Album 88: Historically Right on the Music, Presently Leaving the Dial

WRAS stereo odyssey logo

Since 1971, Georgia State University has hosted an important Atlanta cultural institution—one that has created a positive relationship between the University and the city (and the general metro area). WRAS, known as Album 88, has allowed GSU students to bring their musical discoveries to Atlanta listeners. In doing so, this student-run radio station has been a touchstone for the local community for over four decades. What began as a 20,000 watt local college station has become a 100,000 watt megaphone for independent music in Atlanta and beyond. In the past 43 years, student volunteers at Georgia State University have had a voice in shaping the local and national music scene. During this time, the station has remained independent of major corporate interests. In doing so, it has connected listeners to an important alternative to commercial radio with a strong democratic structure.

But the station is about to dramatically change—GSU President Mark Becker announced a major deal with Georgia Public Broadcasting to take over 98 hours of air time beginning on June 2nd. Now, those tuning into 88.5 will hear a full day of NPR, GPB original content, and a single weekly half-hour show produced by Album 88 DJs. GSU gets $150,000 in order to cover operating costs over the length of the contract. Album 88 will continue to broadcast 7pm to 5am everyday and will still be available online all day. Creative Loafing posted the contract here.The official announcement from GSU officials paints this as a win-win for all involved. Yet students who work at the station, as well as the many fans of Album 88 are expressing shock and dismay at this unilateral decision. The station’s Facebook page made it clear that the staff were blindsided by this change—they learned about it less than a day before the deal was announced to everyone else. Also, the announcement coincides with the end of the school year and many DJs are graduating.

Former volunteers at the station have been weighing in this week. In an op-ed published on CNN former DJ Erica Johnson described her time at Album 88 as helping her work through her “awkward teenage phase” and that the station contributed directly to her decision to attend GSU. Ed over at Peach Pundit was far more caustic in his assessment of the situation, calling it “utterly stupid.” He too had attended GSU specifically because of Album 88. The announcement was protested at the commencement ceremony last Sunday. “Faced with yet another marginalization of my culture, I’m alternating between extreme rage and depression,” said Noah Django Gross, local DJ and one time co-host of the instrumental hip-hop show Hush-Hush. Meanwhile, a website has been set up to help coordinate efforts to save the station and there is a petition to reverse the decision, currently has close to 10,000 signatures.

save WRAS

From Decaturish.com

This robust reaction across social media raises the question: if this is such a positive for all involved as President Becker contends, why are staff, former staff, and many listeners so up in arms (go read any of the comments in the stories I’ve linked to for just a taste of the displeasure over this decision). GSU is presenting this as beneficial to all, but the reality is that it will mainly prove fruitful for Georgia Public Broadcasting and President Becker. Meanwhile an important democratic and deeply inclusive community resource will soon be taken out of the hands of students and listeners alike.

The biggest winner in this deal seems to be Georgia Public Broadcasting. Long have they sought to break into the Atlanta market and compete with the main NPR broadcaster in the city, WABE. In fact, they attempted much the same deal with WREK, Georgia Tech’s radio station, in 2007—and Tech told them to take a hike. They know that some listeners would prefer more NPR during the day as opposed to the mid-day local shows of classical music on Second Cup (http://wabe.org/programs/second-cup-concert) and the program City Cafe (http://wabe.org/programs/city-cafe) that 90.1 broadcasts from 9 am to 3 pm. Maybe they just really just wants Lois Reitzes to do more voice work for Adult Swim or bake cupcakes with John Lemly? By getting onto the Atlanta public airwaves through 88.5, GPB can compete with WABE where it matters most demographically speaking—in the Metro area. They also now have access to a cheap pool of labor, in the form of students wishing to get in on the ground floor of radio broadcasting. An internship at a “professional” radio station might sound good, but it certainly doesn’t have the same benefits as running a station. It is easy to see how, for the low, low price of $150,000 over two years, GPB is the big winner.

President Becker wins as well. For those who like the idea of competition for WABE or who think more NPR programming would be an asset to Atlanta, he gets to look like a hero. Presumably, Becker thinks that the gentrifying middle class in Atlanta are really keen to hear mostly public radio throughout the day. Maybe he reasoned that grown-ass adults, with important and grown-up things like mortgages, full time jobs with 401(k)s, car notes, kids, and pets aren’t all that interested in an independent-minded radio station that plays a variety of music. Isn’t pop and indie music for “the youths”? Rodney Ho argued on Access Atlanta that this will indeed benefit fans of public broadcasting. And perhaps this decision will bring in more listeners who think that a Friday lineup of Ska, punk, post-punk, and new wave is too out there for them. Becker must think that listening to public radio and post-punk is mutually exclusive activities.

But by Becker’s own admission, much of the audience for Album 88 is over 30. Many of us in the age bracket between the ages of 30 and 50 grew up on this kind of “noise” and frankly still love it. Personally, I think he underestimates the pull of Generation X’s misspent youth. We introduce our own children to the culture we enjoyed—low-budget films, music, gaming, skating, etc. We haven’t really let little things like adulthood stand in the way of our cultural obsessions. In all honesty this has been true of the Baby Boomer generation as well—I grew up watching b-movies and listening to Pink Floyd with my dad, born smack dab in the baby boom. Through all of this, Becker can argue that he is forward thinking and that he is building connections for GSU across the state. He can claim he is looking out for the best interest of the students and the city of Atlanta. Over the course of this controversy, he had continued to point to the new opportunities that students will be able to take advantage of once June 2nd rolls around. Plus, the terms of the contract are only for 2 years, although it will automatically be renewed every 2 years unless something comes up until 2020. Becker in many ways comes up smelling like roses in this—he can maintain there was no profit motive here since $150,000 for 2 years is hardly a profit, show that he got something for the student body interested in radio as a profession, and can show himself to be a champion of public radio, something many agree is valuable. Becker seems like a bold institutional builder, perhaps positioning himself for a more prestigious job.

If Becker and GPB are the big winners here, what about the students at GSU as a whole, the specific students and alums who have run the station, local and national independent music, and the numerous listeners in the Metro area? How do we fare in this deal? Album 88 has been programmed by students since day one, with little to no interference from GSU, so the decision to take the station out of student hands came as a major shock, as the reaction reflects. It has been through hard work by the students over the years that the station became what it is today—a powerful and unique voice for independent music. Although Album 88 will still be accessible online 24 hours a day and evenings over the air, this shift in format will be a huge blow to the independent music scene and to independent broadcasting in Atlanta. Broadcast radio still has a powerful pull over the business of buying and selling music, and in fact, might be more important for independent and local music scenes. Noah Django Gross noted that for him, as a part of Atlanta’s independent hip-hop scene, Album 88 has been utterly indispensable. “Everyone in every scene listens to the programming,” and that “When I say ‘everyone in every scene,’ it seems like I’m being hyperbolic, but in my considered experience, it is accurate to phrase it that way.”

The station also served as an important means for local independent artists to break out into a larger market starting in the 80s. Their format anticipated the popularity of alternative music in the 90s and became even more explicitly indie during that time. In other words, local music will also lose out with this deal. Although most think of Athens when they think of independent music from the state of Georgia, in reality Album 88 was the major stepping stone for going from local to national for years. R.E.M. and OutKast are the two most obvious examples of bands that were able to reach a larger fan base because of Album 88, but they aren’t the only ones. Over the years a variety of bands have benefited from hometown support they found at Album 88. Locally derived bands such as Pineal Ventana, Mastadon, Pylon, Cat Power, the Coathangers, Of Montreal, Neutral Milk Hotel, and the Black Lips all benefited from Album 88. Plus, many national and international indie acts were supported and influenced by Album 88. The Boomtown Rat’s hit about a school shooting, “I Don’t Like Mondays” was written at WRAS studios, and the Replacements’ classic, “Left of the Dial,” was inspired by the station.

 Although some more established artists in recent years have found ways to make streaming and social networking help them to get a larger audience (and by extension more sales of their albums or more butts in the seats for their shows) less established bands can find their audience on radio stations such as Album 88, which boast some 65,000 radio listeners in the metro area. More importantly, the eclectic nature of the station might be under threat by these changes, at least according outgoing station manager Ana Zimitravich. She recently told the AJC’s Rodney Ho that there would be a need for some consistency in format once GPB takes over—something the station has never had, with few shows sticking around longer than a few years. You could argue this just means a more bland and middle of the road mix of music.

But what about streaming? Becker has pointed to the Internet as an important means of carrying on Album 88’s role of mediating independent music to the public. In fact, he does correctly argue that streaming their broadcast online can reach a larger audience—in theory. But I find a couple of problems with that argument. First, why didn’t GPB just make that choice, if streaming and podcasts are the wave of the future? Just that alone calls Becker’s argument into question—if it’s a good enough alternative for Album 88, why shouldn’t GPB just go that route instead? Obviously, GPB think it would lose something in a streaming only format. It could also be about audience. Older listeners might be less likely to tune in if GPB is only online—and presumably their audience skews older.

Second (and I’d argue more importantly) the web is far more commercial and has none of the public protections that radio broadcasting enjoys—directly compromising the historic mission of non-commercial radio stations like Album 88. There is no spectrum set aside for the public good on the internet in the same way there is on broadcast frequencies. Non-commercial stations such as the progressive 89.3 FM and the aforementioned 90.1 have benefited from this protection. Other college radio stations like GA Tech’s WREK at 91.1 and UGA’s WUOG at 90.5 FM in Athens have likewise thrived on the low end of the dial, where they don’t have to concern themselves with ratings. But the Internet, which began as a project funded by DARPA, has increasingly become less friendly for non-commercial alternatives, with for-profit companies and large scale institutions increasingly enjoying real privileges in cyberspace. A recent FCC decision only further embeds the profit motive in the workings of the internet, promising that those who can pay the most will get preferential treatment in streaming. Additional, many of us spend our time online within “walled gardens” and often have a limited view of the internet, victims of what Eli Pariser has argued is the filter bubble. If you’re not already a fan of Album 88, it seems less likely that you’ll just stumble across the station if it is mostly online. While the Internet presents some opportunities for independent artists, there are far more choices in cyberspace, which means that people need to seek things out specifically. This means no more interesting discoveries by leaving the radio on all day. The Internet tends to reinforce ones tastes in music rather than broadening it.

I’ll admit that a major part of my objection to this format change is deeply personal—but as Howard Zinn always said, you can’t be neutral on a moving train—he was right that it is far better to tell everyone straight up where you stand and why. So here is my personal stake in this story. Like many other socially awkward teenagers, independent music saved me from a life of serious isolation in small town America. While my first taste of underground music came from my friends, Album 88 came to be a major source of new and interesting music in the years since high school and this is a continuing passion of mine, even informing the sort of project I’ve decided to take on for my dissertation. The station introduced me to lots of local and national independent music that I would not have otherwise known and in fact continues to do so.

Back in the 90s, my favorite show was a Thursday night program Dead Air, which ran for some 5 years in the 90s. Like many other programs on Album 88, Dead Air’s format was not questioned by the station manager and the DJs, Michael and Brian, were allowed to play what they liked—a wide variety of darker post-punk, a sort of “gothed-up” version of today’s post-punk show Dot Dash—local bands like my husband’s music, international acts like Dead Can Dance and Clan of Xymox, classic post-punk like Joy Division and Bauhaus, industrial like Throbbing Gristle and Skinny Puppy, no wave like the Swans and DNA, and even artists who tend to not fit into any genre, like performance artist Laurie Anderson or cello-based oddity Rasputina. Though it leaned dark, Dead Air tended to defy categorization. Moreover, they were instrumental in shaping and supporting the local scene. This was by design. These guys, like many DJs who have rotated in and out of the station over the years, bring their own distinct passions to the station. B-Chan’s Nippon Music Champ is another example of this ability to experiment. Over the some 9 years that she was on the air at Album 88, B-Chan became an important promoter of various genres of Japanese music. She even appeared on the pages of CMJ in 2003.

Over the years, Album 88 remained an important non-commercial and democratic cultural institution in the city of Atlanta. Many kinds of public resources are coming under pressure to function more like a profitable business. If it can’t make a profit, it is viewed as an expendable luxury—many of which, we are told, we can no longer afford (though bailing out large corporations continues with all due deliberate speed). This sort of neo-liberal mindset makes Album 88 an even more important community resource that needs protecting. The station existed not to turn a buck or even to mint indie rock stars—it existed to allow students an opportunity to engage with popular culture on their own terms and to share with the world the very things that set their souls on fire. GSU benefited because it made students and parents more aware of this option for a college education. I would in fact argue that it was in part due to the popularity of Album 88 that GSU in recent years has been able to make recent changes and buy up new properties all around the city. The radio station was one of the things that put GSU on the map.

By his actions here, President Becker has revealed that he doesn’t see this relationship as important enough to preserve. It also seems as if he was prepared for the backlash against this unilateral and autocratic decision, having point-by-point statements at the ready in his recent interviews. But, like any good patriarch, he knows whats best for others. He made what he surely thinks is an “adult” decision for the students, giving them more “professional” choices that he thinks will benefit them in the long run—I don’t doubt his sincerity in that. But Becker essentially ripped choice from student hands and told them what they were going to do, undercutting his credibility with a group of people who are just beginning to become adults and to figure out what they want in this world.

In doing so, he revealed just how little he cared about what the students want or need from GSU as they see it. Rather than helping young people find new ways to exercise responsibility, this only further takes that out of their hands and teaches them that they are essentially powerless in their own lives. Plenty enough people have already internalized this powerlessness in our modern society, making truly democratic actions less likely to be on their radar as a solution to major issues. It creates a stronger sense of alienation between themselves and the institutions which they interact with on a daily basis, something which they will carry forward into the rest of their lives. It is, at its heart, a purely anti-democratic move on the part of GSU and President Becker. By making this sort of decision, it only further reinforces the anti-democratic tendencies that seem to be taking over all aspects of our society. We are all lesser for it.

Mindy Clegg is a doctoral student in the History Department at Georgia State University.  Her previous writings for Tropics of Meta can be found here.

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