WSB at 100

Atlanta Journal front page from March 16, 1922 announcing WSB radio.

WSB radio celebrated its 1ooth anniversary last Tuesday with the old WSB chimes played throughout the day and an evening two-hour special.

“The three most trusted letters in Atlanta history,” it boasted, oblivious to the irony of such a statement given the time slot’s usual airing of Sean Hannity.

Little archival audio was played in favor of current hosts and personalities, congratulations from dignitaries, and a few listener calls with friendly memories that were still cut short for commercials.

A lot of commercials.

A round table discussion with multi-decade veterans of the station pointed out how longevity is rare in radio and for radio careers. Once you get in the door at WSB you can be a lifer and ask to try different things.

That’s admirable, but also shows the privilege WSB has enjoyed. Buying out competition, cross-promotion via Channel 2 and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and the Anti-Trust exemptions enabling it all.

Mayor Andre Dickens and Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock sent congratulatory messages as did Republican Gov. Brian Kemp who noted his many appearances on the station.

A Kemp for Governor political ad aired.

Former Mayor and U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young sent a statement complimenting the Cox family as supporters of Civil Rights.

Young once served as a Director on Cox Communications’ Board.

WSB and Cox have faced controversies over its dominance of Atlanta media including charges of discrimination and stifling minority ownership.

In the 1970s the NAACP and ACLU challenged its broadcast licenses.

WSB radio aired Neil Boortz and Rush Limbaugh, each frequently accused of race-baiting, for years.

It severed ties with Boortz just this year and danced around his presence in the Anniversary broadcasts.

The mention of owners was interesting but incomplete. In 1922 the Atlanta Journal, which launched WSB, was owned by family of its late editor and publisher James Gray.

In Dec. 1939, James M. Cox, Sr., owner of the Dayton Daily News and WHIO radio plus the Miami News, bought the Journal and WSB.

That same month Cox also bought the rival Hearst newspaper The Atlanta Georgian and shut it down, an example of Cox consolidating media ownership in Atlanta from its arrival.

In 1950 Cox purchased the morning Atlanta Constitution.

Since 2019 WSB’s ownership has included a minority stake held by Cox Enterprises, the current parent company of the business James M. Cox started with the purchase of the Dayton Daily News in 1898, while the majority owner is now Apollo Global Management, a controversial investment firm whose founder Leon Black stepped down after news of his association with Jeffrey Epstein.

Cox Enterprises retains sole ownership of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution but the paper and WSB TV and radio continue to cross-promote.

Compared to last year’s “WRAS at 50,” WSB’s look back lacked much soul searching.

The WRAS thesis project and radio series was certainly celebratory, but also dealt with controversies at the station itself.

By contrast, the larger and more influential news station’s 100th anniversary is passing mostly with self-congratulation and boosterism. A history so uncritical it could meet the state legislature’s new curriculum mandates.

The shift to conservative talk was glossed over as a natural AM radio response to FM’s superiority in music. But talk radio helped Newt Gingrich rise to power and begat Fox News.

Historically this was also a shift for Cox.

Founder James M. Cox, Sr. was the Democratic Gov. of Ohio in the 1910s and the 1920 Democratic Presidential nominee.

J. Leonard Reinsch who joined Cox in 1934 to launch WHIO in Dayton and became president of Cox Broadcasting, ran communications for several Democratic National Conventions.

Cox Newspapers were closely aligned with the Democratic party for much of the company’s history.

James Cox, Jr., who assumed leadership after his father’s death in 1957 and oversaw its broadcast expansion, was conservative and forced all Cox newspapers to endorse Richard Nixon in 1972. Cox, Jr. died in 1974.

Anne Cox Chambers served as Ambassador to Belgium in the Carter administration and remained a major contributor to Democrats and the Georgia Democratic Party until her death at 100 in 2020. But Chambers was never CEO of the parent company.

As Georgia’s politics shifted Republican, Cox’s Georgia media properties adjusted in many ways, the AJC dropping endorsements altogether and leaving the city for the northern suburbs in 2010.

But WSB radio became the most overtly right-wing of all.

It can still claim to be a news AND talk station with the news in the mornings and on the half-hour and the opinion in between.

But like Fox News, the lines blur. Does the opinion negate the journalism? Does the journalism get skewed to support the political narrative?

What WSB Sounds Like Now

The station’s flagship local programming are its half-hourly newscasts and Atlanta Morning News from 4:30 a.m. to 9 a.m.

Hosted by Scott Slade, who’s also a pitchman for many WSB sponsors, the Morning News is a fast-paced broadcast designed for commuters that cycles through repetitive weather and traffic updates and short audio stories, some from its own local reporters plus WSB TV, some from CBS Radio news or other outlets.

The pace is faster than NPR and more urgent. Music often underscores Slade’s narration. Two other news anchors alternate segments quickening the pace. It’s the audio equivalent of bullet points or short paragraphs.

Ads are for roofing, plumbing and AC companies, and home equity loans, all endorsed by WSB personalities. Erectile dysfunction and women’s sexual health rejuvenation ads use unnamed voice overs.

This is very much commercial radio with the ads longer than most of the news stories. Even the meteorologist does ads.

During election years, political advertisements are frequent, something public radio can’t sell.

The local news is heavy on crime and sports.

At 9:00 the Von Haessler Doctrine opens with melodramatic music and the introduction of the host’s sidekick Doctrinaires. It implies a manifesto will be forthcoming.

Von Haessler is a former rock and roll morning host and his doctrine is to bring a Libertarian-leaning Zoo Crew flavor to the right wing talk station, maintaining a tinge of anti-establishment sentiment on the most established station in the South.

He’ll hint at apocalyptic themes like the Ukrainian war’s potential to escalate, but the doctrine remains advertising friendly, it’s roofing and mortgage sponsors geared towards high-net-worth individuals still very much living on the grid.

Cosmetically it could compare to Steve Bannon’s war room, but the former Trump advisors show now airing on AM 1690 in Atlanta embraces conspiracy and apocalypse, right down to its sponsors of prepper meal kits, gold and crypto investments, and vitamin supplements.

The difference of course is that Von Haessler and WSB wink and nod at such paranoia while Bannon (no relation) helped instigate the Jan. 6th insurrection.

Erick Erickson at noon and Sean Hannity at three are conservative talk in the model of Limbaugh. Erickson is also religious and takes a conservative Christian viewpoint on cultural issues.

Both engage in rants about Biden, the radical woke left and the media.

There’s little self-awareness that Erickson, Hannity, and WSB are themselves now very much establishment media, especially in Atlanta.

Evening host Mark Arum is less controversial, mixing water cooler conversation and games between afternoon traffic and weather reports.

Word on the Street is WSB’s only African American hosted weekday show following the death of conservative Herman Cain. The Word’s team includes Shelley Wynter whose bio describes as “a Traditionalist and Conservative who desperately wants America to return to a time when morals, values, education and marriage were honored and cherished.”

Overnight shows are syndicated conservative hosts Brian Kilmeade and Dana Loesch.

Weekends include specialty shows on home improvement, gardening, and health, all heavily geared towards their sponsors.

WSB’s Sunday morning version of Atlanta’s Morning News features longer interviews.

The March 13th show included an Emory University business professor analysis of rising gas prices and his criticism of the Biden administration for the keystone pipeline and other decisions. The professor hedged a little after clarifying that part of his comments were just his political opinion. In previous weekday editions of Atlanta’s Morning News, the critical quote was clipped as the main soundbite from his interview.

The March 20th program had interviews with two elected Democrats.

Sen. Jon Ossoff was asked about Ukraine and then a bill he’s sponsoring to benefit military spouses.

Representative Carolyn Bourdeaux was asked about her bill encouraging mall redevelopments that would help revitalize Gwinnett Place Mall. Then about her 2nd annual jobs fair.

Interviews with politicians often involve trading access to the newsmaker with questions and topics that benefit the politician.

WSB is a conservative talk station, but elected Democrats will appear on it to reach a wider audience, signal their own moderate to centrist positions, and tamp down some of the right-wing attacks.

While Georgia Republicans frequently criticize the liberal media in general and the AJC in particular, elected Democrats rarely criticize Cox outlets, even for anti-trust violations or when they work to protect elected Republicans.

Access worked in their favor when the state was a one-party Democratic stronghold and legacy ties between Georgia’s political and media classes persist.

But access journalism can start to create a gulf between those classes and the average citizen, a sense that the interests of politicians and elite media are co-dependent and may even diverge from those of the greater public.

Trust in national institutions and the press are low.

Local media and institutions rate higher, but populist resentment to even these Establishments are on the rise.

In Georgia they include opposition to the proposed Rivian plant in a rural part of the state, pushed by state officials and heavily promoted by state media, and Atlanta opposition to a proposed Police Training Academy in one of the largest remaining greenspaces inside the perimeter.

Cox has financial ties to both, with Cox Enterprises an investor in Rivian and its CEO leading the private fundraising for the public-private Atlanta Police Foundation’s plan for the training facility.

In these and other controversial issues, Cox is both player and referee, seeking to shape or financially benefit from major policy decisions while gatekeeping much of the political discussion.

WSB’s Sunday political roundtable consists of AJC political reporter Greg Bluestein and WSB analyst Bill Crane, a conservative. This frames the AJC reporter as left to the partisan analyst’s right.

Bluestein as representative of the liberal media fits the Republican media critique Hannity and Erickson like to make frequently.

But Georgia Republicans like Gov. Brian Kemp have close ties to WSB radio, and his administration has used Bluestein and the AJC in its campaign to place Sonny Perdue as Chancellor of the University System and in rolling out news of Georgia’s bid for Rivian.

The March 20th roundtable discussed developments in the state legislature and Stacey Abrams’ appearance on Star Trek: Discovery. Crane slammed the appearance, in which Abrams played President of Earth, as egotistical and fodder for Republican campaign ads that will remind voters of Abrams’ stated ambition to run for President someday.

The discussion then pivoted to Bluestein ’s new book about Georgia’s 2020 flip from red to purple.

Bluestein used to cover Georgia Public Broadcasting as a state agency, but now appears on it regularly along with other AJC reporters.

But while Abrams’ ego is mocked, Rush Limbaugh, Erick Erickson, and Sean Hannity’s swagger and bombast, and even Greg Bluestein’s ambition are celebrated.

The comparisons to WRAS are more than symbolic. I’ve long accused Cox of being complicit in GPB’s takeover of WRAS. Most directly as an outlet for AJC reporters but secondarily it created a direct competitor for WABE and divided potential NPR listeners in Atlanta.

While Public Broadcasting Atlanta’s WABE still dominates state-run Georgia Public Broadcasting on radio, if it were the sole NPR news station it could threaten WSB’s status as the leading local news radio station.

NPR affiliates outrate commercial news/talk stations in several big cities and Atlanta’s younger and newer residents might be more likely to seek out Morning Edition and All Things Considered than ad-heavy Atlanta’s Morning News and right-wing Erick Erickson.

The #SaveWRAS efforts following the GPB “Agreement” in 2014 was an early example of populist outrage at Georgia’s insider politics and media.

If you went to UGA and wrote for the Red and Black a large network of people and institutions will help you rise. If you went to Georgia State and worked at Album 88, they’ll highjack your medium.

How WSB Used to Sound

This is where WSB’s anniversary really fell short. Historic audio was limited to very brief clips: samplings of the Gone with the Wind premiere, Journal editor Wright Bryan’s D-Day reporting, an early 70’s promotional ad for station mascot WiSBy that the Von Haessler Doctrine brought back as a crotchety old man.

The station’s historic impact on Georgia music was mostly silenced. This is where Album 88’s months-long radio series excelled, playing music from each era and placing it in the context of college radio and Atlanta’s music and nightlife.

To hear sounds from WSB’s past you have to do some searching.

National programs that aired on WSB are available, such as a 1924 National Defense Day broadcast, Charles Lindbergh’s arrival in Washington D.C. after his historic 1927 transatlantic flight — an event that cemented radio as a national broadcast medium and instrument of celebrity-making, and the Golden Age broadcasts that aired on NBC radio of which WSB was an early affiliate.

But WSB’s locally produced sounds are harder to find. No doubt, some haven’t aged well, but that’s the burden of legacy. Turner Classic Movies now grapples with problematic popular culture by adding historians and context to showings of Gone with the Wind.

History’s not all nostalgia and branding.

On SoundCloud, part of a 1945 episode of the WSB Barn Dance is available. A Grand Old Opry-style country music show, the Barn Dance aired Saturday nights from 1940 to 1950.

It’s fun and charming. The clip features some good sounding classic country music, and a humorous, tuneful ad for the sponsor, Wildroot Cream-Oil Hair Tonic.

Relentless advertising is as Atlantan as Coca-Cola.

Latter day local pitchmen like Gallery Furniture’s Wolfman and Donna sparked band names and graffiti tags even after the store’s sale and the Wolfman’s passing.

Atlanta’s always hustling.

But in a news context this becomes troubling, as when WSB does paid content for Georgia Power’s controversial Plant Vogtle Nuclear Power plant.

The Barn Dance clip includes a cover version of Great Speckled Bird, that hymn of fundamentalism in the face of modernity. At one hundred, is WSB the former or the latter?

Great Speckled Bird became the title of an influential underground newspaper in Atlanta in the 60s and 70s.

In searching its archives, it frequently acted as a counterweight to Cox newspapers and WSB.

“Great Speckled Bird.” Great Speckled Bird 6, no. 35 (September 10, 1973). https://jstor.org/stable/community.28037829.

The Bird was displaced by free weeklies like Creative Loafing. At its own peak, The Loaf also acted as a watchdog on the Cox Empire, but after a bankruptcy and staffing cuts, it now exists in a diminished monthly and online form. Hopes for a revival are evergreen, but its current focus is music and culture.

The newer Mainlinezine is attempting a modern version of an underground paper’s mix of leftist politics and music coverage.

Forgotten Memories

In the newspaper industry, hedge fund ownership has meant cost-cutting and squeezing the legacy brands for profits. A process criticized as stripping for parts.

Is a similar dynamic about to take hold in broadcast media?

Soon after Apollo assumed ownership, longtime Cox Radio Washington correspondent Jamie Dupree was laid off. The AJC quickly gave him a weekly newspaper column.

As Cox Media’s flagship station, WSB may enjoy larger staffs and budgets than smaller stations but the longevity of personalities, and even ownership, may changeover more frequently.

A company history of WSB written for its 50th anniversary included a statement James M. Cox Sr. gave upon the launch of WHIO titled “The Soul of Radio.”

“In this inspirational scene we build a giant structure of steel and wires and insulators and all the magic devices of this scientific age. And now it takes the tongue of man and the melodies of poetry and music.

“May I express this christening sentiment…that this voice will always be an instrument of dignity, culture and practical service; that it will carry the light of joy to places that are dark; that it will build a love for goodness and beauty; that it will plant in the hearts of men a philosophy that will help them to see Divinity in sunshine and shadow; that it will sense its obligations to the more than a million people who are — by common interest — our immediate radio fireside.

“In brief, may this station in its long watches of the night and in its endless days be conscious ever of its duty to God and humanity.”

All new communications mediums start with idealism and descend into babel.

Guttenberg’s printing press disseminated the bible but then gave us pamphlets, penny dreadfuls, and junk mail. Newspapers sped up the information process but added sensationalism.

TV, the Internet, and social media each unleashed new possibilities and rhythms to mass communication. Each renewed concerns about public discourse and the search for the truth.

But democracies are supposed to renew themselves and engage in regular soul searching. Through elections and license renewals and anniversaries.

But you do have to be willing to do the searching.

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Brian Bannon

Brian Bannon

17 Followers

Atlanta writer and comedian. Occasional citizen journalist. Diagnosed with Asperger’s at age 40. No relation to Steve.