The Theft of WRAS, Part III

Caravaggio's Narcissus
Caravaggio’s Narcissus

by Brian Bannon

This is the third installment in our ongoing series on the GPB takeover of WRAS: “The Narcissism of Non-Millennials.” Read the original article here and the second installment here.

Teya Tosses Tanya to the Wolves

The May 6th announcement that GPB would be taking over WRAS’s signal for 14 hours each day caused a huge public backlash. The first major interview anyone from GPB gave to the press didn’t occur until May 29th, when Tanya Ott spoke with Garrett Martin for Creative Loafing. As VP for radio, Ott was in charge of selecting and scheduling the news and talk shows that would be displacing student programming. Teya Ryan was the only one who could meaningfully address the questions everyone wanted answered, but she was hiding out. Instead, Ott had to suffer through an embarrassing spectacle of non-answers which only amplified GPB’s apparent hostility towards the very public it was supposed to be serving.

On the secrecy of the back room deal:
Garrett Martin: “Who handled [the negotiations]?”
Ott: “I really don’t know who was in the room during the negotiations….”
Martin: “Did GPB know at the time that [GSU VP for Student Affairs] Douglas Covey sat on WABE 90.1 FM’s board?”
Ott: “I have no idea.”

On duplicating WABE’s programming at the expense of WRAS’s unique format:
Martin: “How is less listener choice good for the audience in Atlanta, though?”
Ott: “Garrett, that’s not something I can answer.”

On the lost opportunities for local musicians not getting exposure on WRAS:
Ott: “I can’t speak for the artists. That’s not my job.”

Ott mentions GPB’s partnership with the Atlanta Symphony (also already heard on WABE) and plans for expanding a brand titled GPB Music. Citing NPR Music shows like “Tiny Desk Concerts” as inspiration, she notes that GPB has its own performance studio. “Rickey Bevington, our new All Things Considered host … actually came and started her career at GPB as a music reporter. That was her job. So she’s very deeply connected with the Atlanta music scene. We’ve been talking a lot about doing community outreach, doing concerts, doing pop-up concerts, that sort of thing.”

In July such an In Studio performance was scheduled featuring “The Whigs.” The band canceled the performance after receiving hundreds of emails and messages from fans and supporters of WRAS.

The student-produced music program that would be broadcast on the entire statewide network as stipulated in the GPB/GSU partnership agreement would also help GPB build a GPB Music brand. This was a portion of the agreement often highlighted by GSU’s President Mark Becker as a great new opportunity for students. “With GPB as a partner, they can produce content if it’s picked up by this audience that flows over from GPB, they can grow not only the local audience but syndicate and potentially go nationwide throughout the NPR network.” That was the dangled fruit, if the students just went along with everything.

The music show has yet to materialize. The sleazy, back-room nature of the GPB “partnership” was viewed by students, musicians and music fans as a hostile takeover. Or out and out theft. To then ask WRAS to help GSU and GPB “build their brands” only added insult to injury. “We’ve treated you like shit from the beginning, now help us tell the world how great we are.”

The stonewalling and lack of transparency from GPB as evidenced by Ott’s interview inspired a “Magic Ott Ball” using her many “I don’t know” and “I can’t speak to that” answers. The mystic, unknowable powers behind the GPB/GSU partnership were not to be questioned as public officials overseeing taxpayer and student-funded institutions, but as dark forces of the occult.

 A Divided Opposition

The Magic Ott Ball was the creation of Adam Goldstein, an Attorney Advocate for the Student Press Law Center, a legal assistance agency that had worked with WRAS students and alumni on potential legal action. The SPLC’s Executive Director Frank LoMonte wrote a letter to Mark Becker denouncing the secretive nature of the “partnership” negotiations and Becker’s comments in the press trying to justify the shady process. No legal action was taken. WRAS students had been in continued negotiations with GSU and saw some progress in the unexpected delay by a month of the GPB debut.

Critics of the students claimed they were being too deferential to an administration that only met with students as a delaying gimmick or PR stunt with no intention of altering the agreement. (#SaveWRAS Won’t Save Their Ass.) Many WRAS supporters urged more aggressive actions like shutting down the station or openly criticizing the takeover on air. The students countered that doing so might risk losing control of the station entirely. Alumni and non-student listeners of WRAS bemoaned a sense of student apathy at GSU with many current undergraduates unaware they even had a radio station.

A more organized opposition was still in its initial stages. Without proper credentials or an organizational structure as such, these individuals’ motivations could be questioned. However, Album 88 Alumni eventually did file as an official non-profit and establish officers.

Non-WRAS listeners didn’t share the passion that fans of the station had or their belief that it was one of Atlanta’s most beloved, unique cultural assets. Many bystanders assumed that the opposition to GPB taking control was merely nostalgia, not an anti-corruption movement. “How can public radio ever be the bad guy?”

Bill Nigut’s One-Way Street 

GPB Atlanta debuted on June 29th with a schedule duplicating much of what already could be heard in Atlanta on WABE and some other nationally-produced programs easily available by podcast, streaming, or on WABE’s all-news HD channel. The schedule received overwhelmingly critical comments on GPB’s own website. The two new original programs would both be hosted by Bill Nigut: a weekly political recap with reporters, pundits and “political insiders,” and a Saturday afternoon arts and culture show billed as a kind of local “Fresh Air” and titled “The Two Way Street with Bill Nigut.”

In promoting the shows, Nigut gave an interview with the AJC’s Rodney Ho in which a publicist for GPB sat in the room in clear violation of most journalistic ethics. “[Nigut] said he had no idea about the GSU partnership until the staff was told in early May and within five days, Ryan offered him to do [sic] the weekend radio show, then the political show. She gave him free rein to design both shows. He couldn’t resist.” Ego trumps ethics. The PR officer kept the conversation clear of any in-depth discussion of the controversies surrounding the partnership and why it was done in secret.

Nigut’s own blog post on the debut of “Two Way Street” is a great example of how Orwellian GPB and its use of language had become. The blog itself has a word count of about 630 words. Of these, 14 are “I,” 9 are “My,” and 7 are “Me.” It became inundated with negative comments that were soon deleted (but cached and archived by a SaveWRAS supporter). The blog itself has since been deleted entirely. So much for listening to the public.

Nigut on Nigut: "So proud… me every week!"
Nigut on Nigut: “So proud… me every week!”

The many negative comments about GPB on its blogs, Facebook page, and beneath interviews and articles on other media outlets were making it hard for GPB to cross platforms. Complaint calls went unreturned and e-mails received form letter replies. Despite Nigut’s professed love of hearing other people’s passions and opinions, he has never taken phone calls on his programs nor has he ever had SaveWRAS supporters as guests to air out their grievances.

We’re A World-Class City—Just Look At Our Statistics

So, how could a public broadcaster be the bad guy? Aren’t they committed to enriching, not damaging, the cultural life of the communities they serve? Could they really just steal one of Atlanta’s most cherished institutions and a cornerstone of its music and arts scenes? The place where OutKast first got airplay and countless other local and national artists gained crucial exposure? Artists who often come from obscure backgrounds and lack wealthy benefactors or influential social connections? The kind of vibrant, accessible creative community most in need of an advocate and not an exploiter?

In 2003, Bill Nigut left WSB to become the founding President and CEO of the Metropolitan Atlanta Arts and Culture Coalition. MAACC raised a lot of money from corporate donors, but critics came to view it as doing little for artists or the creation of art. In a 2006 Creative Loafing article by Scott Henry, Nigut explained. “‘Early on, I realized this job isn’t about being part of the arts community,’ he says. ‘It’s about representing the arts community to a broader constituency, so I’ve spent much of my time visiting with elected officials, corporate executives and foundation representatives.’” Many of these political insiders and movers and shakers are now guests on his WRAS shows. Independent local musicians are not.

The Atlanta Business Chronicle, and its corporate society readership, viewed the Coalition more favorably. The Business Chronicle highlighted some of MAACC’s early achievements in this 2005 article. “With a $50,000 grant from SunTrust Banks Inc. (NYSE: STI), MAACC recently collated mailing lists from 41 metro Atlanta arts organizations to learn how groups could better target patrons.” “In addition to the creation of the Web site and the mailing list project, MAACC created the arts leadership training program. The initiative, funded with a $50,000 grant from Wachovia Corp. (NYSE: WB), brings together corporate executives, and community and arts leaders to discuss why the arts matter to the economy and how the two groups can collaborate.”

To the creatively minded, this looked like more networking opportunities and self-congratulation by Atlanta’s elite. $100,000 in donations could have helped a lot of starving artists make a hell of a lot of art.

Another mentioned highlight is an arts and cultural celebration “pARTicipate!”, which “is funded in part by a $70,000 grant from SunTrust. Diet Coke, Atlantic Station and MARTA also are major contributors to the event.” This PR announcement about the event only mentions one participating arts organization by name, the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, but every corporate, regional planning and tourist agency sponsor gets top billing.

Felicia Feaster, Creative Loafing’s then art critic, followed up Scott Henry’s article with an essay noting Nigut’s high salary and MAACC’s myopic view of the arts in Metro Atlanta. “… Nigut has come to symbolize the enormous divide between the arts and business, and how talk about supporting the arts can often represent a real leap from action. Even the most noble desires to change the face of culture in Atlanta can become mired in the kind of well-intentioned bureaucracy that the coalition seems to represent.”

Being friends with Nigut and a supporter of MAACC meant a business leader was a supporter of the arts and not some corporate hack. Atlanta could truly claim to be a World-Class City, not just a soulless office park run by money-obsessed Philistines who only speak of the arts in terms of dollar figures or regional impact statistics instead of their deep and individual effect on Atlanta’s human beings.

Nigut left MAACC in 2007 and the organization was eventually absorbed by the Atlanta Regional Commission. How was its impact on corporate attitudes towards the importance and value of the arts? Do they now take them more seriously?

The Woodruff Arts Center is the largest arts conglomerate in the state, and its Board of Trustees is a who’s who of insiders and movers and shakers. Both GSU’s Mark Becker and GPB’s Teya Ryan are members. Last fall, it locked out the musicians of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra for the second time in two years. Concerned about its bond ratings and long-term debt obligations, the Atlanta aristocracy—running the most well-connected and well-endowed cultural showpiece in the city—thought nothing of reducing the number of musicians and bumping the status of a World-Class Orchestra down to a generic also-ran.

To many back-room dealers, the arts are a mere public relations expense to be cut when revenues are down, or pushed aside when one of their own wants to be back in the broadcasting spotlight one more time.

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