Episode Three: Radio Free Georgia

This week we’re bringing you a local story about independent community radio station WRFG-89.3FM. Gina sits down with station co-founder Harlon Joye at WRFG’s Little Five Points studio to discuss the history of station as well progressive media in the city, the region, and the nation.

A newsletter from WRFG’s early days. Photo by Gina Caison. Archive courtesy of Harlon Joye.

A newsletter from WRFG’s early days. Photo by Gina Caison. Archive courtesy of Harlon Joye.

“We wanted to start something big,” Joye says. WRFG began airing at 89.3FM in Atlanta in 1972. It was Atlanta’s answer to Pacifica Radio’s WBAI in New York, and the first of its kind for the city. WABE didn’t play jazz, WREC was more interested in technical things, WRAS was still figuring itself out, and Clark College (now Clark Atlanta University) didn’t have a radio station yet. Just as WBAI was for New Yorkers, WRFG became the go-to for what was happening and where the demonstrations were taking place. “We were a station that would give voice to certain particular groups that were excluded from the airwaves for reasons of class, sex, etc.”

Back in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, the founders of WRFG weren’t calling themselves socialists, progressives, or radicals. But they knew they were farther left than most were comfortable with, and that was the point. As Joye explains, “We don’t want to be a radio station; we want to be a leftradio station. There’s a difference.”

Commitment to diversity and social justice were — and still are — part of WRFG’s mission, and it even made them a target or the Atlanta Police Department’s communist alert unit, The Red Squad. They called WRFG “a mixture of Trotskyists, communists, weathermen (terrorists), homos, Black Panthers, and dope smokers,” Joye recalls. “Somebody said, ‘Well, they got about 50% right,’” Joye laughs.

WRFG’s mission statement. Photo by Gina Caison.

WRFG’s mission statement. Photo by Gina Caison.

In November 1987, the Atlanta prison uprising unexpectedly pushed WRFG into the spotlight. Thousands of Cuban refugees from the 1980 Mariel boat lift were being held at prisons across the country, including at the U.S. Federal Penitentiary in Atlanta. Then, the U.S. government announced it was sending them back.

At the time, WRFG had two programs aimed at detainees, specifically the ones in federal captivity, and would take calls from detainees on the air. When the riots started, WRFG programs were the only way the Cuban refugees knew they could communicate with their families. They didn’t trust mainstream media. Families would visit WRFG’s studio and go on the air, directing their words to their incarcerated loved ones. The station made national headlines, Joye recalls, and even helped persuade prisoners to let some of the hostages go as a sign of goodwill. 

New York Times  coverage of the Cuban Atlanta Prison Uprising in 1987.

New York Times coverage of the Cuban Atlanta Prison Uprising in 1987.

Equally as unexpected but rewarding all the same are the Living Atlanta! programs that Joye produced at WRFG from 1978 to 1980. Joye received a grant through the National Endowment for the Humanities to produce 50 programs on every aspect of life in a segregated Atlanta from WWI-WWII. Joye and his team interviewed about 150 people. “We covered everything about Atlanta, from Black baseball to police to hospitals, music. You name it,” he says.


The program guide for Living Atlanta! Photo by Gina Caison. Archive credit: Harlon Joye.

WRFG is still primarily a classic, terrestrial station, but Joye and others at WRFG are working to push it into the future. Plans include a second stream, engaging listeners on social media, and broadcasting from special events, such as the Labor Day barbecue. Help them out by following along on their website, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

WRFG continues their progressive programming today.

WRFG continues their progressive programming today.

We’d like to thank Harlon Joye, Christopher Hollis, and the entire WRFG community for allowing us to record this episode at their studios.