by Brian Bannon
The critique of Millennials is that they’re spoiled, self-absorbed and childish. Unwilling to take on adult responsibilities or make lasting commitments, they snap selfies and seek constant attention. Modest accomplishments must be tweeted and instagrammed so likes and praise can pour in even for things most people do out of obligation or basic human civility. Their expectations are too high and their willingness to put in the slow, deliberate effort necessary to build successful careers and relationships is too low. God help us once they take stewardship of our most cherished institutions.
But in the controversial partnership between Georgia Public Broadcasting and Georgia State University that resulted in GPB getting control of 88.5 WRAS, it was the student DJs, their alumni allies, and listeners, young and old, committed to keeping students in charge who have acted with patience, discipline and respect for tradition. The “grown-ups” involved in the secret back-room deal have been selfish, unaccountable and unethical. Their lust for power fueled this unwelcome partnership and their massive egos keep it going despite widespread outrage and damage to their institutions’ integrity and bottom line.
A “Win-Win” Partnership Made in Secret and Executed Like a Mob Hit
The partnership between GPB and GSU was announced on May 6th, 2014 in a succinct press release and terse interviews. GPB’s President Teya Ryan gave an exclusive interview to the AJC’s Rodney Ho “wearing a black t-shirt announcing the merger.” A picture of Bill Nigut in the t-shirt was tweeted that morning as WRAS students were having their hearts broken. Max Blau writing in Creative Loafing that evening noted “GSU spokeswoman Andrea Jones tells CL that a final contract between GSU and GPB wasn’t signed until yesterday. But the deal appears to have been in the works for some time. At least long enough to design logos and print t-shirts.”
The shirt—“Listen to 88.5 / NPR / Atlanta”—usurped WABE’s status as “Atlanta’s NPR Station” and seemed deliberately misleading. GPB’s use of canvassers to raise money by going door-to-door had a similarly vague pitch of “raising money for public radio in Atlanta.” A number of outraged listeners canceled pledges to WABE accusing them of the WRAS hijacking. WABE had to make several on air pleas that “We are in no way affiliated with GPB.” “GPB and WABE are two entirely separate organizations.” “WABE never goes door-to-door.” GPB made no great effort to distinguish itself.
GSU’s announcement to its own students caused shock and immediate resistance. “An Official Statement from WRAS Management and Staff on GPB Amalgamation” issued the same day stated, “We as a staff and family are devastated by this decision that we had no part or say in.” It ends by giving the contact information of the GSU administrators. Not how a “win-win partnership” should begin.
The timing of the announcement was particularly sleazy. Outgoing WRAS music director Fray Devore stated in the Creative Loafing article, “They waited until the last day of classes, right when our new management started and a lot of long-time DJs are graduating.” With the campus emptying out for summer, protests would be minimized. GSU’s student newspaper The Signal had finished printing for the semester (though its staff continued to cover the story posting important reporting online) and with the takeover occurring over summer, GPB on WRAS would be an established fact by the return of students in the fall.
Also on May 6th, GSU announced a proposal to take over Turner Field. This headline-grabbing plan, complete with colorful renderings imposed on Google satellite maps, conveniently distracted from the WRAS announcement and sent redevelopment fanboys into a frenzy. Business and media leaders could praise the bold vision and leadership of Mark Becker even as he was treating his own students and the iconic station they built as bargaining chips.
Still, there was a groundswell of public protest. Social media campaigns and Save WRAS groups quickly formed. An online petition to cancel the contract gained 5,000 signatures in its first 36 hours. There was name calling and all-caps outrage to be sure, but much of the protesters urged firm but respectful demands for answers and an open, transparent reconsideration of the deal. With most of the focus now on Georgia State and Mark Becker, Teya Ryan went into hiding. She granted no interviews that summer and never met students, alumni or protestors, though she did walk her dog by them in an odd photo op for the AJC’s Rodney Ho. With an entourage and dog in tow but not a word of dialogue with WRAS supporters, it looked more like condescension than the common touch. (She takes her dog to work? Is that what GSU student interns will get to do with their “unprecedented access” to GPB? Instead of programming a 100,000 Watt station they’ll get to follow the boss around scooping up dog shit?)
Ryan’s first meeting with WRAS students wouldn’t occur until October, six months after the announcement. And this came only after repeated demands by protestors, and empty promises on Ryan’s part, were made at GPB Board meetings.
“Becker the Wrecker”
The immediate backlash, phone calls and e-mails forced Mark Becker to do more than hide behind a press release. His first interviews only fueled the outrage. “It’s happening. It’s not going to be reversed,” he told WABE. His interview with the Georgia State student newspaper The Signal on May 8th took place with GSU’s PR and Marketing official Andrea Jones sitting in. His tone was condescending and dismissive. Ed Hula, a former GPB reporter and GSU graduate, blogged at Peach Pundit, “Mark Becker is an Arrogant, Ignorant President.” Becker’s top-down mentality and unwillingness to reconsider showed someone acting as the CEO of a private company rather than a public servant. Fittingly, the Atlanta Business Chronicle named him one of their “Most Admired Chief Executives” in August. His preferred audience was not the students, alumni and public he’d kept in the dark, but the readers of the corporate society pages and their endless listicle rankings. (“Most Admired,” “Ones to Watch,” “100 under 100.”)
On May 7th he gave an interview with Rodney Ho, the preferred reporter for both GSU and GPB in presenting their unquestioned case. It’s a softball interview that never asks directly why the deal was made in secret and sets Becker up to give his ready answers. “Ho: A lot of students felt blindsided. They weren’t given advance notice or involvement. Do you feel like that would have complicated things if you had? Becker: There’s no way you could do something this complicated in the way some people would have liked to happen.” Even though these are public institutions and it involved student activity fees and affected not just GPB but Atlanta’s longtime public radio station, WABE. In fact, the student fees and media committees at GSU had approved funding for an expensive new digital transmitter for WRAS with no knowledge that it would be hijacked by GPB most of the day, and GSU’s Vice President for Student Affairs Douglass Covey served on WABE’s own Board before resigning abruptly a few weeks before the GBP announcement. He never told WABE about a pending threat to its listenership and donor base.
Becker also misled by saying negotiations between GPB and GSU were ongoing since before his arrival on campus. Documents obtained by the Signal show that GPB’s offer of a partnership was soundly rejected by GSU under President Carl Patton. In April of 2008 GSU’s then VP of External Affairs Tom Lewis wrote, “While GPB is offering compensation, the value to our University of our 100,000 watt FM signal and our ability to maintain an independent program format is much greater. In our efforts to engage students in student life at Georgia State, we believe that WRAS is one of our greatest assets, and one which should not be compromised.” The new partnership talks under Becker began in the Fall of 2012, around the same time GPB agreed to hire State Senator Chip Rogers at the suggestion of Gov. Deal.
With Becker and Ryan stonewalling, misleading and hiding out, a group of Album 88 alumni formed to aid the outgunned undergraduates, who could face expulsion or other sanctions if they made too much noise. They asked for meetings, gave eloquent testimony of Album 88’s positive impact on their own lives and careers and eventually assembled an ambitious counterproposal that offered a greater number of internships for GSU students than the GPB proposal and with a wider array of media organizations so long as student-led WRAS was preserved. Becker basically rejected the proposal while paying lip service to its last-resort call for an alternate translator frequency—but for the student-run WRAS feed, not the GPB stream.
The outrage managed to cause a month-long delay in the changeover, but on June 29th at 5 a.m. GPB debuted on 88.5 with, according to one early-rising Facebook commenter, 20 minutes of dead air. If true, this bumbled beginning foretold many of the technical glitches and horrible sound quality that would characterize the new GPB Atlanta. Listeners expecting the long-running “Big Band Jump” with beloved Atlanta radio staple Don Kennedy at Noon instead heard NPR’s “On The Media” which would also play on WABE at 2 p.m. Mark Becker was away on vacation.
The criticism from alumni continued with many canceling donations to GSU. In the Georgia State University Magazine that August, Becker defended the GPB partnership as “providing extraordinary experiential learning opportunities for students.” This corporate-speak for internships that GPB should already offer students as a state-funded organization and his invocation of other GSU programs benefitting the poor and underprivileged is cringe-worthy. It is a line of argument painting the WRAS students as selfish and standing in the way of opportunities for other GSU students. It was a tactic of diversion and blame-shifting already evident in his May 7th interview with Rodney Ho. “This provides the same opportunity for students on the film and video side have [sic] that radio students have. It expands student opportunities [by allowing them to work at GPB].”
Suddenly, the passionate efforts to preserve WRAS’s 43-year legacy as one of the leading college stations in the country and launching pad for new artists was holding GSU’s film and communications students back. This painting of the student DJs as whining crybabies was made more explicitly in the comments sections of the AJC articles by a pro-Becker troll named Mr. Radio who later turned up on the comments section of Max Blau’s articles at Creative Loafing. Rodney Ho’s selective reporting and carrying water for GPB, and the AJC’s growing silence once GPB Atlanta debuted and AJC reporters became regular panelists and guests deserves more scrutiny, but for now notice how in the Becker interview Ho reiterates the mantra spoken by all involved from the moment the GPB/WRAS takeover was announced: “Ho: But it’s a done deal.” Somehow a horribly unpopular and unethical deal made in secret with an agency already reeling from charges of cronyism (more on Chip Rogers and Teya Ryan later) can never be revisited. It’s more sacred than GSU’s own Code of Conduct.
Becker’s disingenuous understatement in the GSU Magazine letter that the partnership met with “some criticism” shows someone who just doesn’t care, or is being coerced by a corrupt Board of Regents not to care, about the public integrity of the University he runs. In a “Conversation with the President,” which is in fact an unquestioned monologue, Becker continued to use such empty buzzwords as “pathbreaking” and “transformational” to describe the GPB Partnership while ignoring the well-poisoning and unethical process that brought it about and continues to taint all associated with it.
In September, Creative Loafing’s annual “Best of Atlanta” issue came out with readers’ picks for various categories. Mark Becker was voted “Favorite Person You Love to Hate.” Not surprisingly, GSU’s social media pages ignored this honor but did trumpet the readers’ picking GSU as “Best College.” In an example of the continued disdain with which GSU higher-ups were now treating WRAS, the Panther PR machine made no mention of Album 88 winning “Best Radio Station.” Even the station’s continued acclaim and respect would now have to be marginalized or ignored.
Through all the protests and calls for Becker’s firing, the Board of Regents remained silent. Demands for scrutiny of the deal and transparency went unacknowledged. Open letters from students and WABE to the Regents were unanswered. Letters of complaint, bad press, even canceled alumni contributions never merited a word from the mostly white, male and very rich Regents, many of whom are close friends and contributors to Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal. In January of 2015, the Regents announced a merger of GSU and Georgia Perimeter College that would vault the merged entity past the University of Georgia to become the largest in the state. Heading it would be the Regents now favorite “rising star,” Mark Becker.