May 2014 podcast: Two student broadcasters discuss challenges facing college radio



Outgoing WRAS-FM General Manager Anastasia Zimitravich and current Program Director Josh Martin talk about a deal between Georgia State University and Georgia Public Broadcasting that gives daytime FM programming hours to professionals instead of students.

Frank LoMonte: It’s a rough time to be in the world of college broadcasting. Station after station at colleges from Rice University to Vanderbilt University, and now Georgia State University in Atlanta are facing either the sale of their license or incursions on student’s independence to choose the programming of their choice. This is the Student Press Law Center podcast and I’m Frank LoMonte, Executive Director of the SPLC. We’re here to talk about WRAS-FM and what’s going on in college radio with the loss of student’s ability to broadcast over the air, not just in Atlanta, but all over the country. We’ll be joined by two student broadcasters from Georgia State University, who are veterans of WRAS-FM.

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So we’re joined by Anastasia Zimitravich and by Josh Martin of WRAS-FM. Ana is the General Manager and will be graduating this August with a degree in marketing. Josh is the Program Director. He’s a graduate student now in political science. The two of them have been leading voices to try to preserve the independence of WRAS-FM against an incursion on student programming discretion at the hands of Georgia Public Broadcasting. On May the sixth, a deal was publically announced giving Georgia Public Broadcasting the ability to choose programming for WRAS-FM, now a student-programmed music station. Georgia Public Broadcasting is staffed by non-student professionals and during the prime daytime hours, including drive times, students used to hearing student music over WRAS will instead be hearing Georgia Public Broadcasting programming, including National Public Radio, American Public Media and other programming that may already be available on a competing FM station across town, WABE-FM.

This is a real setback for students’ ability to learn how to broadcast over the air, to reach the audience that they most need to reach during those drive time and daytime hours, and we’d like to hear from Ana and Josh about what students are doing to fight back for their independent, and exactly what they see as the future for WRAS. So I guess Anna, first, thanks for joining us and start off by, just exactly how did the students find out about this development and how has it affected them?

Ana Zimitravich: Well, thank you for having us. The news was a complete surprise to us. As the student-staffed station, entirely student-run for the past 43 years, we thought that the University really respected our input on the station and respected us as leaders, student leaders, and managers and if a change like this were to come about, there would be a viable amount of input from the students on this change. As a student laboratory, the station is a great learning opportunity for students and one of those learning opportunities should be managing and negotiating something like this. And, unfortunately it wasn’t communicated to us in that way at all. On May sixth, they brought us in early for a meeting at 10:30 a.m., they didn’t tell us what it was about. It was a boardroom meeting with Boyd Beckwith, Douglas Covey, Bryce McNeil and Jeff Walker present, along with the student managers of the station, so those that are being paid to work there—not those that are volunteers.

Frank LoMonte: People that work in student affairs or student life are either administrators or they’re advisers who work for Georgia State University.

Ana Zimitravich: Yes, so those are the quote-on-quote “adults” that oversee the station and also the student managers were invited as well, and those people were also paid to work here. And, so that was an optional meeting, they didn’t tell us what it was about, they said it was going to affect the structure of the station going forward, so we thought it might be a budget meeting. It’s regular for us to have budget meetings like that and they’re fairly professional, it’s as you would expect for any workplace. And, they’re also fairly short and rather boring. So, people were going into it thinking that it wasn’t going to be anything too important, that it was going to be rather quick. But, then Douglas Covey led the meeting and talked about, he immediately started talking about Georgia Public Broadcasting and how it was a really influential organization, that to work with them would be such a privilege for the students because it would be a really great learning opportunity, and we’re just sitting there thinking, “What does this have to do with WRAS? What does this have to do with the station?” And, he later clarifies that we’re going to be engaging in a partnership with them, and we’re all thinking, “What does this mean? What kind of partnership?” Because we haven’t been consulted at all, and if it’s going to be a partnership, then it should rightfully be between the two parties.

Frank LoMonte: Sure.

Ana Zimitravich: Between the student management and between the GPB networking executives. So, it’s already feeling kind of uneasy, this whole situation. And he tells us that we’re exchanging our programming, our drive time programming, from five a.m. to seven p.m. each day, for these opportunities that we’re going to get at the station. And, we can’t believe it. We’re just awestruck, in the meeting. We can’t believe what we’re hearing, because we’ve been completely independent from any kind of oversight for 43 years. We’ve just been doing as we will for all of this time, to have it just thrust upon us that we’re going to have this format change, it’s something that you hear in commercial radio, and we never thought that WRAS would be affected like this. So, we’re asking them questions, like “What does this mean for our analog listeners? How are we going to continue to function?” And Douglas Covey says, Well, you’ll still have your HD-2 channel, and you’ll still have your online stream, so your operations will be completely untouched for the most part, you guys won’t know any difference. And I’m thinking, “But how are our listeners going to know how to listen to those outlets?” Because currently, all of our listenership is on analog only, and there’s never been any kind of support for our online stream. Like, the University has not been very helpful in these areas over the past few years. It’s always been a red-tape minefield trying to get our streaming up and trying to get our website updated, it’s not been an easy process to get to where we are now. We’ve just completely invested all of our time and energy in our analog programming, so I’m thinking, “OK, if we’re going to drive our listenership online, and maintain all of our relationships, are we gonna have any kind of promotion during the five to seven drive time? Are they gonna be promoting our shows? Or saying, ‘Hey! Listen after seven for WRAS! Or you could be streaming this show right now online!” And Covey says, no, you’re not going to get that. And, I’m thinking, “OK, well this isn’t a partnership at all.” How are we supposed to thrive if we’re just being bumped off of our own station?

Frank LoMonte: Sure. And we should mention, too, this was all done with only about three, three-and-a-half weeks to do the transition, so there really wasn’t a tremendous amount of time if you wanted to launch a campaign to build up listenership, as you say on the HD or on the online presences. There are really only a few weeks to go about doing that, so it wasn’t done with a significant amount of advanced notice.

Ana Zimitravich: Right.

Frank LoMonte: You finally did belatedly get an opportunity to sit down with the president of Georgia State, President Mark Becker, and hear some rationale for why this surprise decision was done. And I know no assurances came out of that meeting, in terms of the students getting any more programming hours than what they’ve been promised, which is essentially the late evening and overnight hours, but Josh Martin, let’s turn to you, can you describe a little bit, I know both you and Ana, along with a couple of other student staff members were in that meeting with the president. How did that go and what was your takeaway from it?

Josh Martin: Oh, well, first I want to say hi and thanks for having us. Ana described that meeting that we found out about the decision perfectly. One thing I will add that I found out the day in relation to that, though, is in terms of our HD stream that they’ve been touting, it’s funny because I found out today that that will not even be, there’s no like deadline of when that will even be ready, because the University has apparently stumbled on some technical aspects of that, and so that won’t even be ready on June second, we don’t even have an HD stream right now, and there’s no set time of when that will actually launch, that’s something I found out a few hours ago. But in terms of the meeting with Becker, yeah, so we went into it with a mindset of, you know, we’ve had this professional, respectful relationship with the University administration for the past 43 years, and so let’s go into this, share our concerns about the DLB agreement, and also, while at the same time in there talking about what we don’t like about the agreement, kind of show them, you know, where we were heading and where we intended to be 10 years down the road with our strategic plan.

Ana Zimitravich: Right. Because we thought that maybe they didn’t understand what the station does. Maybe that’s why they made a deal like this. They just didn’t understand how losing our analog programming is going to, in effect, destroy the station, it’s going to ruin all of our influence and render our opportunities ineffective. Anyway, sorry.

Josh Martin: Yeah, you’re completely right. It was clear, going into the meeting, after we presented our strategic plan and after we kind of shared our concerns, Ana shared a lot of really good concerns about the contract that we’ve had, it was very clear that while the president and his associates understood the impact that the station has had, sort of, and they kind of understand the legacy of the station, they didn’t understand how much we rely on our analog signal, and I don’t think they completely understood the low frequency of people having HD radios or those being installed in cars as much as they were in the early 2000s, and I don’t think they understand that the Pew Research Center did a poll in 2012, that showed that on a weekly basis, individuals listen to radio, terrestrial radio, 92 percent of the time, whereas, people only listen to online streaming of radio 29 percent of the time per week. It’s really, that discrepancy between those two numbers, I think that it kind of just showed them something that they haven’t really thought about before. They were receptive to what we had to say in the meeting. Coming out of the meeting, we’re cautiously optimistic, and I use the word cautiously, that should be emphasized a lot, just because of the fact that we don’t know what’s going to happen next, at all, but the University is reviewing options of how, you know, they could make everyone happy, because it’s clear from the meeting, I mean this was said right after, that they’re going to uphold the contract with GPB, but at the same time, they want to try and I guess fix the situation with the students, if possible. So, we’re hoping to hear back soon from that before the deal actually starts, however, we don’t know exactly when and we do have the support of the Student Government Association administration and they have even said, you know, it was because of them that we had the meeting. And they even said after the meeting, you know, we’ll follow up with them and the rest of the administration, so there’s definitely things in motion from what I’ve been told, behind the scenes in terms of trying to figure something out, but there’s nothing really concrete that we have heard yet.

Frank LoMonte: Well, let’s talk about, I mean just to play devil’s advocate here, one of the arguments that’s been advanced by the University administration is that students can get the same training opportunities by basically going through the motions as if they were broadcasting over the air, but just putting that same programming out online instead. What’s wrong with that argument Why can’t you get a comparable educational experience and what would be lost, Ana, if the station is available only online during prime listening hours?

Ana Zimitravich: Well, for one, I think that’s a preposterous assumption, because student radio is a student media form, and I think that it should remain untouched as a form for student expression. It shouldn’t be a bargaining chip for a business deal, but that’s my own personal preference. Concretely, I think that what they don’t realize is that by putting us online, by taking us away from our analog programming, they’re going to diminish the opportunities that are available to students. Currently, WRAS has 100,000 watts of power, that’s an amazing amount of influence for students to use independently at their disposal. And, inherently in that, they are gaining the opportunity to fully function a student-run radio station, independent of advisory oversight, which is an amazing experience for really any student, not just broadcasting majors, but for any student that wants to experience what it’s like to be a part of a radio station. And, you could compare that to a student newspaper. You know, a student newspaper shouldn’t be seen as a bargaining chip, an outlet for income for the University, it should be seen as a laboratory for students to learn and to grow their leadership skills and their management authority and all of these sorts of things that can’t really be charted with money or with numbers, it should be a learning tool. And, the University should respect that. But, what I’m getting at specifically, is right now, because we have such influence, we have these 100,000 watts of power, we reach the entire Metro Atlanta area, so venues want to work with us, musicians across the country want to work with us. They’re submitting us music and submitting us ticket giveaways, and we have these amazing relationships that are kind of unique to any other college radio station in the country. Our Music Director, he receives hundreds of submissions per week and he talks to tons of different promoters each week. He has these people he has on hold that want to talk to him.

Frank LoMonte: Let me switch to Josh and ask about this because we only have about five minutes left to talk. Josh, can you sort of characterize the response that you’ve gotten from the community and some of the things that are going on among the listener community to show their support for continued student independence on WRAS?

Josh Martin: Yeah, so before I touch on that, I will say one quick thing about the diminished opportunities. A perfect example is one of our own alumni from the station, she currently works at Turner Classic Movies for Turner Broadcasting. But, in her spare time, she’s an adviser to the Savannah College of Art and Design radio station that’s online strictly, and she says that, you know, she has an insanely hard time having people show up to shifts because of the fact that when you don’t have as many listeners, which is what happens when you go strictly to online, you know, you don’t have as many listens so it’s not as motivating to come in to the station at all. But, other than that, I think that we won’t have as many listeners as we have had before. But, with this decision, that is one thing that we really, really, really have been humbled by is the fact that we have had such insane outreach from our listeners that we could not have even expected. And it’s not just even our listeners in the Atlanta community, but people from around the nation and even the world. During the meeting, the president of the University said that he had heard from people, I think even alumni, in places like New Zealand, who were calling to complain about it. So, we were kind of like sad after the meeting, but once we started hearing people get so angry about the decision and so angry about the failure to include students in the decision that is going to directly affect them, it’s been an insane outpouring of support. We’ve had the listeners mobilize, we haven’t forced them to, they’ve kind of just done it themselves without any guidance from the station itself. Some listeners created a group called Save WRAS and they’ve held benefit shows that make people more aware of the situation. So, those things just really humble us and make us really, really, really, you know, understand fully, what Atlanta will be missing and what, you know, I don’t think the University totally understood, but when they were making this decision, that they would have feedback as strong as it is, especially because it’s feedback that comes with unraveling 43 years of history. So, I think the outpour from listeners has been really nice and we really appreciate it and we love our listeners.

Frank LoMonte: Well, we should mention, too, that in addition to the outpouring of support from listeners and from alumni, there has been a number of organizations, including College Broadcasters, Inc., CBI, which have weighed in with very strong statements supporting the continued ability of students to choose their own programming. This is an issue that is not over, and although it’s unlikely that the FCC, the Federal Communications Commission, would get involved in a programming choice decision, there are a lot of motivated students and alumni who continue to look for ways to potentially challenge this decision, whether through the courts, through the board of regents, through the state legislature, and so we certainly haven’t heard the last, even when the switch is thrown, assuming that it is, on June the second. Unfortunately, we need to wrap it up there and thank Ana Zimitravich and Josh Martin for joining us on the podcast, and encourage anyone who wants to know more, can one of you give the contact information to find the Save WRAS group, they’re on Facebook and they’re on Twitter, as well?

Ana Zimitravich: There’s a Save WRAS website, it’s unrelated to us, so listeners and the alumni have organized it, but it’s saveWRAS.com, and we have our own Tumblr page, that’s album88.org and you can find information on there on how to help.

Frank LoMonte: Great, well Ana and Josh, thanks again. We’ll be watching and monitoring your progress and updating all of the latest news about WRAS on SPLC.org. Thanks for listening to the SPLC podcast and we’ll talk to you next month.