Radio At State


Georgia State's 100,000 watt radio station, WRAS Album 88, turns 40

The first time I walked into the WRAS studio, it was the middle of the night during the graveyard shift – a section of time, presumably, when no one was listening, carved out for new DJs to be trained on air. As a freshman, I had applied to be a DJ at WRAS as soon as I possibly could. Station regulations required that freshmen have at least one quarter under their belt before signing up, or I would have applied sooner.

It was 1997. I had been 18 years old for all of six months and couldn’t wait for this night to arrive. Despite the ungodly hour, on a cold night in the ominous halls of an empty University Center, I was brimming with excitement.

I had been a devoted listener of the station throughout high school. Album 88 was, and still is, a refuge for kids into music that is remotely “different” or “cutting edge.” The music featured on WRAS was always fresh and diverse; the station was well-known for playing artists before they ever hit the mainstream, and its annual WRASFest concerts were legendary. I had been dying for a chance to work there one day; it was a huge reason why I decided to attend GSU.

The first person I met that night was Jez DeWolff (B.S. ’01), a music industry management major and assistant program director of the station. She looked just like I thought a WRAS DJ should – like a cool older sister. She was cheery despite the time of night and instantly welcoming. She took me on a tour of the station – a slightly cramped but cozy space covered floor to ceiling with band posters, stickers and station ephemera. The broadcast booth itself was a windowless cove lined with shelves of vinyl records and with a giant disco ball hanging from the ceiling. A beat-up loveseat was shoved in the corner.

Little did I know this cove would be my absolute favorite place to hang out during my next five years at GSU.

The early years

Though my experience with the station began as a teenaged listener in the early 1990s, the story of WRAS begins in the mid-’60s, back when GSU was still known as Georgia State College. The station was then 103.3 FM (now known as V-103) on the radio dial.

According to Jeff Walker (B.S. ’83, M.S. ’88), WRAS advisor and operations manager and the definitive historian on all things WRAS, the owner of the station’s frequency, WPLO-FM, knew they couldn’t turn a profit with an FM station in Atlanta at that time, so they let Georgia State use it. “But when FM stations in other major markets started making money in the late 1960s playing Woodstock-era rock,” Walker says, “the owners of WPLO-FM notified Georgia State that our use of the frequency would be terminated.”

So, on Nov. 12, 1969, Georgia State University (which had been given university status a few months earlier) filed with the FCC for its own station at 88.5 FM. In February of 1970, the commission granted a permit for WRAS to operate at 19,500 watts. Two small studios were set up in the current University Center (then called the Student Center), and the antenna was placed on high ground near the intersection of Piedmont and Cheshire Bridge roads, giving the station excellent coverage of the metro area. Thanks to the work of early station engineers, WRAS’ signal sounded so good that it was often used to demonstrate hi-fi stereo equipment for audiophiles in retail stores.

WRAS 88.5 FM officially signed on the air on Jan. 18, 1971, at 11 a.m. The first song ever played was opening measures from “Also sprach Zarathustra” by Richard Strauss, popularly known as the theme from the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey.” It was immediately followed by “My Sweet Lord” by George Harrison.

Richard Belcher (B.B.A. ’72), currently an investigative reporter and anchor at WSB-TV in Atlanta, was called on to become Album 88′s first general manager.

“I was originally a journalism major at UGA before transferring to Atlanta and changing to a business major. But I retained my interest in journalism, and the opportunity to help organize a start-up radio station was an exciting prospect,” Belcher says.

With a new GM in place, WRAS was on the fast track despite only broadcasting for a portion of the day.

“We started by signing on at 9 a.m. and off at 2 a.m., and moved sign-on pretty quickly to 7 a.m.” Belcher recalls.

Even with its limited schedule, WRAS quickly earned a reputation for being a professionally run student station, one that was inventive and fresh. The station soon adopted the name Album 88, a nod to the album-based programming of the station: DJs would play several songs from an album as opposed to the single-driven format of most radio stations.

A station of influence

wras_boomtown

While in the WRAS studio on Jan. 29, 1979, The Boomtown Rats’ lead singer Bob Geldof read a telex report about a shooting at an elementary school in San Diego. It provided the inspiration for the band’s hit song “I Don’t Like Mondays.” Here, Geldof (far right) and the band’s keyboard player, Johnnie Fingers, hold the famed report alongside then-musical director Cledra White (far left) and DJ Ken Berg (B.A. ’82).

While most other college stations had poor training, sparse technical facilities and little knowledge of radio programming, students at the helm in the early days of Album 88 produced a progressive sound that proved so popular it even began to influence format decisions down the dial at commercial stations.

When Walker came to the station in 1976, the staff at WRAS had grown to about 100 people.

“It was exciting because we had such a huge [listening] audience. We still have a large one now – about 50,000 listeners per week,” he says.

As the station’s Atlanta fanbase grew, word also began to spread on the GSU campus that WRAS was a cool place to work and hang out.

“There were big differences in musical taste, but we were all glad to be there,” Walker says. “During my time there were always groups of students who hung out together. In the early ´80s we used to have parties, and this guy would show up dressed like a woman. He wasn’t on staff but always liked our parties. It turned out to be Ru Paul.”

Album 88′s influence was also beginning to take root in the music community. It became one of the leading college radio stations in the country and a prime destination for any band on tour in Atlanta. Elvis Costello, The Eurythmics, even Meat Loaf all paid visits to WRAS during this time.

One of the most famous visits to the station was from an influential Irish punk/new wave band, The Boomtown Rats. During the band’s interview at the station a story came across the news service about a school shooting – an incident that later inspired lead singer Bob Geldof to write their hit song, “I Don’t Like Mondays.”

Another longtime station story is that Paul Westerberg, lead singer of the rock band The Replacements, penned their tune “Left of the Dial” while hanging out in the Album 88 studios.

As WRAS grew, so grew the need for more wattage. In the spring of 1987, the station made the jump from 19,500 watts to 100,000 watts, making it the most powerful all-student-run station in the country. Walker recalls that the decision to add more power was “enthusiastically supported by the administration” and aided by the Student Activity Fee Committee.

In addition to getting help from the university, Album 88 began hosting benefit concerts with local and national bands to help cover the costs of running a bigger radio station. Dave Hill (B.A. ’96), a former WRAS DJ who is now the program director at WIYY/98Rock in Baltimore, remembers putting together Sonic Sunday and WRASFest, two of the station’s most anticipated annual benefit shows.

“I remember the first WRASFest,” Hill says. “We had booked all the bands and were all systems go. Then we found out that there was going to be another show, Music Midtown, on the same weekend. The promoter of Music Midtown approached us about moving our show to be a part of their show. We were like, ‘Hell no!’ Our show was much better!”

Famous guests also continued to wander through the doors of Album 88 in the early ’90s, as names like Jerry Springer, Jon Stewart, and Courtney Love made the roster.

Future Transmissions

Since it hit the airwaves 40 years ago, WRAS has been at the forefront of music programming and – with its 100,000 watt output making it the most powerful student-run station in the country – it has also been a pioneer in new technology for radio.

The next 40 years will certainly bring on countless technological advances, and current GM Tyler McGoff says that, before he graduates in May, he hopes to have the station streaming its rotation on the Internet.

“We’ve been working on it for a while,” McGoff said. “There are a lot of technical details and [Federal Communications Commission] requirements, but I think we’ll be starting an early version of it very soon.”

The station currently streams Panthers sports broadcasts, and it airs more than 300 hours of Panthers sports per year, according to Jeff Walker, GSU student affairs business operations director and WRAS advisor.

“With such a strong signal, we will remain the only media that everyone can receive all the way from their homes to their cars to inside the Georgia Dome without cost or interruption,” Walker said.

The station also airs more than 200 hours of public service programming each year.

Another technical goal for the station will be the transition to in-band on-channel digital radio, or HD Radio. Walker said that the new technology will offer interference-free reception and better sound quality.

As for celebrating its 40th year, McGoff said to be on the listen for interesting on-air interviews with WRAS alums. He also added that plans are underway for a WRASFest concert and 40th birthday party.

Going forward, WRAS will do what it does best – continue to play cutting-edge music.

“College broadcasters will provide what only they can – a survey and distillation of the best in new music that appeals to their fellow students,” Walker says. “Corporate radio stations and online music services are no match for students who live, eat and breathe new music.”

 

“It was quite the ride,” Hill says. “The station was red hot. The ‘alternative’ format was the talk of the music industry. WRAS was considered to be an industry leader in breaking bands. If you were in a band and wanted to make it you needed to get on 88.5.”

Matt Kehrli (B.A. ’00), another former general manager of the station and now a senior on-air writer and producer at TNT, created one of Album 88′s most popular programs, a talk show called Lounge 88 that frequently boasted high-profile names.

“One day a publicist called the station, trying to set up an interview with Vincent Bugliosi, the attorney who prosecuted and ultimately sent Charles Manson to prison,” Kehrli remembers. “After that, I kept getting calls from PR firms trying to book guests. Ultimately we ended up having big time comedians, actors, politicians – and even zoo animals, literally – in studio.”

Who were some of Kehrli’s favorite “big time” guests?

“Lewis Black, [the late comedian] Mitch Hedberg – he came by three times – comedians Pablo Francisco, David Allen Grier, Bobcat Goldthwait … but my all-time favorite was definitely Willie Nelson. He came in the studio with his sister and performed several songs. Did I mention it also happened to be his birthday? We actually sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to him in studio. An absolutely surreal experience.”

Rock ‘n’ roll family

Surreal is probably an appropriate word, then, to describe the feeling I had upon finally working at the radio station that had shaped my musical tastes during my formative years. After my late-night training session that evening in ’97, I was on the air for the next five years, eventually becoming general manager myself in 2001. While I certainly had a wealth of great experiences during my time at the station, the closeness I developed with my fellow DJs was the most meaningful. I made a lot of great friends at WRAS who I still keep in touch with to this day.

DeWolff, the cheery and dutiful assistant program director from my first night, is one of them. She is now a marketing manager at Cartoon Network’s “Adult Swim” in Atlanta.

“It was like being in a fraternity,” DeWolff says of her time at WRAS. “There were lots of great people with really impressive music knowledge and taste.”

She still listens to the station every day on her commute to work.

Tyler McGoff (B.A. ’11), current general manager of the station, says this inclusiveness among the WRAS staff is alive and well.

“Almost everyone gets along, and even if they’re not friends, they’re still professional, respectful and polite while everyone is working together,” he says. “There are 60 of us, all from different backgrounds and with different life experiences. Because we are such a diverse staff, we all bring something different to the table when it comes to music.”

As WRAS begins its 40th year of operation, the scope and influence of the station is still far-reaching, even in the era of iTunes and Internet radio. It continues to be a cultural institution in the city and a tastemaker in the musical community.

Earlier this year, WRAS began broadcasting GSU’s Panther football games with Dave Cohen (B.A. ’94), the longtime voice of Panther basketball and a 28-year veteran of the station, at the helm. Current GM McGoff has already parlayed his Album 88 experience into an internship at Dave-FM 92.9, demonstrating that the station continues to be a highly valuable experience for students.

As for me, after graduation it was hard to leave the cramped yet cozy space I had considered my second home for many years. I felt a true sadness during my last shift as I pressed the play button on “Panic” by The Smiths, the final song of my Album 88 career.

Although my experience has since provided me with so much – good friends, broadcasting skills, important industry connections and a wealth of musical knowledge – I’ll always think fondly of just being there: behind the board, amongst all the records, the disco ball, even the torn loveseat.

I’m extremely proud to have been a part of the 40-year history of WRAS. It’s truly an experience I’ll never forget.

Millie De Chirico is assistant programming manager at Turner Classic Movies. She was a GSU student and WRAS DJ from 1997-2002.