This is Part Three of our look back at the history of NewsChannel 32, a television station that provided in-depth coverage of local news and sports for Northeast Georgia. In Part One, we took a look at the formation of the station and the work of its news department, and you can read it here. In Part Two, we explored the reputation and reach of its sports department, and you can read it here.
If you can name it, Michael Castengera has probably done it.
He’s been a reporter and an editor.
He’s worked in print journalism and broadcast journalism.
He’s run a local radio station and served as a consultant to some of the biggest media companies in the country.
It was a breadth of professional experience that made him the natural fit to lead a new hybrid journalism project at the University of Georgia that mixed education and newsgathering as WNEG — long a fixture for Northeast Georgia — migrated its operations south.
“When they acquired the station, because I had been a general manager, they decided that I would be the logical one to take over when we do it,” Castengera said with a laugh. “Well, like an idiot, I agreed.”
The promise of the station under the control of the University of Georgia made sense in the abstract, pairing one of the nation’s premier journalism programs with a professional, commercial television station to help create a learning laboratory. It represented a significant shift from the original intent of WNEG, which functioned largely as a community asset that focused on the stories of the small communities throughout the region.
However, the desire to focus on local news throughout the region remained, and those efforts would be buoyed by existing resources at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, including the student-run NewsSource 15 and, of course, the cumulative experience and expertise of the faculty on staff.
It felt like a win-win for everyone.
“That was the intention, but good intentions don’t always work,” Castengera said.
“This one didn’t.”
Embracing a new opportunity
After nearly 15 years as a CBS affiliate, change was in the air in Toccoa in late 2007.
The future of WNEG, the anchor of community news and sports across Northeast Georgia, was suddenly in doubt. Media General, which owned WNEG, announced in late 2007 that it planned to explore opportunities to sell the station.
A little more than an hour down the road, E. Culpepper “Cully” Clark, the new head of the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, was interested in expanding learning opportunities for the college’s students.
He found inspiration just across the state line in his old employer, the University of Alabama.
Long before Georgia’s football team set out to rebuild itself in the image of the mighty Crimson Tide, Clark and other select leaders in the university’s administration cast an eye toward an experiment underway in Tuscaloosa. In 2001, the University of Alabama — under Clark’s leadership — acquired WJRD, using a portion of a $1 million donation from the family of legendary head coach Paul “Bear” Bryant to do so.
Up until that point, the independent station had functioned as an affiliate of Pax TV, offering family-friendly programming for the Birmingham-Tuscaloosa-Aniston market. Rebranded as WVUA, the station became fully integrated into the College of Communication and Information Sciences, operating financially independently from the university and functioning as a fully commercial station.
To this day, it offers a mixture of syndicated programming through Cozi TV and locally produced segments focusing on Alabama athletics, high school football, and local and state news. And it provides a working studio environment that offers real-world experience for students seeking careers in broadcast journalism, advertising and marketing.
That success planted the seed for Clark, who figured this type of success was readily transferable. More than that, he viewed the addition of WNEG to the Grady College’s portfolio as the first step toward the establishment of a comprehensive Center for Advanced Media Studies that would better prepare the next generation of journalists for the uncertainty of the future.
“He saw it as an opportunity to bring something to the Athens community that would be a community service by bringing a television station to the town, which hadn’t existed for decades at that point,” said Ann Hollifield, the head of the department of telecommunications at the Grady College. “But he also saw it primarily as the opportunity to create effectively a teaching hospital model for journalism education in the Grady College.”
The revenue produced by this commercial venture will strengthen the operation of the television station while enhancing the research and outreach mission of the University.
— UGA President Michael F. Adams in a release announcing the WNEG deal
The University of Georgia announced its acquisition of WNEG on June 25, 2008, sealing the deal for $1.5 million. It was one of four stations sold by Media General in the first half of 2008, as the company sought to reduce its debt by $65 million. The station’s base of operations, as well as its staff, would relocate from Toccoa to Athens and be supported by students in the college.
Despite the obvious potential, there were some who expressed reservations about the move.
“To be honest, the faculty was not initially enthusiastic,” said Hollifield. “As I recall, it was a unanimous faculty vote that noted all of us were out of television for a reason. It was a career we had chosen to leave, and we really weren’t interested in going back to it. We understood how difficult it would be to make a success of it, and we just didn’t think it was something we wanted to take on in the department.”
She stressed, however, that despite some of those initial concerns, once the decision was made, the faculty put their full focus on making the acquisition successful as they understood the promise and potential of such a partnership.
“In any case, the faculty bled to try and make this work,” Hollifield said. “It was a 1,000 percent effort.”
Making the transition to Athens
Since its founding by Roy Gaines in 1984, WNEG had operated out of its location in Toccoa. The station had become a fixture in the community, with the on-air staff enjoying something of a celebrity status.
Cody Chaffins was hired as a sports reporter and weather broadcaster a few months prior to WNEG’s sale to the university. A recent graduate of the Grady College, he recalled visiting a high school football practice or covering a local college’s basketball game and feeling the appreciation so many had for NewsChannel 32.
In Toccoa, he often walked to work and would get recognized when heading out for lunch.
Moving (back) to Athens meant a significant change, and the potential loss of that small-town charm he had come to treasure during those first few months on the job.
“It was basically going back to college,” Chaffins said. “Honestly, my professors who I had in school were all of a sudden my bosses. The strange part is when I was in school, one of my first days with NewsSource 15 my teacher said if I was your boss today, you would have been fired. Well, all of a sudden he had the power to fire me.”
As expected with any transition, there was some good and some bad, though no one can doubt that the most beneficial thing to happen to WNEG was the infusion of state-of-the-art technology to better equip reporters to do their jobs. Whereas in Toccoa, reporters and producers huddled in the editing bay to piece together packages on tape-to-tape machines, the team was introduced to the wonders of technological advancement..
For instance, those clunky machines were scrapped and replaced with Final Cut Pro, one of the gold standards of video editing in today’s broadcast world. Reporters were now able to sit at their desks to edit packages for the upcoming newscasts.
This also opened new doors for newsgathering. Chaffins noted that he now had the flexibility to go further out of market for things like the high school football state playoffs. With geography not limiting the sports team anymore, he could shoot a game in LaGrange, assemble the package in his car and share the footage through email or a cloud server.
It also meant the power and prestige of the University of Georgia name could yield new opportunities, like producing and hosting statewide coverage of debates for the governor’s race in 2010.
These changes also required the training, and retraining, of the old guard from Toccoa, such as longtime anchor Chuck Moore, who had spent 40 years working with analog technology. The transition proved to be a bit rocky at times, and it wasn’t just the technology.
Chaffins noted that Castengera was an effective general manager and excellent teacher, but could be a bit rough around the edges and was considerably more demanding of his staff than the Toccoa team was accustomed to.
“There definitely was an acclimation period,” Castengera acknowledged. “For a good portion of them, the people who came from Toccoa, they were used to operating under their system. They came into this as university employees with some trepidation, but eventually I think embraced it.”
Still, Chaffins said it was a lot of sudden change for what had been a pretty stable news team, and he picked up on some of the faculty apprehension Hollifield and Castengera had alluded to.
“We had this tiny station in Toccoa, and all of a sudden we had to pay to park to go to work at UGA, so it was little things like that which were totally different,” Chaffins said. “And I think half of the journalism school didn’t want this and thought it was a waste of money, so you weren’t really fully embraced. That was pretty clear.”
Battling various barriers to success
Alabama’s relationship with WVUA has proven to be successful for two primary reasons — an immediate relationship with a sustainable programming partner and the ability to, at the time, offer live broadcasts and re-airings of select Alabama sports, as well as original shows that centered on Crimson Tide athletics.
The circumstances would be very different in Athens.
For starters, when Georgia acquired WNEG and put plans in motion to shift its headquarters from Toccoa to Athens, that meant the affiliation with CBS would have to come to an end. While several WNEG staffers acknowledged the affiliation likely would have been reevaluated in the coming months due to planned changes coming in the Asheville-Greenville-Spartanburg market, moving the offices to the Atlanta market ended any hopes of preserving that connection.
As a result, it was like WNEG had been thrust back in time to its days as an independent station, forced to purchase syndicated programming, relying on services like This TV and America One to offer up a steady diet of classic movies and vintage television shows.
“We didn’t have good programming, and I don’t know if that was thought through enough or if enough of a deal was made of it when they bought the station,” Chaffins said. “I think they saw that it makes this amount of dollars a year. Well it makes this amount of dollars a year because of March Madness and NFL football and all of those things.”
Additionally, while the ability to air Alabama athletics through a mixture of third-tier media rights, rebroadcast opportunities and programming focusing on non-football sports had worked well for WVUA, any vision of replicating that model in Athens was thwarted almost immediately.
Third-tier media rights give broadcast partners the ability to televise one or two games a year that, for lack of a better term, fall through the scheduling cracks. For instance, an early-season Georgia game against a smaller school from a lower division might fit the bill, and local stations or regional sports networks often could get the rights to show those games at a discount.
On August 25, 2008 — exactly two months after Georgia unveiled its purchase of WNEG — ESPN announced it had reached a 15-year, $2 billion deal with the Southeastern Conference that laid the foundation for the eventual launch of the SEC Network. The new agreement also gave ESPN the exclusive rights to every SEC home football game, as well as more than 5,500 additional conference athletic events in the coming years.
Additionally, the UGA Atheltic Association reached a deal with ISP Sports, now IMG, in 2009, granting it exclusive multimedia rights for various sports like baseball and gymnastics. As such, any plan to incorporate Georgia athletics into the programming mix was lost.
“We figured we weren’t going to get first (tier), but we might be able to get some of the second (tier), and, if nothing else, we could possibly get third-tier stuff,” Castengera said. “And we didn’t get any of it. And we couldn’t get the (University of Georgia) Athletic Association to give us all the support we hoped they would give.”
Fighting until the end
By 2010, the WNEG team and the Grady College faculty and staff assigned to work with it were exhausted. The economic pressures from the Great Recession had gutted advertising revenue, while the initial funding from the UGA Research Foundation was nearly depleted.
The Grady College team was researching and pursuing countless grants to find additional sources of funding to keep the station afloat, all while the independently funded student newspaper, The Red & Black, launched an editorial crusade on its opinion pages against WNEG. One piece, simply entitled “Pull WNEG’s Plug” argued the university “has been relying too much on ‘hopes’ and not enough on concrete and realistic plans” for the station.
That, of course, wasn’t true.
But, with that in mind, let’s go back briefly to that ESPN deal with the SEC. While that may have ended the opportunity for WNEG to air some Georgia athletics events, it also played a small role in opening a new door for the station.
Prior to ESPN’s massive deal, Raycom Media held the rights for a variety of SEC events, including some second- and third-tier media rights for football. With that loss of programming, the network began exploring new avenues for its business.
One of those new avenues, according to Castengera and Hollifield, was a greater investment in the next generation of journalists, and they had a strong, existing connection at Georgia.
Castengera had been a consultant for Raycom Media for several years prior to joining the faculty at the Grady College, building strong relationships with several of its leaders. The network approached the college with an offer — let them take over the station and manage its day-to-day operations, while also providing paid internships and opportunities for students to take a more hands-on approach.
The partnership would have enabled the college to share the station’s financial obligations with Raycom Media, which would establish WNEG as part of its growing network of affiliates. It also would have infused the station with a host of original and syndicated programming that Raycom Media had access to, including the potential to secure second- and third-tier media rights for a variety of sports.
“We would have been partnering with one of the largest media corporations in America at the time, and they were going to set things up,” Castengera said. “It was a very detailed plan of how we would operate, how the students would be involved and so forth. It was a really elaborate and absolutely incredible opportunity.”
Hollifield agreed, noting the partnership would have fully brought Clark’s original vision to bear by integrating students from every corner of the Grady College into the experience, including advertising, marketing and digital journalism.
“We spent a lot of time working with them, and we were very enthusiastic about the incredible opportunities it would have brought to both the station and the students,” she added.
It seemed like a match made in heaven, and a deal that appeared impossible to turn down.
But Georgia did.
“We were basically told by university administration that it could not go forward for reasons of their own,” Hollifield said. “You’d have to talk with them for all the reasons about letting that not happen.”
Opposition came from both the university’s administration, as well as some members of faculty who expressed philosophical disagreements around the impact a commercial enterprise would have on the academic mission of the Grady College.
“This is my belief, but the people who were really against it were the academics who felt like somehow or another it was against their academic principles to be so deeply involved in a professional-level thing,” Castengera said. “The ones who thought — stupidly in my point of view — oh, (Raycom Media is) just trying to get some cheap labor. No. They were actually going to pay them, and they were going to pay them at certain rates. It would have worked out, and it would have been amazing.”
BTT reached out to several former university officials about the proposed partnership with Raycom Media, and all either declined to comment or indicated they weren’t familiar with the nuances of the university’s relationship with WNEG or its plans for incorporating a new partner.
For Castengera, the inability to advance the Raycom Media deal was a missed opportunity.
“I believe that some critical members of the university administration did not have the vision needed to take advantage of what would have been a great opportunity to put Athens and the Grady College on the media map,” he said.
Turning the page
By the end of 2010, it had become apparent the realities of running the station had outstripped its initial promise. Without a significant source of funding — or a prominent relationship with a commercial partner like Raycom Media — the ongoing economic crunch from the recession was becoming too much to bear.
“It was budgeted from the get-go pretty close to the bone, and certainly with an insufficient pad to cover a total economic collapse,” Hollifield said. “The university was in a position of having to make very difficult budgetary choices. I became department head at that time, and we were having trouble just getting the money to buy supplies to teach the classes we were teaching. You can understand why the university administration would quickly be in a position where rescuing the station wasn’t an option.”
On Jan. 6, 2011, 17 employees from WNEG, including some with 20 years of service at the station, were laid off as Georgia opted to end its experiment with commercial television after a little more than two years. During its time embedded in the Grady College, WNEG churned through the more than $4 million set aside to assist with the transition from Toccoa to Athens.
“The most sorrowful day — and there were several painful days there — but my biggest, most terrible day was when I brought in the entire staff and announced to them that they were all being fired and let go,” Castengera said. “You just told some two dozen people who had been working there for years that their careers are over.”
Castengera said he worked hard to ensure the full-time staff would be paid a full month’s salary, as well as any outstanding holiday time they had available.
“We came in one day, and they basically told us your last show was last night, see you later,” Chaffins said. “You’ve got two days to get your stuff out, and this is what we need back. To me, we were so connected with that community and to not be able to say goodbye it left a bad taste in my mouth.”
Chaffins penned a letter to the WNEG community that ran in the Athens Banner-Herald, thanking the community for its support of nearly 30 years. At this point, he was a senior member of the staff and the most recognizable given his role in covering high school football throughout the region.
Just prior to the layoffs, the university announced that it had reached a deal with Georgia Public Broadcasting, changing the call sign to WUGA and transitioning the remaining seven employees to work for the newest public broadcasting affiliate. That arrangement lasted for four years before the university opted to sell the station to Marquee Broadcasting for $2.5 million in March 2015.
What was once WNEG would become WGTA, which is based in Gwinnett County today and offers little to no local programming and a healthy dose of classic movies and television shows through its affiliation with MeTV.
And just like that, it was gone.
What was lost
So, what happened, right?
On paper, the partnership made tremendous sense. Students from the Grady College could, as Clark envisioned, get integrated into the daily operations at a professional television station, giving them hands-on training that would make them job-ready on day one. WNEG had more than 25 years of institutional reputation built up across Northeast Georgia, seemingly giving the college a built-in audience to access.
Well, we’ve talked about the challenges which hampered this success. The ESPN and ISP Sports deals cut off access to broadcasting Georgia athletics. The costs and time needed to transition the staff from Toccoa to Athens proved to be greater than anticipated. The loss of the CBS affiliation removed popular programming and dried up advertising assets that could be marketed and sold. Castengera and Chaffins both noted they felt some university administration members, as well as some faculty and staff at the Grady College weren’t fully on board.
And, of course, arguably the biggest factor of all — the complete and unmitigated collapse of the American economy through the Great Recession, putting the financial crunch on potential advertisers and limiting any flexibility that might have existed in the university’s budget allocation for WNEG.
This isn’t to suggest that the team at the Grady College didn’t try to make it work. They did. They explored and exhausted countless avenues in an attempt to keep the project alive, particularly Castengera who only half-jokingly suggested the entire experience had taken years off his life.
“I will tell you in my humble opinion, Michael is one of the unsung heroes of that whole effort,” said Hollifield. “I suspect the whole television station experience took a number of years off his life, as I know it did off of mine. Ultimately, he just tried heroically to make that station work, using all of his many, many years of expertise.”
Nonetheless, it was a confluence of events and circumstances that ultimately spelled the end of WNEG.
This is what happened, but it doesn’t touch on what was lost.
For its 26 years on air, including 14 as a CBS affiliate, WNEG made the people and places of Northeast Georgia the star of the show. It ensured the stories from that region — largely ignored by the media markets around it — were told on a nightly basis and presented in a fair, but, at times, firm light.
“We were giving people something they couldn’t get anywhere else,” said Jennifer Cathey Arbitter, a former news director at WNEG in Toccoa. “No offense to the people who own it now, but I get pretty hacked off when I flip through my guide on Dish Network, and I see Channel 32 and it’s showing ‘The A-Team.’”
Chaffins, who is now a sports anchor with WAGA in Atlanta, said he strives to get one of his current camera crews out to cover a high school in the region every Friday during the fall.
“When I got there, the name recognition of the station preceded me because I could call anyone up there, tell them who I was, and people would be like of course, we’ll make it happen,’” Chaffins said. “We got treated really well by all the people up there who we were covering because I do think they did appreciate it.
“I think they probably even now realize it more now than they did then, how special that moment in time was.”