Norwood was “out campaigning” Thursday, but couldn’t provide a way to rendezvous with her for a comment.    The tension is audible in Odette Yousef’s piece on WABE radio.

Later, the Norwood camp said Norwood was actually shooting a campaign commercial Thursday.  mary norwood

Norwood’s week wasn’t as bad as it had seemed.   The Borders endorsement of Kasim Reed hadn’t helped.  But it wasn’t a surprise. (There was a similar endorsement in the last mayoral race in 1997; third place finisher Gloria Bromell-Tinubu endorsed second-place finisher Marvin Arrington.  Bill Campbell still won the runoff.)  The Roy Barnes’ endorsement wasn’t much of a surprise either.

The surprise was the campaign’s ability to foul its relations with the media by overlooking some simple tenets of courtesy:  Show up on time, answer the questions, respect deadlines, don’t bait-and-switch with a news conference featuring an absent candidate.   And don’t mislead when asked about her absence.

Kasim Reed’s campaign is getting this stuff right.  Lisa Borders’ campaign got it right.

Some politicians provoke and feed on media hostility.  Bill Campbell did it.  House Speaker Glenn Richardson does it, to some extent.

Likewise, I recognize that campaigns don’t exist for the convenience of the news media.

On the other hand, Mary Norwood’s history has always been one of accessibility and courtesy.   One-on-one, she’s engaging, humorous and personable.  Given an opportunity, Norwood will chat with a reporter until the reporter runs out of questions.  This happened Monday when, with campaign manager Roman Levitt’s help, I talked with Norwood outside of City Hall.  She had no handlers present.

Unprovoked, she expressed regrets about the previous week’s media mismanagement.  “I wish the staff would have handled that differently,” she said.  A sucker for honesty, I felt sympathy for her.  She’s in the political fight of her life.  A WXIA poll released Monday showed that her commanding lead has disappeared.

Norwood’s week hadn’t been great.  Her communications staff had made it much, much worse.

WSB radio woes

WSB radio showed the door to a couple of experienced Atlanta news guys last week.  Jeff Dantre and Kerry Browning were laid off.  Browning had been at WSB radio since Jimmy Carter’s presidency.   Cox Radio also laid off some FM DJs.

It wasn’t that long ago that Atlanta had two vigorously competitive radio news organizations.  When WGST threw in the towel and ended its local news presence, that left WSB as the only commercial radio news outfit.  (WVEE / WAOK has a fringe news presence, but it’s very spotty.)  But WSB’s product has never been particularly impressive, churning out forty-second reports from staffers who are usually a) on a breaking news story, b) covering a court hearing, meeting or news conference or c)  reading the AP wire / AJC.  It rarely generates enterprise stories.

Part of its problem is that the staff is spread absurdly thin.  WSB radio tries to convey a 24/7 presence with but a handful of people.  And those people don’t appear solely on AM 750.  They also have assignments with other Cox FM radio properties, the studios of which are neatly lined up on the ground floor of WSB’s monolith at 1601 Peachtree St.  Now the staff is spread even thinner.

Radio news continues to play second fiddle to the all-important “weather and traffic together.”  And WSB’s promotion continues to harangue the “liberal” or “mainstream” media while promoting its right-wing talk shows.  When Dantre and Browning were released, were they released from some kind of Fox News Channel-style alternative media?  Doesn’t matter now, at least not to them.

Speaking of craven radio promotion:  WSB even made meteorologist  Kirk Melhuish change the spelling of his last name so that it could create billboards that say “when the weather turns hellish, rely on Mellish.”

One question is whether WSB will now fall behind the only other radio news outfit in town, WABE.  The NPR station broadcasts a full boat of local news cut-ins during its morning and evening drive shows.  The problem is that WABE reporters never cover breaking news.  The station’s stubbornness in that regard is almost admirable.  But it also shows that motorists wanting the very latest news can’t count on WABE for anything that isn’t a news conference, a court hearing, a meeting, or a rehash of the AJC.

Another question is whether WSB radio will begin to lean even more heavily on the staff of WSB-TV.  How long will it be before TV reporters are regularly calling in voicers for radio?

It’s never been truer:  Radio is a sad salvation.   And it just got sadder.

H/T Rodney Ho’s AJC blog.