This is the second installment in our ongoing series on the GPB takeover of WRAS. Read the first installment here.
Never Stop Talking
Teya Ryan began her career at CNN as an environmental journalist and producer. In 1994 she oversaw the creation of “Talk Back Live.” Billed as “the first truly interactive television show,” it used phone calls, faxes, a live studio audience and the emerging internet to create an endless stream of information and opinion. It was news, but not to be thought about for very long or given your focused attention. It just washed over you like a kind of Newzak. This would become her trademark.
In 2000 she was put in charge of revamping Headline News Network, boosting its ratings and younger demographics with faster pacing, split-screens, news tickers and turning anchors into stars—or vice versa. Most infamously she hired former NYPD Blue actress turned local journalist Andrea Thompson as co-anchor. CNN’s own promotion of the relaunch overflows with self-aggrandizement, hype and titillation: “This is just pulsating news. It’s just constant.…” “We will learn to take an ordinary, plain, trailer park kind of looking newscast, turn it into the swimsuit edition.” “Sorry, guys. The anchors won’t be in bikinis. But the screen has a hot new design.”
While damaging to CNN’s reputation as the serious news network—a scathing assessment of Thompson’s seven months as anchor is here, right between a scathing review of “Baby Bob” and a scathing review of “Celebrity Boxing,” such was the company Headline News was now keeping—the relaunch was a ratings success and Ryan was promoted to head CNN’s main network. Her tenure there was criticized for veering further and further from CNN’s roots as a source for hard news. This CBS Marketwatch column written after Ryan’s resignation used her earlier innovation to summarize what had become most disappointing about the network as a whole: “CNN seemed to be typified in some ways by ‘Talk Back Live,’ in which panelists yelled at one another on the air as they addressed the major issues of the day—as well as plainly frivolous topics. The show was blasted as being a step to pander to viewers with ‘happy news.’”
In 2009, Ryan was named head of GPB at the urging of Gov. Sonny Perdue. In part because of GPB’s many financial scandals before her arrival but also out of a pro-business, anti-wine and cheese sensibility, then head of the Georgia Public Telecommunications Commission Lowell Register said upon her appointment: “Gov. Sonny Perdue … wants the station ‘run more as a business rather than with the longstanding mentality of public broadcasting,’ which Register defines as ‘a cultural thing that fits a certain class of people.’”
This statement set off an impassioned rebuttal by a former GPB employee blogging as IntownWriter who pointed out that poor leadership and provincial board members had hampered the network for years. It’s hard to produce innovative, thought-provoking programming when pressured by Good Ole Boys to broadcast their hometown Cherry Blossom Festival. And with its funding overwhelmingly from the State Legislature, GPB could rarely offer vigorous coverage of state politics or anything that might discomfort the comfortable.
Ryan embraced the corporate model of relentless self-promotion and constant networking. She cultivated relationships with influential business and political leaders and massaged their egos with uncritical interviews and rah rah cheerleading. Her biggest initiative became “partnerships” with other media organizations and institutions. “We have some of the best distribution across the state in terms of media…. In the past, GPB was too quiet about its value and I see it as one of the most powerful media companies in the state.”
Such distribution was very attractive to many of the state’s leading newspapers who faced the challenges of shrinking circulation and increased online competition. The most ambitious public-private partnership was the Center for Collaborative Journalism in Macon: “Our groundbreaking collaboration has students, faculty and veteran journalists working together in a joint newsroom.” A private college and private newspaper got “unprecedented access” to the public airwaves and GPB and the newspaper got cheap student labor. It’s a “win-win” for everyone so long as none are acting unethically. Or at least not holding the cronyism and corruption of their most prominent partner up to intense scrutiny.
“Makes about 40 balls.”
Adding high school football helped boost GPB’s ratings as did the popularity of PBS’ Downton Abbey which the network milked for all it could. It held annual premiere galas and launched its most active blog, Desperate for Downton, offering a constant stream of gossip and guilty pleasure. Ryan even promoted it in one of her video Teya Talks. GPB was now calling itself GPB Media, and blogs would further its “Talk Back Live”-style expansion into multi-platform “journalism.”
Accusing blogs like Desperate for Downton and Tails of the City of being superficial is admittedly unfair. They’re not meant to be serious reporting, they’re the kind of “high quality programs and services that educate, inform and entertain our audiences and enrich the quality of their lives” that GPB states as its mission. Look to GPB’s journalists for the serious stuff, like Bill Nigut’s exclusive on Francine Bryson’s Recipe for Aunt Thelma’s Peanut Butter Balls.
But speaking of gossip! Here’s a juicy piece that first appeared in the New York Post’s Page 6 column in 2003. It accuses Teya Ryan of ordering her journalists to be “happy and chirpy all the time.” This is anonymously sourced and appeared in a paper owned by Rupert Murdoch whose Fox News Network, and his entire multi-platform media empire, was taking childish delight in having surpassed CNN in the ratings. (They even rented a billboard outside CNN headquarters in downtown Atlanta to rub it in.) The journalism, then and now, should speak for itself. Are GPB’s journalists happy and chirpy? Do they view their role as boosterism for Georgia and see GPB as a public relations “partner” with state agencies and Chambers of Commerce? This GPB-produced profile of its then Macon bureau chief in May of 2014, right when it was stealing the fiercely independent WRAS, is telling.
If GPB isn’t exactly building a media monopoly in Georgia along the lines of a William Randolph Hearst or Rupert Murdoch, it’s certainly becoming a media oligarchy with various “Georgia Trend’s Most Influential” and “Leadership Atlanta Ones to Watch” at the unaccountable top. Media partnerships make financial sense, but if the result is more “Best of Car Talk” reruns and over-hyped, cross-platform coverage of a Cherry Blossom Festival—“a huge, monumental event in the Middle Georgia area and in fact the entire state”—while silencing student or smaller independent media outlets, it’s not truly in the public interest. For all the state leadership’s love of ranking, “Governor: Georgia ranked No. 1 state in U.S. for business,” it’s also consistently ranked as one of the most corrupt states in the country. Could incestuous “partnerships” be part of the problem?
“Georgia Works” But Only If You’re Well Connected
Any talk of corruption and cronyism in Georgia immediately brings up Chip Rogers and his own stint at GPB. The Majority Leader in Georgia’s State Senate, Rogers was a controversial figure who’d become a political liability to Gov. Deal. On Nov. 2, 2012 a meeting took place in Gov. Deal’s office introducing Teya Ryan to Chip Rogers and the Gov.’s “suggestion” that GPB hire Rogers. Intriguingly, Ryan was e-mailed to confirm the meeting on Oct. 26 in a follow-up to a voice mail setting it up the day or so before. The Signal documents reveal an e-mail from Mark Becker dated Oct. 24 that calls a meeting to discuss “the future of radio at GSU” the following week. The futures of Rogers and WRAS were being decided at the same time.
On Dec. 5, 2012 GPB announced its hiring of Rogers, who resigned the State Senate seat to which he’d just been reelected. The hiring of Rogers was controversial in itself and called into question GPB’s editorial independence and ability to hold firm against outside political influence. In a lengthy article for Current, a news site dedicated to covering public broadcasting, Ryan defended the hiring of Rogers and the use of GPB as an economic development tool. She dismissed concerns about Rogers’ political scandals and his unethical hiring: “In considering Rogers’ new role, Ryan isn’t concerned about the circumstances that brought him to GPB. ‘I’m going to judge Chip on how he behaves going forward in my company,’ she said. ‘The past is the past. I’d like people to wait and see what the work is, and judge him from that.’”
Notice her CEO mentality of calling the public agency “my company” and her insistence that unethical conduct should just be ignored. In January of this year, 2015, after a contentious meeting of the GPB Board in which Album 88 students and alumni confronted the Commission with evidence of Ryan using personal e-mail to conduct the WRAS takeover, an obvious attempt to avoid open records requests, Ryan released a statement urging GPB’s endless stream of unethical behavior ever onward. “… We must always be looking forward,” “we’re forging ahead,” and “not looking back.” Never stop to think it through. Give no focused attention to our many unpunished misdeeds. Never ever hold GPB to account.
In January of 2013, the salary Rogers would be making at his still ambiguous position at GPB came to light. At $150,000 a year, he would outearn the Governor and immediately become GPB’s second highest-paid employee. The news outraged many GPB contributors, not to mention its veteran employees. In this article by the AJC’s Kristina Torres, GPB’s then Vice President Nancy Zintak wouldn’t say how many memberships were canceled but admitted to receiving 130 calls and emails since the Rogers’ hiring was announced. Zintak’s final quote, “We’re going to soldier through this,” foreshadowed GPB’s response to the overwhelmingly negative reaction to its hijacking of WRAS. Screw you audience, this is our media empire. And if you can’t reform a corrupt empire by exposing it, why not join it? Kristina Torres now cheerfully appears on GPB Radio.
Rogers’ salary was the last straw for veteran GPB producer Ashley Wilson Pendley who resigned in disgust. Her resignation letter notes the many rounds of layoffs, stagnant wages and other sacrifices GPB rank and file employees had to make while Rogers would start out earning two to three times the pay of other program producers. She criticizes Ryan’s other leadership decisions and ill treatment of staff: “First, I watched as well paid contractors replaced staff that had been laid off. As the co-creator of the Georgia Traveler series in 2005, it saddens me to see how the only remaining original host and the most talented member of that show’s staff has been treated. … He could be running the entire production if he had the proper support.”
Nancy Zintak again defended the Rogers hiring despite staff turmoil: “…[While people] may not like the way it all came together for him to come to GPB, he’s here and he’s going to do a great job for us.” He’s here. Don’t ask why. Don’t look back. Look ahead. Only look ahead.
The IntownWriter blog praised Pendley’s courage, called for Teya Ryan’s resignation and published a leaked e-mail from Ryan’s chief enforcer at GPB Bob Olive: “GPB has been in the spotlight for the last few weeks and for those of you who have experienced the white heat of a media frenzy, you know it can be uncomfortable but not unbearable as long as we continue to focus on our mission which is to produce and distribute programs that educate, inform, and enlighten our communities.” “…While the choice of Rogers may be controversial, we invite all of our public media colleagues and our Georgia communities to listen to the weekly radio show when it launches in late spring, then go to the interactive website and see how we hope to have a positive impact on our state’s crushing 8.6% unemployment rate.”
The radio show didn’t premiere until July and the state’s unemployment rate, while fluctuating over the months Rogers was on the job, remained above the national average throughout his time as head of Georgia Works.
Rogers was nothing more than an embarrassment to GPB from the start. And their reluctance to fire him shows how entrenched back room deals and quid pro quos are in the state. It’s become farcical. State Senator Bill Heath, a Rogers ally, got so many emails demanding Rogers be fired from GPB that he sent an automatic response accusing many of his own constituents of being “conned” by groups like Better Georgia and that they were annoying him. WSB tried to confront him about his disdain for the views of the Georgia public, only to have him hide out behind an office printer.
In September of 2013 the anti-corruption blog Atlanta Unfiltered uncovered evidence that Rogers still owned an AM radio station in Cartersville in possible violation of GPB’s policy against outside employment. GPB told CBS 46 he had not made any violations and then responded to requests for an interview “with what appeared to be a standard form letter that did not address CBS Atlanta’s request. The email read, ‘Thank you for your interest in Georgia Works. The show airs Saturdays at 2 p.m. across our 17 station statewide radio network and is streamed online at www.gpb.org.’”
“Mark, I thought you might be interested in seeing this.”
In October, Teya Ryan made another hire in bringing Bill Nigut back to broadcasting. She excitedly shared this news with Mark Becker as the WRAS hijacking was being planned. The e-mails obtained by Album 88 Alumni show this exchange:
Oct. 3rd at 3:25 p.m. Ryan to Becker:
“Mark, I thought you might be interested in seeing this.
Talk to you soon, Best, Teya.”
Followed by a link to this story from the Saporta Report.
7:52 p.m. Becker to Ryan:
8:35 p.m. Ryan to Becker:
“This will be meaningful in the future. TR”
Nigut would become the public face of GPB’s takeover of WRAS and host two new weekly radio shows on the network. The compromised ethics of Nigut and so many other members of the Georgia press and political establishment in looking the other way at an obvious theft so long as they could get more exposure and airtime calls for a third part to this series.
In April of 2014 Chip Rogers was finally fired—just a month before the WRAS announcement. His salary of $150,000 was the same amount GPB would pay Georgia State for the two-year lease of its airwaves. The AJC’s Greg Bluestein and Jim Galloway both wrote substantially about Rogers’ firing and its coming, once again, at the urging of Gov. Deal. But their coverage of Teya Ryan’s role in the WRAS theft, or that of Mark Becker or any other prominent public official is nowhere to be found. The AJC left that to entertainment reporter Rodney Ho. But both Bluestein and Galloway are now regular panelists on Bill Nigut’s show. Incest causes amnesia.
For his part, Nigut assured an outraged public in a few terse tweets soon after the WRAS announcement that he only found out about it the same day students did. But he was more than happy to model the “Listen to 88.5 FM/ NPR/ Atlanta” t-shirt and has never discussed the sleazy deal with the students, alumni or at length in a public interview. All he did was tweet. Becker and Ryan did know what was coming even before Nigut’s Oct. 2013 hiring but refused to include GSU students or their fee committees in the process. We make the decisions, you just pay the bill.
That’s how Georgia works.