Friday, June 6, 2014

GPB's Tanya Ott talks WRAS deal, station's future, student internships

Posted By on Fri, Jun 6, 2014 at 1:05 PM

Tanya Ott, Georgia Public Broadcasting's vice president of radio, is in charge of programming decisions for the state media network's radio stations. That includes the 14-hour block of WRAS 88.5 FM programming that GPB is expected to take over on June 29. Although she wasn't involved in the negotiations Georgia State University, her job makes her a crucial player in the future of WRAS. Other than a Twitter account that's remained silent since May 24, she hasn't discussed the deal or what it means for WRAS programming with the public or the press, until we interviewed her on the day before the deal was delayed.

How long have you been at GPB?

I started with GPB the end of May of last year.

When did you know that GPB was negotiating with GSU?

A couple months after I started.

Did you have any role in those negotiations?

I did not.

Who handled those?

I really don't know who was in the room during the negotiations. All I know is I was brought in in the fall.

Did GPB know at the time that [GSU Vice President of Student Affairs] Dr. Douglass Covey sat on WABE 90.1 FM's board?

I have no idea.

Why is getting the 88.5 FM frequency such a good deal for GPB?

We look at it as being a good deal for listeners in the Atlanta market who've been clamoring for [National Public Radio] news [and] talk service during the day. GPB has a long history of partnering with educational institutions around the state. We have a great collaboration going at Mercer [University] with the Center for Collaborative Journalism. We've got a really good collaboration going in Augusta with Georgia Regents University and their students working with our station there. The same thing down in Savannah, with students at [Savannah College of Art and Design] and Armstrong University and Savannah State [University]. And of course Athens with WUGA. We just saw this as another opportunity to really enhance the educational mission of GPB.

You mention Atlanta listeners clamoring for news during the day. I know WABE plays classical music for a few hours each day, but they do play some of the major syndicated NPR programming. What will GPB offer Atlanta that we don't already have from WABE?

As you pointed out, WABE flips to classical music during the day. So they run classical music from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m. ... The weekday schedule for 88.5 FM here in Atlanta - we'll be running Morning Edition through 10 a.m. until the fall, and then in the fall when we launch the new talk show that will be hosted by [former WNYC host] Celeste Headlee. We'll roll back that 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. hour of Morning Edition and insert the local talk show there. From 10 a.m. until noon, we're running On Point with Tom Ashbrook. At noon, we have the Takeaway from noon to 1 p.m., that's a program we've been running for almost a year on our statewide service. From 1 p.m. until 3 p.m., we'll have Here and Now. Then we go to Fresh Air at 3 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and then Science Friday on Friday, and then All Things Considered and Marketplace in the evening block from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. until it switches back to Album 88 programming.

You asked what we offer that isn't being offered by WABE. I don't know if it isn't being offered, but I think we do local news differently than what they do, because we have the resources of bureaus around the state. We'll be able to not only provide Atlanta-specific news but also news from Savannah, news from Macon, we also have contributors from Augusta and, on occasion, from Athens and Demorest as well. That allows us to give Atlanta listeners a broader perspective of what's going on in their state. If you really want to know what's happening with the Savannah Port, you're going to get it from a Savannah-based reporter.

Looking at that schedule, WABE airs a lot of this programming at the same time. How will GPB impact their deals with NPR?

From a contractual standpoint, there is no conflict at all. There are plenty of markets that have Morning Edition and All Things Considered and other programs.

But how does that benefit Atlanta to have two FM stations playing that same programming and not the locally oriented, student-produced programming that WRAS would normally play in those time slots?

I can't speak for how it compares to what WRAS would normally play. What I can say is that you have multiple markets, Los Angeles, Boston, Seattle, and other [markets], where there are more than one public radio station airing Morning Editon and All Things Considered. And they both do it successfully.

How is less listener choice good for the audience in Atlanta, though?

Garrett, that's not something I can answer.

What can GPB offer to the Atlanta communities that are losing their terrestrial voice when WRAS goes away, i.e., the local music and arts communities? What sort of outreach will GPB make toward the people in those communities who are worried or angry about this deal?

I can't speak to outreach with people who are angry about what's happening, but I can talk about the longtime commitment that GPB has to arts and cultural programming. We have been doing that for many years. An example, of course, is our partnership with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. It's not obviously a crossover audience with the WRAS audience, however, we anticipate expanding that brand into GPB Music. I don't know if you've seen what we've done out of Mercer with the Songs on Site project. It's a project we launched out of Mercer. The concept is that we are taking music by legacy musicians, having it be covered by current musicians in places that are historically significant to those legacy musicians. So if you go to YouTube or find our Tumblr page, you'll find the first installment where we took "Little Martha," the Allman Brothers tune, and it was rearranged for a string quartet and performed at the cemetery in Macon in front of the statue of "Little Martha" where the Allman Brothers used to write a lot of their music. It's a video and radio and Web digital project. It's very exciting. It's inspired by the Tiny Desk Concert concept.

This past spring, we also did a really neat live performance here in our performance studio at GPB. We have a really nice performance studio. and Masani, the host of our Friday night jazz program, which will not be heard in Atlanta, but is heard statewide, did an event in April called JAZZoetry where we had a couple of well-known jazz musicians come in. We also had about seven or eight spoken-word artists and they did about an hour-and-a-half-long live performance of jazz and spoken word in front of a small audience of about 35 to 40 people. So we anticipate really ramping up that effort. Rickey Bevington, our new All Things Considered host, starting later in the month of June, 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.

I know a lot of people involved in the deal have been talking about how the current WRAS programming will continue on a stream, and how, based on how technology and listener habits have changed, that it isn't that big of a downgrade. If the stream isn't that big of a downgrade from a terrestrial signal, why is getting that broadcast signal crucial for GPB?

I really can't answer that. I wasn't in on the negotiations on this, so I have no basis for understanding how that conversation developed between GSU and ...

But as the vice president of radio you probably have some idea why you would find the broadcast signal more desirable than a stream, right?

What I would say to you is that if you look at the research that comes from the Pew Center on usage of radio younger listeners are using radio less. And they're using streams, they're using digital more. So I think it's all about multiple delivery modes. We already have a stream for GPB throughout the state. We have listeners in Atlanta that stream us, that stream the state-wide feed. That's a different service than what we'll be offering on 88.5, because 88.5 will be offering the news [and] talk format.

Like you, the students that work at the station weren't involved in the negotiations. When it comes to the new programming on 88.5, how many internships will be available for the students?

I can't give you a number. We have several Georgia State students that are starting internships within the next couple of weeks. I think that number is around six, right away, but I'm just going to tell you flat out that I don't know that number for sure because I'm not working directly with those students. It is something that will evolve over time as we begin the conversations in a more meaningful way.

How would the duties and experience as interns compare to making their own programming and having it broadcast on a 100,000-watt FM signal?

I think it's really going to depend department-to-department because we're going to have interns throughout the entire GPB business, everything from marketing and communication, social media, radio, television, production. ... The type of internships they'll have will differ department to department. What I will tell you is that, for instance, in Macon where we've been working very closely with Mercer University over the last 18 months to two years, we've had great success with those interns that have worked at that station, at GPB Macon, in getting their stories on GPB, not only in Macon but statewide, and several of them also have been picked up by NPR national.

There's a reporter named Jane Hammond down there who's a junior at Mercer, she's a huge fan of sports, she loves sports reporting. She was able to file nationally for NPR when the stadium move story broke. Just a few weeks ago she had a four-minute feature on NPR nationally about head injuries in youth sports. I can tell you, having worked with students for 20-some years, it is nearly impossible for students to get stories on national NPR, and yet we've been able to do it with our students at GPB Macon. We expect that we'd be doing the same here at GPB on the radio side.

When I was in Alabama, which is where I was for the last decade before I joined GPB, we used everything from high school interns on up, all the way through college, and [they weren't] making copies, making coffee, [and] watching people do work. [They were] actually thrown into the field within the first week, doing interviews, learning how to use studio and field equipment, recording stories that made it to air, and helping build social media campaigns around that as well. I actually had a former student that I worked with over in Birmingham, when he was a junior in high school did reporting on the Congressional race in Alabama, and his reporting ended up winning professional associated press awards. He won three of them his junior year of high school.

You just mentioned Jane Hammond and her piece on the new stadium here in town. I know a lot of people within Atlanta, a lot of WRAS listeners, they see some similarities between how Cobb County and the Braves handled that deal, and how GPB and GSU is handling this situation. Are you surprised by some of that response?

Am I surprised by the response from the listeners? No, not at all. As I've indicated before, I'm a WRAS listener as well. I'm not surprised.

What shows do you like listening to on WRAS?

I like the fact that I can turn it on at any hour and hear something different. But that's also something I like about public radio. I can turn on Morning Edition and not know what I'm going to get that morning. I may not know that I'm interested in a story about honey bee farming in South Africa, but there's something about the way the storytelling is done that I suddenly discover that I am actually interested in that. That's one of the things, particularly in the arts and culture reporting, that I've done over the last 25 years. One of my most gratifying things is to be able to hook someone into something they didn't know they were interested in.

A perfect example of that is there was a hip-hop artist over in Alabama who I was talking to, did an interview with, and he actually was fascinated with country and Western music, which I thought was really interesting. We talked about that and the idea of how the storytelling plays a role in hip-hop, but it also plays a huge role in country-Western, country music, and I think that that, making those kinds of connections, making the world seem a little bit smaller, is a way that public radio really grabs people's hearts and their minds.

Speaking of local hip-hop artists, when it comes to Atlanta radio, WRAS is one of the few stations that would play local artists. Now that Album 88 is losing so much air time, where can those artists go to get that kind of exposure now?

I can't speak for the artists. That's not my job.

With the vehemence of some of the backlash that you've seen, is there any sentiment within GPB that you wished you had handled the news and the negotiations in any way differently?

I have been so busy working on putting together programming grids and things like that that I haven't really had those kinds of conversations with staff here. I think we anticipated that people would be very passionate about WRAS, without a doubt. I don't think necessarily any of us are very surprised by the reaction. Obviously, we really appreciate the conversation that's happening online that's civil.

Is there a time table for the student music program?

We haven't developed a timetable yet because we have to get all the right players in the room together.

Will you reach out to some of the current students at WRAS or will you be looking for others within the student community to work on that?

In my book, I'm open to anybody who wants to work on it, anybody who wants to put together a great show. It's going to be a GSU student production. I'm open to talking to anybody who wants to make great radio. But that's across the board - my approach has always been, I'm open to anybody who wants to make great radio. You got an idea for something, come to me, let's talk about it. It might work. It might not work.

Will it be a music program where they play music, or where they interview artists, or just talk about music? Any plans yet for how that show will be formatted?

Here's what I would imagine would happen. Again my approach to things, including program creation, has always been "get smart people in the room with multiple perspectives and let's throw stuff up against the wall and see what makes sense." So it'll clearly be formed by a large group of people and interested parties, people who want to make great radio. Would it be a half-hour program that simply is someone playing music? Probably not. That doesn't make a whole lot of sense necessarily from a programming standpoint in terms of giving a lot of different people experience working on the program. And I think we want to give a lot of students experience working on the program. But again, all of that is up in the air. We've got to get the right people, the students in the room, everybody who needs to be involved in that in the room, and figure out what it means to really make a good radio music program.

Note: The day after this interview, GPB and GSU announced that it was delaying the start of its agreement to June 29. When reached for comment, Ott wrote that she didn't know the delay was coming, but that "this extra time will allow us to get additional staff in place, adjust programming grids and ensure that the quality of the product we launch on June 29 is top notch."

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Comments (50)

Showing 1-50 of 50

Add a comment

Subscribe to this thread:
Showing 1-50 of 50

Add a comment

Readers also liked…

Latest in Fresh Loaf

More by Garrett Martin

The Ultimate Doughnut Smackdown
The Ultimate Doughnut Smackdown

Search Events

Search Fresh Loaf

Recent Comments

People who saved…

© 2016 Creative Loafing Atlanta
Powered by Foundation