Behind the scenes at WABE:
Reporter Jim Burress ready for station's next steps.
One day in late March, WABE reporter Jim Burress toured a Liberian hospital where the first three people in Guinea diagnosed with Ebola had come for treatment. The next day, he found himself back in the same hospital—but this time in a bed, showing signs of the deadly disease that’s gripped the world’s attention.
“They diagnosed it as malaria but it wasn’t, it was something I ate I think,” Burress says. “So yeah, that was the scary part.”
The openly gay reporter and local host of the station’s “Weekend Edition” got home safe, healthy and armed with another story to add to an award-winning career.
The opportunity to cover such hard-hitting stories in depth wasn’t always present at WABE, the local NPR affiliate, but circumstances have changed over the years—and they’re about to drastically change over the next several months for Burress, the WABE staff and the Atlanta radio community.
A MAGIC PHONE CALL
The WABE newsroom is a long way from Wabash College in tiny Crawfordsville, Indiana, where Burress worked at a student radio station while getting his bachelor’s degree. After graduation he went to work for a television station in Terre Haute, where he came to a realization.
“Eventually I decided TV was just awful. I still think that,” he says. “It’s fun but it is an awful industry. Everybody seems to be in it for the complete wrong reasons. From the top end, it’s so business driven. So it’s all about making money.”
He got out of the TV business and went to grad school at Murray State University in Kentucky, where he started his public radio career at NPR affiliate WKMS. He found his way to Atlanta after that by moving here to work on his PhD, but after a year away from reporting, he was itching to get back in.
“The final week of class I knew I was not going back, but I had no idea what I was going to do,” he says. “I’d actually applied [at WABE] when I still worked in Kentucky two years prior. Magically I get a phone call out of the blue. ‘We have your resume here. We need somebody. Are you still looking?’ It was like manna from heaven. I started work that very next week. That was 2008.”
‘I’VE FALLEN IN LOVE WITH ATLANTA’
Things were much different at WABE back then, and Burress didn’t see himself sticking around long.
“My plan was to be here for two years to get the credentials to go to KQAD in San Francisco. I saw this as a stepping stone,” he says. “There were four of us in the newsroom when I came and every day was awful. We had to get the same amount of news on with just four people doing it. I started to burn out.”
But he hung in there and after a couple of years, more funding came through, the station started to hire more people and WABE’s name recognition within Atlanta’s news community grew. The station has since tripled the size of its newsroom staff.
“I got to do a lot of the reporting I like to do. We kind of became a family,” Burress says. “Now I’m at the point where I don’t want to leave. I’ve fallen in love with Atlanta.”
WABE got another shot in the arm with the Nov. 6 announcement of a four-years-inthe-making plan to cut back classical music during the day, expand its local news, talk and arts coverage and nearly double the size of the news staff.
Burress considers the growth a necessity, thanks to the demands of the Atlanta radio audience.
“They expect a city of this size to have a station of a higher caliber,” he says. “So we’ve asked them to put their money where their mouths are and they did. During our pledge drives, we’ve really seen a lot of success. So the station is investing in the newsroom because that seems to be driving most of the interest.”
Counterclockwise from top: WABE reporter Jim Burress will spend several weeks writing up the panhandling story. Burress reads the panhandling story for news director John Haas for the first time. Burress records his voice tracks for the panhandling story after he and Haas finish editing.