By Tom Baxter
My response to last week’s announcement that the coolest college station in the universe is about to be replaced in the daytime by another broad slather of upscale national chat has been tinged with a degree of geezer guilt.
I’ve always considered WRAS, Album 88, a point of civic pride. It used to strike me, fiddling around the dial as I drove around the country following one story or another, that no college station matched it for attitude and energy, and few stations of any kind equaled its studied sense of cool.
So the deal in which Georgia Public Broadcasting will take over the Georgia State University station’s airtime from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. left me indignant, but also with the sinking realization that the Album 88 of my imagination is still playing Bananarama and Fun Boy Three.
Nothing against triphop or lounge, but I don’t drive as much, and one of the cars has Syrius. People do get older. The change in my listening habits isn’t a factor in this revolting development, but I still have a faint feeling of responsibility, and a wistful awareness that I won’t be leading the protest march to save it.
The WRAS story is really about the kids, anyway, and they weren’t informed until the deal, which Georgia State president Mark Becker described as a “proverbial win-win” for the school, was done. The deal comes with internship opportunities for students and other perks, but the $150,000 GPB is paying for two years of air time on a 100,000-watt, major-market station, sounds at first wink like a bargain.
“It’s happening. It’s not going to be reversed,” Becker said later, after a flurry of social media activity protesting the move. That may be so, but the protest seems already to have generated a few letters to the FCC, and when it comes to broadcasting rights, it’s best to speak with caution.
It’s hard to figure why the school administration handled its announcement in the peremptory way it did. This was going to be a tough sell anyway — “Change is hard,” GPB CEO Teya Ryan commented — but there seems to have been a notable lack of appreciation for the station’s four-decade tradition or the loyalty of fans who heard OutKast or REM for the first time on 88.5. There was no recognition of the fact that before Georgia State had a competitive law school, before there was an Andrew Young School of Policy Studies, before GSU became a dominant presence in downtown Atlanta, there was Album 88.
This is, in many ways, a classic Atlanta story, except that we’re used to the demolition of old buildings and wooded areas, and not sonic demolition. Whoever the win-winners are in this deal, the result will be a radio dial that is less distinctive than it used to be, so that if you’re driving through it will be more like everywhere else. The less publicized but also troubling smooth jazzification of WCLK is another step in the same direction.
The suggestion that this could have been warded off had WABE Radio, with which GPB will now compete directly, relented and allowed its classical music-and-news format to be curtailed to allow for more national public radio call-in shows, is also somewhat guilt-inducing, since I’m decidedly in the classical camp on that issue. I have heard smarter people than ever talk on the radio talk about politics, and everything they said is not the equal of one movement of a Beethoven sonata.
Having a direct competitor with access to the NPR news shows isn’t going to make things any easier for WABE, which, we are reminded every pledge drive, gets by gingerly already. So the end result is likely to be even less musical diversity.
The choice really isn’t between ambient and baroque. It’s between music and what isn’t music. And on that issue, I know what side I’m on. This is a radio town, a place where many important innovations have happened, a place where a lot of artists got their first air time. And in that grand tradition, “Left on the dial, right on the music,” has just as proud a place as “Welcome South, Brother.”