Georgia Network vs GRNS
Coming off the successful sale of WKLS FM in 1971, veteran broadcaster Don Kennedy decided to launch a new business venture in Georgia radio: a statewide news and sports network. Atlantans knew Kennedy as "Officer Don," the beloved children’s show host on WSB TV in Atlanta. But he had a passion for radio and wanted to find a new career in it.
While he filled the 5 pm hour every weekday with Popeye cartoons, banter with the kids, and a dragon puppet on channel 2 in the early 1960s, Kennedy and two business partners rolled the dice with their own money and purchased an FM about 70 miles northwest of Atlanta in Cedartown. They moved the tower, upped the power, and rechristened it as WKLS FM. Their 96.1 played easy listening music with “Dolly Holiday, brought to you by Holiday Inn,” at a time when FM stations accounted for a minuscule share of the audience compared to AM.
By the early 1970s, FM began overtaking AM. Kennedy felt the time was right to cash out and sold WKLS to San Juan Racing Corporation for $750,000. With some of the proceeds, he launched the Georgia Network, a service that provided radio stations around the state with hourly news and sports reports. The idea of a state network was not new: the Georgia Network itself replaced one, and there was an earlier iteration in the 1940s.
Kennedy promised that GN would not affiliate with competing stations in the same county. That was a win for GN because Georgia has 159 counties, more than any other state except Texas. With access to so many affiliates, the network grew quickly. GN was a barter service. The network would foot the bill to connect its programming to affiliates using low-quality Southern Bell telephone lines. Throughout the day, GN provided state-oriented news and sports content throughout the day. In exchange, affiliates agreed to air two minutes of GN commercials during drive times and one minute during other hours of the day without compensation. Newscasters at affiliated stations phoned in local reports and interviews for use on GN newscasts.
GN employed news anchors and reporters, legendary UGA Football play-by-play man Larry Munson as sports director, and Paul Stone headed sales.
Kennedy and Stone had a falling out not long after WGST became Atlanta’s first all-news station and left to join WGST in a sales capacity. While GN’s news and sports content would have been useful to WGST Newsradio, the value of the station's commercial airtime was too high to justify running 17 minutes of daily GN spots, so no affiliation was ever made.
All-news is an expensive format and WGST wasn’t yet profitable. By 1979 with the help of Paul Stone’s experience with state networks, station management discussed launching its own state news network. 17 minutes of commercials airing on affiliates statewide would bring needed cash flow and help compete with cross-town WSB AM’s 50,000-watt coverage area. In early 1980, Meredith Corporation gave WGST its blessing to launch the network, to be called “Georgia Radio News Service.” Future ABC and CBS network anchor Forrest Sawyer voiced the GRNS demo for advertisers.
WGST’s Atlanta reporters and anchors would appear on the new network, giving GRNS a significant headcount advantage over GN covering the state capitol and stories around metro Atlanta. GRNS hired this reporter from WSB AM to be news director, brought the Georgia Farm Bureau’s Jimmy Lee aboard for once-daily agriculture reports, and leased the network’s lines to the Atlanta Braves for transmission of baseball games. That move, in particular, helped GRNS become profitable from the get-go.
The battle began in April 1980. GRNS' Paul Stone made it clear: there are enough radio stations in Georgia to support two networks, but there is not enough advertising. Only one network would survive. “Make sure it’s us.” GN had veteran news director Wade Medlock, solid journalism from state capitol reporter Richard Moore, a farm news network accredited by the National Association of Farm Bureaus, and leased its lines to the University of Georgia for fall football games. Occasionally, Don Kennedy would anchor a newscast. GRNS hired news director Kirk Dorn from WRCG Columbus, Pete Konenkamp from WMAZ Macon, and later sports anchor Matt Stewart from WRFC in Athens. GRNS offered Georgia Tech football broadcasts, which were less prestigious than Georgia Bulldogs games. WGST's General Manager John Lauer called it "a real dogfight."
But GRNS had an important advantage: a major corporation behind it. The GRNS product had to stand on its own, but payroll was never in doubt.
The two networks competed for news stories every hour. Behind the scenes, the battle for ad dollars was even more intense. And the fight for affiliates was ongoing, tracked every month on side-by-side lists in SRDS, a phonebook-sized catalog of radio outlets’ ad rates.
While Kennedy fought for financial survival and the war of attrition among affiliates, it was a different struggle at GRNS. Support from some in the WGST newsroom for giving away editorial to other stations was lukewarm at best. WGST cleared commercials, but no GRNS newscasts.
Listeners around the state were well-served by two networks. GN had great institutional knowledge, particularly of state politics. GRNS was tightly formatted. Talent included Brad Nessler, now of CBS Sports, and Steve Holman, whose tenure as the play-by-play man for the Atlanta Hawks is unparalleled. The network offered weather forecasts from meteorologists, tailored for different regions. GRNS also produced daily feature programs for affiliates to sell, and offered affiliates top-of-the-hour newscasts, first from NBC and later United Stations.
In 1982, gubernatorial candidate Joe Frank Harris hired a campaign manager named Deloss Walker, who had run Bill Clinton’s successful campaign for Governor of Arkansas. Walker leased time on GRNS lines when the network was dark, sending long-form “Talk-a-Thon” broadcasts featuring Harris several hours a day. Affiliates had to find local supporters to pay for the broadcasts, but that turned out to be a non-issue. During the campaign, Harris's voice could be heard up and down the dial, particularly in rural areas. The talk-a-thon aired during the primary, run-off, general election, and its run-off, enriching the network and hundreds of radio stations. Harris said it was the most important factor in his victory — he was able to talk to the entire state at once without traveling as much.
In 1984, with the help of Meredith Corporation's deep pockets, GRNS made a significant capital investment to convert to satellite distribution, replacing phone lines with 10-foot dishes at each affiliate — no charge to the station. There was a modest improvement in audio quality but from a competitive standpoint, the move was a winner. GN was forced to upgrade to satellite distribution, as well. Without significant funding at hand, the network pitched a cost-sharing arrangement with affiliates, which was a non-starter.
By early 1985, Kennedy’s GN had run out of money and options. Like most entrepreneurs who invest themselves in their companies, Kennedy didn’t let go until GN had suffered significant losses. January 11th, 1985 at 6:55 pm, GN aired its final newscast, with Gainesville newsman Ken Stanford recalling the report he had sent to GN for its very first newscast. WGST hired several former GN journalists including capitol reporter Mimi Mees and news director Wade Medlock. Both had long and successful careers at the station.
GRNS even outlasted its all-news parent. WGST Newsradio is now WBIN, a Black Information Network station. Renamed the “Georgia News Network”, the former GRNS is today one of several state networks hubbed out of Atlanta and owned by iHeart.
Kennedy went on to host a successful syndicated music series, "Big Band Jump," on radio stations nationwide.
— Richard Warner, March 2022