"We'll see."

That's the theme of conversation about most aspects of the University's new TV station - WNEG - which is housed in the first floor of the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.

David Hazinski, a telecommunications professor, chuckled when he used the phrase several times, giving a tour of the area to be occupied by the Toccoa staff and sets in December.

But students at Grady are not laughing.

Despite big plans for the future, construction delays and financial problems pushed back the opening of the studio and completely disrupted class plans for many Grady students.

Without a studio or newsroom to produce a broadcast, the capstone production class wasn't able to produce Newsource 15 - the student-run show that appeared on Channel 15 at 5 p.m. through last spring.

"This is what I call the 'lost class of Grady,'" said Faraz Ahmed, a senior majoring in broadcast and finance. "This was my year to be in the production class. I tried it for a week and then dropped it."

Throughout the semester, students were still in the dark about the future of the student-run show. Only at an "Open Mic" meeting on Oct. 1 did students begin to demand answers.

"Will we be notified of the updates now?" said Janelle Clinton, a senior from Boston. "Communication in this college, ironically, is not working."

Although the station is rich with potential, the students, professors and staff are grappling with what's left of this semester - this transitional period.

"We're kind of going back while we're moving forward," Hazinski said.

The big idea

In the broadest sense, WNEG-TV is meant to be "an information center, not a TV station," said Hazinski, one of the professors who has been heavily involved in the physical installation of the station. "It's not just broadcast, but Web and multiple platforms. We'll be able to run several TV stations and feature outdoor advertising."

Looking at a generation that "takes things in bite-size pieces," one end goal is to produce minibroadcasts - three-minute long shows to appear on buses to "get you caught up" on weather forecasts, news and emergency announcements, Hazinski said.

While building the content and developing the technology to make this possible, WNEG will continue to churn out a daily broadcast.

A walk-through of the newsroom boasts open space, surrounded by glass "for transparency" and high ceilings for the two-story area.

"We're still walking through and changing our minds about where we want to put shelves and furniture," he said. "We want students to be able to see the street, and it's really important that they are two inches from the newsroom."

Under a new reporting model, WNEG will use a handful of reporters to live in and report about "micro communities" - three physical areas (Toccoa, Gainesville and Athens) and three demographic communities (Latino, African American and low income). Instead of driving to the University for work each day, reporters will live in the communities and write articles, produce broadcasts and post information online about their hyperlocalized subjects.

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When Dean E. Culpepper Clark interviewed for his position at Grady College, he brought along the idea of the TV station in 2006 after starting one at the University of Alabama in 2001. Funded through a $5 million grant by the University of Georgia Research Foundation, the station will retain the 32 reporters and sales representatives from Toccoa. After a four-month delay in construction, the college just acquired a temporary certificate of occupancy a few weeks ago. Final installation should be complete by December.

"We need new ways to deliver information. Aggregated news doesn't mean anything anymore, so you have to go back to community programming," Hazniski said. "The idea is to actually bring it back to where TV was in the 1950s, serving the community and providing news for an audience and merchants."

The open newsroom physically supports the idea. A main anchor desk is set up in the middle of the newsroom, and the rest is open for weather, sports and three or four moveable sets. Instead of a physical set, a large screen behind the main anchor desk can project a live shot or graphic to go with the story being discussed. On one side of the newsroom, an assigning editor coordinates all reporters and can talk to mobile reporters electronically.

On the academic side of the project, Ann Hollifield, department head of telecommunication arts and broadcast, hopes to incorporate all departments of the college into the station.

"But students are not a slave labor force. They'll only engage in the station when it'll provide value and an a deliverable portfolio piece - such as a conference paper, research experience or [resume] item," she said.

One idea is to create "projects in a box," or research components for faculty across the college to use semester after semester in their classes to build data sets and ongoing questions. Hollifield plans to begin meetings in a few weeks to develop the programs.

The bigger intent for research with the station is to figure out "what works and what doesn't" in the journalism industry, which is failing economically in all mediums.

"In society, media is one of eight key infrastructures. It used to take care of itself financially, and that's no longer the case," she said. "If we don't come up with a solution, what will that mean for society? It's unsettling."

And that's the tough part about balancing the academics and a business.

"This is a commercial TV station, and the mission is to invent new business models," she said. "We have to find new ways to connect and make journalism financially viable."

Student complaints

With professors flying by the seat of their pants this semester and scrambling to change lesson plans, they often knew as much as the students did in terms of class plans.

The capstone class is producing Web casts for the WNEG Web site, and few make it on the air. The Web casts are on specific topics such as agriculture and business, allowing students to develop micro communities for sources unlike ever before in the class. However, students aren't able to try their hand at anchoring, participate in leadership or produce live shots for a show.

Although the industry is moving toward Web casting, "when we graduate, no company is just doing that. We're here to learn what's in the industry, too," Ahmed said.

About 50 students - mostly broadcast and telecommunication arts majors - gathered at an "Open Mic" event with the dean on Oct. 1. Students vocally addressed their concerns about setbacks with the station, and Dean E. Culpepper Clark turned over question after question to Hollifield, Hazinski and Michael Castengera, a telecommunication arts professor and the WNEG project manager. Some faculty and staff members affected by WNEG attended the session but were part of the silent majority riding along with new changes.

Broadcast students expressed concerns about the loss of Newsource 15.

"We're stuck in a transitional period, so how can we be competitive in the real world?" said Katie Barlow, president of the Student Government Association and a broadcast major.

"We're determined to make sure you have the skills you need," Castengera said. "Our worst come out better than the best of any other school. You may be missing anchoring experience now, but trust me, no one wants to see that. ... Come January, we'll revise the curriculum and Newsource may come back."

Before the meeting, Castengera told The Red & Black that next semester would probably produce a form of Newsource 15 that would be prerecorded with some live shots. At the end of the Open Mic meeting, Castengera told students to gather ideas and meet again on Oct. 15 to discuss the feasibility of reviving the show altogether for the spring.

Telecommunication arts students repeatedly asked about a capstone production course - one that is optional and not offered next semester.

"There are no resources for teachers," Hollifield said. "The key is that you students don't realize the true financial desperation we're starting to feel. I cannot schedule classes that are optional."

Tension continued to build as students asked more questions.

"For tele students, the only real experience we get is the production staff at Newsource," said KC Georges, a senior from Marietta. "If there's no Newsource, we're robbed of a critical experience, which got me an internship with Turner Broadcasting."

"I came to Georgia with the idea that I would be able to take a class like this," said Benjamin Sidoti, a senior from Alpharetta. "My attendance has helped to fund Grady, and I don't feel like Grady is investing back in me."

"I feel like we're being pushed aside," said Sam Veal, a fifth-year from Tennille. "What's the motivation for having a tele department now? I feel like we're being phased out, which is a shame."

As the tension became palpable, Hollifield explained the situation as one of short resources.

"You have to understand, we're scrambling to get resources," she said. "We've tried to protect you from some of the circumstances we're dealing with. If you really want the class, start a student fund and donate $5,000 for an instructor. That's just where we are."

During the conversation, telecommunications instructor James Biddle, who had remained quiet, raised his hand and said one thing.

"I will donate $4,000 for 5260 [the production class]."

After a pause, several students began clapping and others pitched in pledges of $50 or $100 across the room. Several of those students have already taken the class or can't take it yet, Biddle later told The Red & Black.

"That's not necessary, although appreciated," Clark said. He and Hollifield are now securing funding for the telecommunication arts production class, he said.

The meeting wrapped up with unanswered questions but with the plan for students to present a proposal on Oct. 15 to bring back Newsource 15.

"We feel bad about the disruption," Hollifield told The Red & Black. "But if you can't handle the unexpected - the changing, not knowing what's around the corner, thriving on the unplanned, unexpected, make-it-up-as-you-go - then this probably isn't for you. That's what makes this business fun."

Pushing ahead

As the college looks past the transitional phase to the future, the next question is one of money.

The University of Georgia Research Foundation's $5 million grant will sustain the station's operating expenses for up to five years, but funds from elsewhere are needed to keep the station going.

"This has to be sustainable," Hollifield said. "A project on grant money dies in five years, and we want media companies to adopt the model and researchers to test here. This WNEG lab has to pay."

Finances turned sour for the station when the economy tumbled and advertising for all outlets became a low priority - sending WNEG's advertising sales down about 30 percent.

"At the time of the acquisition, we could not anticipate the severity of the economic downturn. Its impact has taken a toll on revenue," Clark told the research foundation during a Sept. 5 status report meeting. "The interrelatedness of sales and program are part of the problem, and therefore part of the solution."

Hollifield is one of the grant writers for the station, and she presented a proposal to the Knight Foundation, a national research giant that funds community journalism efforts.

With the contingency budget down to $59 for this semester, the college was able to cut corners by replacing its own air conditioning (saving $80,000), physically installing satellites (another $80,000), wiring telephone installation and chopping the furniture budget almost in half.

"It's not the most expensive, elaborate facility, but it's in fact a very efficient facility," Castengera told the research foundation. "We will be able to complete the facility to full capability without going over budget, but it's been an interesting process, in that we could have made it go faster had we contracted all of these services, but basically, we don't have or want to spend the money for that."

The station also hit a snare when it lost half a million dollars after losing a CBS affiliation, including sports programming. Castengera said the station will make up profit through local news and syndicated programming, though he said the syndicated shows aren't comparable to the CBS programming. He's tried to book popular shows to sandwich the newscast - The Hills, Degrassi, the Wendy Williams Show, the Mark Richt Show, Cheers and Star Trek - but he's also dropped a few that tanked early on.

"We're getting hit like everyone else and going through money faster than we thought, but we're not in dire straits for this year or the next," he said. "The trick is that when the economy turns and we turn with it, we need to make up money in the black as soon as possible."

In the Greenville and Spartanburg markets, WNEG is "must-carry" and is offered through every cable company. In Northeast Georgia, Charter Communications and Comcast carry the station, but satellite companies Dish Network and DirecTV - a third of the market - refuse to host the channel.

"Their whole thing is, 'Can it make money for us?' and if they don't believe it can make money, then they won't be forced to it," Castengera told the research foundation. "We need help getting the word out and getting people to say they want it on their programming."

Getting the word out to the University community is vital, too.

"Our external team in Grady is starting to get involved with marketing and promotion," Clark said. "We can never do enough of that and haven't. For people to get the big picture and enjoy what we've bought, they have to experience the value of it. In time, they will."

For now - the transitional phase - Clark is calling for all departments to work together. But even he faces days of discontent.

"I'm always frustrated," he said. "There's a feeling of urgency when negotiating and dealing. Nothing ever happens fast enough, and that's life. That's opportunity."

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