College Media Geeks: Reid Laurens, former WRAS staffer at Georgia State University

During his time at the student-run radio station WRAS, Reid Laurens fell in love — with the news, broadcasting and his future wife. The Georgia State University alumnus worked in the WRAS news department from 1976 to 1978. So did his wife, Mary Ann.

As he recalls, “She had the 7 a.m. news shift and I had the 8 a.m. news shift, and I was asked to train her on how to use the equipment in the newsroom. After that she began staying after her news shift to see me when I came in to do my shift, and a few years later we got married, and we still are married, 32 years and three children later.”

1Georgia Public Broadcasting (GPB), take note: With your recent takeover of the WRAS daytime programming, love stories like the one Reid and Mary Ann experienced may no longer happen.

As I previously posted, Georgia State officials struck a deal this past spring to place GPB content onto the school’s station WRAS (88.5 FM) from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day in place of student-run shows. So instead of running an around-the-clock operation enjoyed by listeners tuning into a powerful terrestrial station in greater Atlanta, GSU student radioheads are now streaming their content online during the day and only reclaiming their analog kingdom at night (7 p.m. to 5 a.m.).

Laurens (left) calls WRAS “arguably the foremost college radio station in the country.” And at the moment, along with many other station alumni and supporters, he is doing everything he can to bring it back under total student control.

In the exclusive Q&A below — the latest installment in CMM’s esteemed College Media Geeks interview series — Laurens discusses the motivations behind his efforts and provides a status update on how the fight is playing out. He also offers his take on the lasting significance of college radio and shares some advice for students angling to succeed on the air.

What’s compelled you to help save student-run programming at WRAS?

My experience at WRAS has informed every aspect of my career afterwards, even though I never went into broadcasting. For example, I know how to use a microphone and enunciate clearly. I train lectors at my church on how to read scripture to the congregation, and recently a lector trainee asked me if I worked in broadcasting. I smiled and said no, but I used to work in radio.

Mary Ann used her experience at WRAS to land a job at CNN when it first started, producing graphics for weather segments. We have friends who went from WRAS into careers in commercial radio (at least one is still doing a midday shift in Chattanooga); who used their news experience to go into journalism full-time at local and national TV and radio outlets; and who ended up working for record labels or in other jobs in the recording industry. All those people owe their careers, to one degree or another, to the experience they gained at WRAS. I’m in this fight, and Mary Ann is in this fight, to make sure current and future students at Georgia State University have the same opportunities we were afforded when we were there.

WRAS is not just another college radio station. It is arguably the foremost college radio station in the country. Individual artists and musical groups such as Yes, REM and OutKast have acknowledged their music found an audience as a result of being heard on WRAS during the early stages of their careers. WRAS was the first college radio station — and still one of the very few — to be granted a 100,000-watt license from the FCC. As recently as a few months ago, a record industry executive told a WRAS staffer that they classify WRAS as a “6 out of 6,” meaning it’s at the top of the list for places where they want new artists to be played — because of WRAS’s influence among other radio stations in the country — both commercial and non-commercial. No other college stations were placed in category 6 by that record company executive.

What’s the latest on the fight to keep the station’s daytime block under student control?

We’ve presented a proposal to GSU president Mark Becker which would provide many times more internships for students in GSU’s Department of Communication and would provide TV outlets with much bigger audiences for student-produced content [as compared to] the GPB agreement. President Becker has tried to brush aside our proposal because he already has an agreement in place with GPB and doesn’t want to rescind that decision. He’s unwilling to admit publicly that he made a mistake. We’re pushing ahead with our proposal because it’s a reasonable, serious alternative to the agreement which would give everyone (GSU, GPB, and most importantly, GSU students) a better deal than what they all had before this agreement took effect.

The main obstacle to progress is not President Becker or the students. It’s GPB president Teya Ryan. Ms. Ryan has allowed her ego to drive her into an empire-building frenzy and, until now, her empire was missing a crown jewel: an Atlanta radio outlet for GPB. By using her taxpayer-supported agency to take over a student-run station, she is also jeopardizing the livelihood of Atlanta’s existing NPR station WABE — which, by the way, does not receive ANY taxpayer dollars and is 100 percent funded by donations from listeners and corporate sponsorships. GPB is destroying TWO radio stations with this move. They’re taking student control away from WRAS and they’re going to siphon off donors — and money — from WABE. And because GPB gets about half of its revenue from the state, they’re using taxpayer dollars to do these reprehensible deeds.

With the university holding firm, are there longer-term strategies to fight the takeover? Is a boycott by students during their evening programming in the cards?

1The students who work at WRAS are too smart to launch anything as destructive as a boycott that would take the station off the air during student-controlled hours. They understand that such an action would not reinforce key components of their message, one of which is that students are the most competent trustees of the WRAS signal and license.

We at Album 88 Alumni also understand the dynamics of this situation and we would never recommend any type of protest that would result in dead air. It wouldn’t send the right message. We do recommend that listeners boycott Georgia Public Broadcasting’s pledge drive, and instead send their donations to WABE, the incumbent NPR station in Atlanta. We also encourage GPB’s corporate sponsors to withdraw their support of GPB because of its abusive, anti-student approach to entering the Atlanta market, but that’s as far as we’ll go with boycotts.

“WRAS is not just another college radio station. It is arguably the foremost college radio station in the country. Individual artists and musical groups such as Yes, REM and OutKast have acknowledged their music found an audience as a result of being heard on WRAS during the early stages of their careers.”

More generally, to the haters or non-radio-heads out there, what’s your sales pitch as to why a terrestrial college radio station matters nowadays?

College radio matters because you’ll hear music on a college radio station you won’t hear anywhere else. You won’t like everything you hear on a college radio station. I don’t. But you’ll hear music you NEED to hear. It broadens your musical vocabulary in a way commercial radio stations never will. You’ll hear new music from new artists that just won’t be played on a commercial station. One of the wonderful things about a college radio station is that students can make mistakes with no penalties, and they’re free to try lots of different ideas. Play music that doesn’t connect with your audience on a commercial station and you’re likely to lose millions of dollars in ad revenue. Do that on a college station, and after hearing from a few listeners who call up to tell you they really want to hear something else, you’ve learned a valuable lesson without costing anybody any money.

On May 17, I took my son and daughter-in-law to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport at 5:15 a.m. — a 35-minute drive each way at that time on a Saturday morning. On the way back, the radio offered nothing interesting or appropriate until I punched up the number-two button on my dashboard, WRAS bubbled into my speakers and a GSU student began pouring into my ears the songs that she found interesting at that moment.

I tried to classify what I was hearing: Trance? Industrial? As the songs changed and segued into each other, I recognized and appreciated her smooth transitions and a common theme emerged, discernible but still somehow unnameable. For that brief time I had a window into the mind of that student, keen and sharp and eager to string together a coherent body of sounds that communicated directly from her heart to mine. A student, playing whatever the hell she wanted to play, and it was exactly what Atlanta needed to hear at that hour. Taking away that 43-year cultural heritage is an outrage.

What’s your advice for student broadcasters interested in putting together a successful show?

1The first thing student broadcasters need to do is simple: Start with music you love to hear and build a theme around that music. Expand with specific themed shows that focus on a subset of your favorite music and make sure lots of different styles are represented in your shows. Then — and this is important — listen to your audience. The listeners will tell you when you’ve hit on something that resonates with them. And listen especially when your listeners don’t like what they hear — what they’re really telling you is how to make your programs better.

Develop a training program that teaches student broadcasters how to be professional on air and how to develop a respectful and collaborative relationship with listeners. Making that connection with the audience, as I experienced in my May 17 anecdote, is the key to building an audience that won’t want to let go of your radio station — and that will stand up for you when you’re facing a challenge. WRAS saw more than 12,000 people sign a petition on Change.org asking for the station’s signal to be returned full time to the students — we would have no basis for this movement if it weren’t for that audience who clearly love this radio station.

Related

Fight to Save WRAS Ramps Up: Benefit Concert, Graduation Protest, Petition & a Boycott Page

College Media Geeks: Jennifer Waits, College Radio Reporter & Advocate

College Media Geeks: Jim Rodenbush, Outgoing Daily Collegian News Adviser at Penn State

College Media Geeks: Katie Maraghy, Student Morning Show Executive Producer at Elon

Comments
One Response to “College Media Geeks: Reid Laurens, former WRAS staffer at Georgia State University”
  1. Donna sachindler says:

    As the wife of a GSU alum and WRAS listener for 20 years, I cannot fathom any reason for my tax dollars to support the redundant programming of GPB in place of the best radio station in the world. My kids were raised on WRAS and thus have a deep love of music, as well as an expanded knowledge of the subject. WRAS is a great source of joy for our family and I deeply miss being able to flip on the radio in my kitchen, my porch to listen in then yard, in the garage and in my car. I have called GPB and told them how disgusted I am. I will NEVER donate to them again. I cannot see how it can be legal for them to use the airwaves from a transmitter paid for by students and alumni and think there needs to be a lawsuit. WRAS is a cultural treasure in Atlanta where people are still blaming Sherman for the lack of same in our area. Bring back WRAS to 88.5 where it belongs!