Be­hind the scenes at WABE:

Re­porter Jim Bur­ress ready for sta­tion's next steps.

GA Voice - - Front Page - By PA­TRICK SAUN­DERS psaun­ders@the­

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.


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.”


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.”

(Pho­tos by Pa­trick Saun­ders)

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.

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