Georgia’s Public-Private Media Conglomerate
Extensive cross-promotion agreements and joint TV specials by Georgia Public Broadcasting and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reveal deepening ties between the two media organizations.
Added to an ongoing radio relationship, the arrangement between a public broadcaster, whose oversight body is politically appointed, and a legacy regional newspaper, owned by the state’s richest family, amounts to a public-private media conglomerate.
One that is rife with conflicts of interest and antitrust concerns but that has consistently dodged any serious outside scrutiny.
A Trade in Advertising
Underwriting agreements obtained through an Open Records Request, show a lengthy trade agreement in which state-run Georgia Public Broadcasting received weekly print advertising in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Sunday edition in exchange for TV and radio spots.
One agreement covered most of 2019 and called for AJC promotions to air nightly after the PBS Newshour and the transition to primetime.
Radio spots aired on both GPB’s state network and its controversial Atlanta station.
The agreement called for 15 spots per week during Morning and Afternoon Drive on GPB 88.5 Atlanta.
A similar trade agreement began in March of 2020 and is ongoing.
Joint TV Productions
A paid underwriting agreement that ran from Sept. through Dec. 2019 included radio and TV spots promoting Unprotected: Behind the Scenes, a “Package/Event” related to the AJC’s investigative series on assisted living centers and personal care homes.
As part of that series, specials aired on GPB TV, AJC reporters were frequently interviewed on GPB’s radio programs, and a Town Hall event was held at GPB studios.
At the most recent meeting of the Georgia Public Telecommunications Commission, GPB’s CEO Teya Ryan highlighted another AJC special titled Imperfect Alibi that was produced by the paper and aired on the network. “It was a joint project which meant there was joint publicity.”
Ryan also noted “how unusual” it is “for a public media group and a newspaper to do that kind of partnership.”
A separate Open Records Request found Ryan interviewing the AJC’s politics and state government reporter for another possible special even though GPB is itself a state agency with a history of scandal.
Ongoing Radio Relationship
GPB first arrived on 88.5 in 2014 as the result of a partnership agreement with Georgia State University.
The agreement, negotiated in secret with no student or public input, was first announced during finals week as the campus was emptying out for the summer. Students had recently agreed to fund a new digital transmitter with no knowledge that an outside third party might be using it for much of the broadcast day.
The move brought GPB into direct competition with Public Broadcasting Atlanta’s longtime NPR affiliate WABE. PBA receives no state funding.
Both PBA and GPB receive grants from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
At the time, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution was a part of Cox Media Group, a regional empire that enjoyed legacy exemptions from FCC cross-ownership rules. In addition to the largest newspaper, it owned WSB television and multiple radio stations in Atlanta including the highest rated news and talk stations.
Cox Media’s broadcasting outlets were sold in 2019 to Apollo Global Management but Cox Enterprises retains a minority stake.
Cox Enterprises’ then CEO John Dyer sat on the Georgia State University Foundation Board.
The AJC reported news of the GPB takeover in the D section of its May 8th, 2014 issue with the headline “Atlanta gets 2nd NPR station.” The article includes some quotes critical of GPB but features “an exclusive interview” with Ryan who promises to bring “public radio shows that have never been heard on Atlanta’s FM dial before, such as John Hockenberry’s ‘Takeaway’ program.”
Hockenberry abruptly retired from WNYC in 2017 and was later the subject of stories of harassment and bullying as part of a public radio reckoning. Follow-up stories included concerns over workplace cultures and management coverups.
Employees at several NPR affiliates have unionized in recent years and others have called for further efforts to address issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Recently, a Twitter account called freepublicradio began posting messages from employees of public radio stations alleging toxic work environments, racial discrimination, and other concerns.
The account has posted several allegations about Georgia Public Broadcasting some of which former GPB employees have confirmed on Twitter.
Neither GPB nor PBA have union representation. Nor do most newspapers in Georgia leaving journalists little power to push back on management misdeeds without risking retaliation or career setbacks.
News of the WRAS takeover was overshadowed by GSU’s plans to redevelop Turner Field. Plans unveiled in a front-page story of that same Thursday May 8th edition.
The full article included a picture of GSU President Mark Becker showing off renderings of the development in another “exclusive interview” at the AJC’s own offices.
A second Turner Field article appeared in the Sports Section complete with a pull quote praising Mark Becker’s bold vision.
The GSU Foundation was involved in the financing of the Turner Field Development and in giving Mark Becker a massive $500,000 raise a year later.
AJC political reporters had often covered scandals at GPB including its hiring and eventual firing of former Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers upon the urging of then Gov. Nathan Deal.
However, once GPB began broadcasting on WRAS, those same reporters immediately became regular guests.
My previous Open Records Requests revealed AJC had plans to place its own content on the student-funded station even as #SaveWRAS protests were ongoing.
Students and alumni uncovered evidence of Open Records violations involving GPB officials. Public calls for an outside investigation into the entire GPB-GSU partnership were largely ignored.
Since 2014, GPB’s radio operations have lost millions, according to state audits.
The state audit department tells me this year’s audit of GPB may not be released until the first week of November where it may again be drowned out by election news.
State officials and politicians are also frequent guests on GPB’s programs. To my knowledge, no state official has publicly expressed any concerns about GPB’s financial losses or management.
Recent emails to Majority and Minority leaders in the state legislature, and the offices of Gov. and Lt. Gov. asking about the freepublic radio allegations and lax oversight by the Commission went unanswered.
The network also partners with other news organizations and The Atlanta Press Club and has seen little coverage of these issues.
I emailed questions to both the AJC and Cox Enterprises on Thursday including when Cox first learned of the GSU-GPB partnership, who made the decision to place AJC reporters on GPB, and how coverage of the network as a state agency is assigned and handled. Neither had responded as of this posting.
Requests for comment from NPR and PBS have also gone unanswered.
The press contact email address for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting replied simply “This has been forwarded to the CPB IG office.”