Fourteen hours. That’s how long it took to tape the first Georgia Music Show. After poring through piles of basement demos and 4-track recordings, Aubrey Walton and Mike Donnellan had created a one-hour show, the first of its kind in Atlanta. It all started with a desire to craft a locally based program with an intimate connection to the surrounding community, but the pair knew that they would have to feature more well-known artists to draw listeners. In the mid ’70s college radio wasn’t yet the safe haven for alternative artists that it would become in the ’80s. Unlike the DJs which would follow them, Walton and Donnellan weren’t interested in subverting mainstream radio rock, so they created a show designed to bridge the gap between underground music and more popular cuts from Georgia. While it may not have been their specific intent, in the process they helped influence the future of the city’s independent music scene by featuring DIY artists before punk had popularized the concept of Do It Yourself musicianship.
Throughout the storied history of Album 88 there have been many popular, even groundbreaking shows (Rhythm and Vibes, Pure Mania), but more than any other program, the Georgia Music Show has been a pillar and a bellwether for the station, a lens through which to view the Atlanta and Athens music scene, and a unifying force in an arts community so often splintered into competing subgroups. The history of the Georgia Music Show is much too vast to capture in single feature because it is inextricably woven into the fabric of WRAS as a whole. However, by understanding some of the key moments in the show’s past, we can better understand the value of the station and the current importance of the Georgia Music Show to Atlanta.
Early Ambitions and the Struggle to Succeed in a Low Budget Environment
In 1974 WRAS was still a fledgling station figuring out their role on the radio dial. And while the GMS helped the station define its identity, the road to success was initially lined with garbled tape and headaches. The low-budget nature of the show was a source of endless frustration for Donnellan who took equipment malfunctions seriously, even personally. The most concerning issue was the lack of compatibility between the tapes that Walton and Donnellan used to create the show and the tape machine in the WRAS studio. Despite herculean efforts to patch their quarter inch tape deck into the studio’s half inch tape, problems persisted until Donnellan simply couldn’t take it anymore. “The WRAS tape decks often tried to eat the tapes we laboriously produced,” Walton explains. “In fact, the technical glitches were a primary reason why Mike dropped out of the show after a few months.”
Walton, on the other hand, remained firmly committed to the show. Over time, he invested in better equipment and made it a point to reach out to a wide variety of artists so each week would be a surprise to listeners. Before the end of his four-year tenure with the show, he had personally financed and overhauled the show’s equipment, nearly eliminating technical issues and turning the GMS into a flagship program for the maturing station.
More than simply improving the equipment, Walton charted a course which relied on musical diversity as a core tenet of the show. It was a principle that would be tested by the end of the decade, but was initially embraced by the station. In addition to playing recognizable names like Steve Morse and Andy West, Walton sprinkled the show with lesser known acts including a pre-conversion Mylon Lefevre and music from the Covington Baha’i Congregation. Even more groundbreaking was his willingness to showcase and assist untested musicians who were still finding their artistic voice. During the course of his tenure, Walton helped one of his guests, Don Bloodworth, re-record a track for a Creative Loafing talent contest. The end result was a victory for Bloodworth and a change of career path. “I met him years later for a different event,” Walton recalls. “He said that his life was changed by that. That was exactly the kind of impact we’d hoped for. Allowing and encouraging such worthy people was what we wanted to do.”
By the time Walton left the show in ’78, the record industry had taken notice of the show’s success realizing that the DJ was in effect doing the work of label agents by finding unsigned bands and helping to launch their careers. It was a sign of maturity for a show which just a few years earlier had trouble recording the simplest of live sessions, but it was also a shift of power away from record reps and towards local influence previously unknown in radio.
The Late ’70s and Administrative Conflict
By 1978, Album 88 was the ruler of the left side of the dial. Even though it was run by students, the station had a reputation for professionalism, and people in the greater Atlanta area were taking notice. Unfortunately, in the late ’70s radio was big business and there were competing ideas within WRAS as to how to station should progress, specifically regarding whether the music should be challenging or commercially acceptable. One of the first casualties in this battle was DJ Anita Sarko, who was forced out by general manager James Tarbox when she vocalized her frustration with WRAS on air. In response, she told the GSU Signal, “If they are going to stop playing progressive music OK. But they shouldn’t keep billing themselves as Atlanta’s progressive alternative.”
The conflict rose to a fever pitch thanks to dean of students H. King Buttermore III, who saw the growing popularity of WRAS as a chance to make the station more commercially palatable in an effort to compete with the Top 40 stations of the day. Buttermore installed Mike Garretson as the new station manager and soon enough the diverse underground programming which Walton had perfected was lost. Though the list of complaints against Garretson was long, they mostly centered on his authoritarian stance on music, which he claimed was borne from an authentic desire to increase listenership among GSU students. One of the complainants, former DJ Beryl Ledford, claimed Garretson ran the station in what could only be defined as a “totalitarian manner.” The grumbling peaked in September of ’79 when some DJs refused to go on air, leading to a hearing which resulted in a programming compromise. Though this allowed more freedom for DJs, it wasn’t the full revolution which students wanted, and it would take a few years before station administration fully realized the power of diverse programming.
According to Alison Fussell, DJ of the Mellow Morning show from ’78-80, the change in programming didn’t stick because it sacrificed the power of WRAS: niche programming which commercial stations couldn’t match. She clarifies: “Label representatives would come by the station and see how the new music was being received. Turning the college station into something like the commercial stations took away the unique ability of WRAS to introduce listeners to new music.”
It’s not that the GMS was the only niche program on WRAS. As a non-commercial station, it inherently fulfilled a different role than other rock and pop stations on the dial. However, the GMS was the most grassroots show on WRAS since it was locally focused and therefore had the most to gain by providing unique programming and the most to lose when Buttermore and Garretson tried to enact a broadened, more mainstream scope of programming.
The ’80s: The Georgia Music Show Cements Its Reputation
When considering the overall history of the show, it’s easy to focus on the 1981 Hibtone single, the world’s introduction to R.E.M. through the anthemic “Radio Free Europe.” It’s true that the GMS was one of the first outlets for the nascent supergroup, but to get lost in stories of Michael Stipe or Pylon or the B-52s is to miss the grander narrative, which began with Walton and goes far beyond simple points on a musical timeline. It’s a story that encompasses two cities trying to build their artistic identity in a region often derided by the musical establishment. Throughout the ’80s, the GMS became the critical unifier between Atlanta and Athens as they grew and developed, a fulcrum which balanced the success of groups like R.E.M. between the two towns and crowned them as southern standard bearers amid the growth of college radio throughout the country.
By the middle of the decade, the GMS was in its heyday. Jeff Walker, the first student general manager of WRAS from 1982-84, worked to have WRAS playlists tracked by Billboard Magazine, but his most notable achievement was lobbying GSU leadership to upgrade the WRAS transmission capabilities. The result was the 100,000 watt broadcast which became a core part of WRAS’ identity as well as a technical anomaly among college radio stations in the rest of the country. In 1986 the newly powerful WRAS signal became capable of reaching not only Atlanta’s suburbs, but also much of north Georgia. The competing alternative radio stations which would spring up in the ’90s didn’t yet exist, so if there was any doubt before, WRAS was now the unmatched symbol of alternative music in the south. Meanwhile, the GMS continued to expanded its reach as the undisputed gatekeeper of local underground music in Atlanta.
Jill Melancon, who hosted the show from ’86-88, doesn’t believe that the GMS shaped the scene as much as simply existed within what was a vibrant musical ecosystem. Still, she is quick to underscore the importance of the GMS. “We were the only source of info about local music on the radio,” Melancon notes, “and this was a time before internet, so in a lot of ways music lovers counted on us for info because it was difficult to get it any other way.” This relationship with listeners made the program one of the most visible and unifying elements within the scene. Whether they considered themselves de facto gatekeepers or not, GMS DJs took their roles incredibly seriously, particularly in choosing what bands to include in live sessions, as well as cultivating relationships with clubs and venues around Atlanta.
The ’90s: Riding the Alternative Wave
By the early ’90s alternative music didn’t mean what it used to when R.E.M. was still underground. In late October of 1992, the newly launched 99X became a purveyor of “new” rock and WRAS was faced with its first real competitor since the birth of the station. Though 99X imitated WRAS’ style of playing more than just singles, playing the likes of Silverchair and Frank Black wasn’t enough to keep the station connected to any real elements of the underground scene and the staff remained under constant pressure from execs to play more palatable radio-friendly rock. But if the leadership at 99X believed that alternative was a sound rather than an ethos, WRAS took the opposite position, thanks to the results of the battle over programming in the late ’70s as well as the consistent success of the GMS in linking the station to the creative efforts of local scene.
Much as it had always done, WRAS was able to sustain its niche through the GMS, building its audience and cultivating its aesthetic on the connection between Athens and Atlanta. The Elephant 6 Collective was synonymous with Athens music in the ’90s, and everyone from Neutral Milk Hotel to Elf Power was getting coverage by the DJs at the GMS. As grunge became synonymous with big business, they made sure they were pushing through the walls of overdrive and reverb to find bands that were truly underground and not simply trying to match the Seattle sound, a trap that 99X would sink into later in the decade.
Nearly twenty years into is existence, the GMS was still driven primarily by the spirit of challenging trends and pushing boundaries initiated by Walton. Heather Murphy, who hosted the show from ’89-92, notes that early on in her tenure there were too many folk influenced bands on the scene. “We had to dive deep into the demo tapes to find bands that weren’t strumming guitars, singing about leaves and love,” she recalls. Yet by the end of her time hosting the show, her concern shifted towards playing more than heavy rock music, even trying to include a few hip-hop tracks on the show.
Although Athens tended to receive the bulk of the media’s attention in the early ’90s, Atlanta music was blossoming in genre and style in a manner that paralleled the Seattle sound from a distance without any copycat intersectionality. Magnapop, one of the better Atlanta bands to capture the introspective angst of the era received a good deal of airtime from Murphy. According to guitarist Ruthie Morris, the GMS was a critical stepping stone for local acts. “You could play live on-air shows, where people could tune in to hear you,” she explains. “WRAS was a huge help to us, especially playing our singles. Radio is so important for new bands and now it’s all pre-programmed. It’s very disheartening.”
In the mind of GMS DJ Kim Drobes, who worked at WRAS from ’92-96, the early to mid ’90s were one of the most unique and vibrant periods within the past 40 years for the local scene, citing the success of Half Baked Records, the label of underground favorites like Pineal Ventana and Tweezer. “There were so many people giving their all to the Atlanta music scene,” Drobes elaborates. “Amy Potter was running Half Baked Records, Kelly Stocks was booking Dottie’s, and the Point was a constant supporter of local music.”
To discover the breadth of influence of WRAS at the time, one simply has to look at the success of Shachar Oren’s Radio Oddyssey Compilations. Oren worked at Album 88 from ’91-95, serving as Program Director for the last two years of his tenure. He worked with Drobes to promote a more diverse GMS, but his crowning achievement was the Radio Oddyssey projects, two compilations which sought to draw national attention to the work of WRAS DJs. The project started with a desire to find an outlet for the 400+ in-studio recordings the station had amassed since Walton first focused on live tracks in ’74. The end result was a vibrant 19-track compilation of live sessions which featured bands like Toadies and the Wedding Present. In addition, Oren was able to circumvent any fees or royalties due to the clout WRAS had been building with record labels since the early days of the GMS.
Radio Oddyssey sold nearly 4,000 copies, but Oren believed that true success was measured by the local scene, so Radio Oddyssey #2 was created. The second compilation was a completely local affair curated by Drobes from recent GMS recordings and studio material that featured bands such as the Velvet Overkill Five, Babyfat, and a live session from the Goodies. The upwards of 2,000 units sold was a reflection not only on the quality of Atlanta music in the ’90s, but the reach and prestige of the GMS.
Despite its success, the show continued to change and evolve into the 2000s. Jez de Wolff, who hosted the show from ’01-03, played local favorites like Subsonics and the Rock*A*Teens, but was willing to adjust the program’s formula in an effort to give it a better flow. “Listeners would hear local garage bands alongside Modest Mouse or Built to Spill,” says de Wolff. “The show elevated artists and gave them a platform for exposure.” By blending up the locals-only formula in an effort to popularize certain bands, de Wolff shifted away from the anything hyper-diverse setlists that Walton pioneered. Though this was a personal choice, reflecting the ever-changing nature of the show, it also reflected a shift at WRAS as a whole.
The shift away from genre rich sets towards predominantly rock/pop focused sets on the GMS was at least partially due to the reality that these two genres were the core of the college radio revolution. The other factor was simple marketing. In 1992, Marc DeSandre, general manager of Album 88, refocused the station on alternative hits that challenged the listener without being too oddball. In a conversation with the GSU Signal, DeSandre claimed that WRAS programming needed to have a “certain flow,” a factor he believed to be lacking on Album 88’s quasi-competitor WREK. Specifically, he claimed, “This is not our personal jukebox. You have to entertain or no one’s going to listen.” This decision was met with some student opposition, including criticism that WRAS was drifting towards commercially-viable alternative radio and away from the ethos that the station was built on.
While any claim of musical homogeneity on WRAS seems overblown considering the content on the rest of the radio dial, there is a degree of truth to the idea that WRAS and the GMS are equally interested in indulging indie sensibilities as they are in expanding musical horizons. This reality was casually referenced by Creative Loafing in 2001. In their yearly awards section, the local paper claimed WRAS was, “a little heavy on the Stereolab/Belle & Sebastian hipster trip, but if your idea of rock doesn’t start with Staind and end with Collective Soul, 88.5 is just about the only viable listening option in town.”
The Decline of College Radio and the GPB Takeover
By the mid-2000s, the Georgia Music Show had been an Atlanta icon for two decades. Although its reach and recognition was greater than ever before, its importance to breaking Atlanta and Athens bands to the mainstream was slowly eroding, even if it wasn’t readily apparent within the scene. Bands like Black Lips and Deerhunter were making waves nationally and it seemed like Atlanta music was finally getting the recognition that it deserved. Beneath the surface though, was a twofold problem. The first part of the problem was the slow death of radio as a whole, a medium which by the mid-2000s had already lost ground to everything from CDs to the iPod. The second part of the problem, and the part which most directly affected the GMS, was an ever-growing swath of mp3 blogs. These new tastemakers on the scene were so successful that a new genre, blog rock, was unofficially created.
For those paying attention, the shift away from college radio would manifest itself around the country in highly definitive ways. In 2011, three college radio stations had their licenses stripped and their programming changed to NPR related classical music. These weren’t small players either. San Francisco’s KUSF, Rice University’s KTRU, and Vanderbilt’s WRVU each had long histories of underground programming. KTRU, for example, had existed since 1967. Each of these stations were local institutions, but their pedigrees didn’t seem to matter anymore.
Despite the signs, however, there seemed to be little warning for what happened on May 5, 2014. In the blink of an eye, WRAS leadership was informed that Georgia State had made a deal with Georgia Public Broadcasting to allow GPB broadcast from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m., the lion’s share of Album 88’s air time. Initially following the takeover, there was an urge to fight the decision under the umbrella campaign “Save WRAS,” which gained significant traction online. The problem was that no one really knew how to reclaim the lost air time, and beneath it all, there was the sinking realization that GSU leadership wouldn’t back out or adjust the deal for any reason. After all, they had already proven that six pieces of silver were more important than the university’s most recognizable institution. What could a scrappy bunch of kids obsessed with obscure music really do to stop a commercial juggernaut, especially one disguised as a public service?
New Blood Brings Focus Back to the Georgia Music Show
The answer was adapt. Though the outlook was initially grim, some DJs accepted the new reality and looked to the future rather than try to recapture the past. One DJ in particular saw the GMS as a way to lead WRAS into the future. Binh Nguyen (better known to listeners as Peace), who started hosting the show last fall, was a dedicated listener of WRAS before they* started working at the station. Though their initial intent was to bring back the Japanese radio show Nippon Music Champ, they soon realized that because of all the chaos of the past two years, WRAS was overlooking the GMS, which had bounced between temporary hosts since Tre’Vaugn Williams ran the show in 2014. There wasn’t any particular reason for the lack of host apart from the mundane reality of time-consuming studies and DJs who were already swamped with their own shows, but Nguyen was surprised at the lack of concern over the station’s longest running program.
As much as anything else, the GMS represented the station’s best opportunity to connect to the local community. Though Williams was passionate about local artists, and had expanded the show beyond stereotypical alternative to include hip-hop acts from the burgeoning Awful Records Collective, his focus had been more on the content of the show than connecting to the surrounding music scene.
After Williams left the show, Nadia Deljou, the RPM music director and Beatscape Lounge showrunner, noticed the void and occasionally guest-hosted the show, simply to keep it alive. In the process, she increased the shows creative reach even further, including more experimental electronic artists in her setlists. According to Deljou, the lack of host was a source of personal frustration at a time when she was realizing the critical importance of reconnecting WRAS to the local scene. She explains, “In addition to being longest running the show on the station, the name of the show is the Georgia Music Show, so it kind of goes without saying that a show like that lays the foundation for our sound.” When asked how WRAS seeks to stay relevant to Atlanta, Deljou was quick to mention local events like WRASFEST, as well as social media and online sharing of interviews and live performances from Album 88. It’s a curious mix of the new and old; evidence that while WRAS staff looks to the future, their eyes are still on what made the station successful in the past.
Like Deljou, Nguyen believes the health of the GMS is a direct link to the success of WRAS as a whole, but unlike their colleague, Nguyen was able to pour a large amount of energy into rebooting the GMS despite hosting two other shows on Album 88. Their commitment to the show stemmed not only from a love of local music, but also a belief in the power of the GMS to be a force for good in exposing the art marginalized voices, especially those of women, LGBTQ, and PoC who so often have to fight for acceptance even in the DIY community.
Although the GMS might not have the power it once had to influence record labels, it still has a great deal of sway over the local scene. This capacity isn’t built on commercial power, but rather on a relationship of encouragement. “Knowing that they (local artists) are being played on the radio brings them an insane amount of confidence,” Nguyen explains, “especially when they are also hearing the work of their peers featured alongside them.
Nguyen has revived the spirit of Walton in the booth, especially in regards to their pride in local music. When asked what their most memorable experience has been so far while hosting the show, Nguyen references all the times listeners have called in pleasantly surprised that the whole two-hour set featured local artists exclusively. They pin their wonder on the excitement that comes from finding a new local band and having that excitement evolve into greater love and support for the local scene, which has been the core mission of the GMS since those heady, tape-damaged days in 1974.
*Binh Nguyen uses the gender-neutral pronoun “they”
The Future of the Georgia Music Show
In light of the revived GMS and WRAS as a whole, Both Nguyen and Deljou wish people to stop focusing on the GPB takeover. Even if Album 88 hadn’t lost their daytime analog broadcast, WRAS would still be faced with the need to adapt in an ever-changing world. In one sense, the takeover was a catalyst that forced all the DJs to examine the connection between their shows and their audience and use every tool available to keep that connection intact. Deljou believes WRAS’ new reliance on internet streams makes the station more efficient and smooth-running. Social media allows weekly shows like the GMS to remain present with their audience 24/7 rather than just for a couple hours during broadcast. On top of all this, the takeover incited vocal support for WRAS as listeners realized what they had taken for granted while gridlocked on the perimeter. “You don’t know what you have till it’s gone,” seems like a trite saying for such an earth-shattering event, but in the case of the takeover it proved true, uniting Atlanta around WRAS and strengthening the emotional connection between the city and the iconic 100,000 watt voice of GSU.
“It felt like once GPB takeoever happened, it somehow made the specialty shows on the station that much more special and focused upon,” says local musician Jonathon Merenivitch (Shepherds, Jock Gang, Thalmus Rasulala). “If you really cared about the station and wanted it to survive and prosper you made sure you caught them.”
Still there is no doubt that the GBP takeover was gut punch for the GMS. In contrast to Deljou and Nguyen’s resignation, DeWolff is still angry that local bands aren’t heard like they once were. “The music scene is dominated by cover bands and artists from our region can’t get a gig,” she argues. “The GPB takeover has directly affected the music scene in Atlanta, and it will never be the same.”
Despite the endless proposals to make Atlanta less dependent on cars, the fact remains that Atlanta is a city built on sprawl and cars are a near necessity for those living and working in and around the city. College radio — and WRAS is no exception — is predominately consumed in cars, which is why losing the morning and evening rush hour was so devastating for the station. The reality of 2016 is that the medium as a whole isn’t as important to the underground music ecosystem as it was 20 or 30 years ago. The internet has taken the role of gatekeeper from college stations and the power which WRAS and other stations once had to “break” artists like R.E.M. has almost vanished entirely.
Despite this, WRAS is on surprisingly stable ground compared to the endlessly shifting world around it. Today, the power of the music blogosphere has collapsed in on itself. Far too many fantastic small blogs which once filled unique spaces online are simply empty domains now, sold at the height of Arcade Fire fever when hipsterdom was a vast MacBook strewn landscape. Among those blogs which remain, the lack of musical diversity is staggering. Even among well respected blogs like Aquarium Drunkard and media juggernauts like Pitchfork, the content seems overwhelmingly similar, or just simply overwhelming. The cost-benefit ratio for music exploration seems more lopsided than ever before, and yet with the ever-growing popularity of Soundcloud it’s easier than ever before to find music at the source.
Where does this all leave the GMS? If the show was a gatekeeper in the ’80s and ’90s, its role has now been relegated to a guide. This new reality doesn’t mean the show is meaningless, however. In addition to the value of the program as an icon of Atlanta, the show is still at the forefront of the scene, discovering new Atlanta and Athens artists before Stereogum writers get bored with NYC bands and turn their attention south.
For longtime scene veteran Jesse Smith, a.k.a. Gentleman Jesse, it’s precisely this ability to seek out and elevate emerging and unknown artists that makes the GMS so critical to Atlanta and Athens music. “It seems to me that the Georgia Music show’s role is to give a stronger voice to smaller scenes,” says Smith. “When the reach of that music spreads further it invites more people to get involved as audience members and as a performers… When I was younger I would listen to 88.5 and I heard bands like Act of Faith and Car Vs. Driver. I became aware of local bands that were extremely active and I would go see them play. I eventually became active in their scene and the torch was passed so to speak.”
If WRAS is now a stable supplement to internet music discovery, the GMS is the most critical segment of the supplement. It still remains a central pillar of the local music scene, something unchanged by the internet’s ever increasing dominance to DIY music or the GPB takeover. Maybe the relevance of WRAS as a whole is often overstated, but amidst all the quality shows there is only one unique element, one show that can’t truly be replaced by a blog or a Spotify playlist, and that is the Georgia Music Show.