Public broadcasting in Georgia and Atlanta shines, but greater potential exists

Against all odds, public broadcasting is alive and well in Atlanta and Georgia.

This is true despite the ongoing divide between the state’s two largest public broadcasting entities — Georgia Public Broadcasting and Public Broadcasting Atlanta (but more on that later).

Case in point: the recently-released documentary: “Margaret Mitchell: American Rebel,” shows how great local public broadcasting can be. The one-hour documentary was produced, directed and written by Atlanta’s-own Pamela Roberts.

“It’s a gift for the ages to Georgia,” said Teya Ryan, GPB’s president and executive director. “We don’t use any state money for production and acquisition of programming. But the people of Georgia have risen to the occasion because they are still funding us.”

Then take Public Broadcasting Atlanta (PBA) and WABE .

During its last spring fundraising drive, the station raised $1.3 million in pledges — a 12 percent increase from a year earlier. The number of donors also increased — from 12,317 to 14,331 — a 17 percent increase.

The individual contributions make up nearly half of PBA’s $11.5 million budget. Corporate donors provide another 37 percent while only 12 percent comes from federal funds, , according to a recent article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Somehow, Atlanta and Georgia’s public broadcasting stations have found a way to survive, and even thrive, with limited public funding.

Ryan, who has been at GPB for two-and-a-half years, has seen the state cut her funding by a third during her tenure, forcing the organization to lay off employees.

But Ryan said that the state budget cuts will not diminish GPB’s local programming.

“We are giving new filmmakers a chance to grow and expand,” Ryan said. “I want to say to the creative community that our door is open.”

Saying that GPB is the largest public broadcasting entity in the South based on its reach, Ryan said: “We have a real responsibility to represent this region well.”

While GPB and PBA have shown how well they can adapt to the economic recession and their changes in funding, our public broadcasting potential has never been fully realized.

For decades, advocates of public television and public radio in Georgia have hoped that GPB and PBA would find a way to collaborate, partner or even join forces to create one of the strong public broadcasting power houses in the nation.

GPB is a statewide network of television and radio stations across Georgia. But the one market where it does not have a radio presence is in metro Atlanta. The National Public Radio’s station in Atlanta is WABE-90.1, which is part of PBA.

Both public broadcasting operations have different target markets. GPB is affiliated with the State of Georgia and caters to a statewide audience. PBA, which is affiliated with the Atlanta Public Schools, focuses more on the Atlanta region.

Despite on-again, off-again talks between the two competing broadcasting entities, for some reason they have never been able to find a way to combine or mesh their operations or services.

It is true that that under former GPB executive director Nancy Hall, GPB did find ways to partner with PBA. And both stations have found ways not to run the same programs at the exact same times.

But the opportunity to really build a bridge between both organizations remains. If both entities were open and willing, they could explore ways to cooperate on local programming, find areas where they duplicate services, create avenues for sharing their resources.

When asked about whether she would be willing to re-examine the opportunities between GPB and PBA, Ryan said yes.

Meanwhile, both public broadcasting operations continue to build on their individual strengths.

“I feel really good about GPB right now,” Ryan said. “I feel very positive about the future. It’s very bright.”

Georgia Public Broadcasting’s mission statement:

To create, produce and distribute high quality programs and services that educate, inform and entertain our audiences and enrich the quality of their lives.

Public Broadcasting Atlanta’s vision statement:

We believe that communication is the foundation of civilization. It is the path by which knowledge, understanding, discourse and values are achieved, nurtured and passed down. We envision our communities as informed, energetic, engaged and with a pervasive sense of interconnectedness to each other and to the world. And we believe that our role as a trusted enabler of communication is fundamental in building the beloved community to which we aspire.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

15 replies
  1. Burroughston Broch says:

    It’s a shame that Georgia taxpayers have to support two public broadcasting entities that duplicate efforts. Discussions about combining the two have gone on for years. A former GPB director told me that discussions would always get to a certain point, and then PBA would throw down the race card and withdraw. Part of the difficulty is that PBA subcontracts all of their management and operations to a 501(c)3 corporation with heavy City political connections, Atlanta Educational Telecommunications Collaborative, Inc. A combination of GPB and PBA would not be in that corporation’s financial interest.Report

  2. Dan says:

    The Atlanta metro may have two PBS tv stations, but it has only one generally functional NPR station. Some other cities – even smaller ones – effectively get 2 NPR affiliates.

    More importantly, WABE, is among the worst public radio stations that I have listened two (among at least 6-8 over the last 20+ years). The local news and public affairs coverage is abysmal, with broadcasters sometimes essentially reading newspaper coverage on air (and usually from the AJC).

    Comparing WABE to public radio stations in other top 10 metro markets is almost laughable. Most (e,g, Chicago, Boston, NYC, Phil, San Fran, LA, and on) have extensive local programming, especially public affairs interview and news shows, and don’t fill up 90 percent of airtime with popular classical music. (Can we ever get Lois R to retire???) And even weak-economy cities like Detroit and Cleveland have much better local public radio stations. Some of the problem may be due to limited funding, but I think a good deal has to do with the station’s (WABE’s) governance and management and the choice to shy away from anything that might ruffle feathers. (Thus, local programming might cover issues like child prostitution that is impossible for anyone to ignore as a problem, but not anything like corporate control of the legislature, employment discrimination, etc.)

    If it were not for the high-def talk WABE sideband station that carries non-local shows from other NPR affiliates, etc. – I would not give a dime to the station but just contribute directly to NPR.

    The public TV stations are actually somewhat better, though the quality of the public affairs programing (e.g. Georgia Gang!) sometimes leaves a lot to be desired..Report

  3. Mason Hicks says:

    I have to agree that the WABE programming is really not good. WFAE, in Charlotte has far superior programming, I love classical music… but not ALL DAY!!! I can listen to CDs for that anyway… The fact that intelligent talk (or in-depth discussion) radio, such as “the Diane Rhem Show” and others is essentially non-existant on the Atlanta dial is simply unacceptable… Their local show “Charlotte Talks” with local host Mike Thomas is extraordinarily well done… I find amazing that while Charlotte’s endowment is half of Atlanta’s, the programming is world’s better. If Atlanta NPR listeners were aware of what exist just outside their broadcast horizon, WABE would have serious problems and Lois Reitzes would have retired long ago…
    During my thirteen years in the Atlanta area, I always had to go online for quality public radio…Report

  4. BPJ says:

    Some of us love the classical music, as well as the NPR news. Atlanta is lucky to have a station which plays classical music as a major part of its mission; many US cities don’t have that anymore.Report

  5. Dan says:

    @ BPJ

    What is the argument for using the bulk of scarce, publicly subsidized resources (the prime hours of an NPR affiliate and its tax-deductable 501 c3 status) to provide for the entertainment of what is mostly a privileged, affluent group (classical music listeners)? (And yes, of course, due to their lobbying prowess, symphonies and other “high culture” activities receive tax and other subsidies very frequently; many argue that they should not given the fact that most beneficiaries are affluent and advantaged in many ways and can easily afford to pay for their own entertainment.) I prefer jazz and there are no good for-profit jazz stations in the city (there are jazz stations, but dont play much of the sort of jazz that I have in mind). Why shouldnt WABE play such music for 10 hours a day? (If it plays any it is at obscure hours.) I am happy to pay for my own jazz; I rather taxpayer and tax-supported giving go for other purposes.

    To merit its tax status, and its NPR affiliate status, the station should be a truly PUBLIC station serving a wide, public purpose that serves the interest of a diverse group, with a disproportionate focus on disadvantaged populations (the original, intended purposes of charitable deductions before the culture lobbies expanded them).

    Discourse on public policy debates of a wide variety clearly meet such criteria more than classical music. This is not to say that a public station should not offer any cultural programing, but it should be diverse and not dominated by one genre, and public affairs radio should receive at least as much prime airtime as music and other cultural activities.Report

  6. Mark Anderson says:

    Unfortunately, this report is a blend of incorrect information and uninformed commentary. Maria references WABE’s last fund drive; however, the rest of her references talk about GPB and PBA 30 television stations. WABE is an NPR affiliate (which stands for National Public Radio, not National Public “Broadcasting” as mentioned in the report) with a local news department. And, if Ms. Saporta was a regular listener, she would hear GPB radio reports on state-wide issues almost daily. Likewise, GPB listeners across the state of Georgia hear WABE reporters on a daily basis. Theirs has been a friendly partnership for several years.

    Listen to the WABE of five years ago and compare it to the WABE of today. A local focus on important issues from a growing news staff often sets the pace for other media outlets.

    I’m curious why Ms. Saporta quotes heavily GPB’s general manager, but nary a word from WABE or PBA 30 management?

    WABE’s ratings show Atlanta is listening. Perhaps Ms. Saporta should listen too and provide a more balanced (and accurate) report. This WABE fan is proud of Atlanta’s public radio station.Report

  7. Maria Saporta says:

    You make several valid points. First, I’ll fix my reference to National Public Radio.
    FYI, I am a regular listener of WABE — usually during Steve Goss’ show in the morning and Denis O’Hayer’s show in the afternoon.
    Ordinarily, I definitely would have reached out to Milt Clipper or John Weatherford. But I got caught a little flat-footed by the holiday. I had interviewed Teya Ryan about the Margaret Mitchell documentary, and I was going to do just a piece on our conversation.
    But then I thought it was only fair to mention that WABE/PBA also had been having some tangible successes. And I also have been following the ebb and flow of talks and cooperation between GPB and PBA for years.
    While I don’t know all the particulars, my gut tells me that we could have a stronger public broadcasting market if there were greater cooperation between these two vital organizations. I tried to be careful to not place blame or credit on any individual. But I did mention that GPB and PBA had made some real progress under the leadership of Nancy Hall.
    So that’s some of the background of why I wrote the column the way that I did.
    No matter what, I wanted to give credit to these incredible resources that we have and to spotlight the opportunities that exist. I do hope that message got through.
    Thanks again for reading.

  8. BPJ says:

    It’s amazing that people who, in any other context, avoid stereotyping will make an exception for fans of classical music. “Privileged, affluent group”? Many people from around the world, of different economic status, love this music. And part of the point of WABE is to make it available to anyone with a radio. (Not eveyone has an iPod or large CD collection.)

    One could just as well question whether “discourse on public policy debates” is attractive mainly to highly educated -and yes, privileged – people…… opposed to those who are satisfied with FauxNews. But that would be an overbroad generalization, wouldn’t it? Of course it would – and the same point applies to overbroad generalizations about classical music lovers.

    We have a terrific jazz station in Atlanta, WCLK, and of course it’s a nonprofit. (I’m a listener and contributor, by the way.) A great deal of what’s worthwhile in life is not supported by “the market” alone. Jazz, classical music, ballet, contemporary dance, visual arts museums, and most theatre apart from a handful of Broadway musicals are nonprofits. Much of what makes living in a city worthwhile is carried on by tax-exempt nonprofits.

    Whether or not you enjoy classical music is beside the point, just as whether I enjoy ballet is beside the point. It isn’t just about me, and my tastes, or you, and your tastes. If a significant number of people find it worthwhile, that’s good enough.

    Then there’s that word “entertainment”. Well, a divertimento can be diverting, but most tax-exempt, nonprofit arts organizations aspire to go beyond entertaining. Whether it’s the ASO’s performances of the Brahms Requiem or Osvaldo Golijov’s “Ainadaimar”, the Alliance’s “Osage County” or “Tennis in Nablus”, or the High’s current shows of work by Atlanta artists Radcliffe Bailey and Chip Simone – all of these works of art are something more than entertainment, and all require some subsidy. This shocks a certain type of market fundamentalist, but that can’t be helped. And some of these organizations are subsidized by “privileged” people…………………so that less privileged people can afford to go.Report

  9. Burroughston Broch says:

    @ BPJ

    I appreciate your sentiments, share your taste in music, and contribute to my favorite stations as well.

    However, the crucial difference is that GPB and WABE/PBA ( and WUGA as well) are supported by the taxpayers. The bulk of the taxpayers do not share our tastes and yet they are forced by government to subsidize them (and us). The needless duplication of services makes the taxpayer burden even higher.Report

  10. Joeventures says:

    What exactly is meant by this criticism, that PBA and GPB “have never been able to find a way to combine or mesh their operations or services”?

    I’ve heard similar criticisms made of other organizations before, but every time there are no specific suggestions for ways to engage in a partnership. The criticism doesn’t seem entirely fair to me.Report

  11. Burroughston Broch says:

    @ Joeventures

    From my original post: “It’s a shame that Georgia taxpayers have to support two public broadcasting entities that duplicate efforts. Discussions about combining the two have gone on for years. A former GPB director told me that discussions would always get to a certain point, and then PBA would throw down the race card and withdraw. Part of the difficulty is that PBA subcontracts all of their management and operations to a 501(c)3 corporation with heavy City political connections, Atlanta Educational Telecommunications Collaborative, Inc. A combination of GPB and PBA would not be in that corporation’s financial interest.”

    I hope that this is specific enough for you.Report

  12. Burroughston Broch says:

    @ Joeventures

    Your comment makes no sense to me.

    I gave no suggestion, just reported facts related first hand to me and made an appropriate observation. I stated no hostility.

    You may wish the situation to be different, but what I reported is the way it was a few years ago and, since Milton Clipper still runs AETC and PBA, remains today.Report


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