Against the odds: Communication major wins national radio news award

Against the odds: Communication major wins national radio news award

W hen he was little, Jonathan O’Brien wasn’t afraid of a monster under the bed.

From early on, he loved watching the nightly news and knew how bad real people and circumstances could be. By Kindergarten, he was scaring all the other kids with tales of Hurricane Katrina, and his teachers had to tell him to stop.  

Now, he wins awards for telling the news.

O'Brien took 2nd place for Best Audio Newscast at CBI (College Broadcasters, Inc.), a huge feat as many of his national competitors were from larger schools with bigger budgets, better equipment and far-reaching audiences—stations with 1.3 million listeners compared to Georgia College’s humble gathering of a couple hundred. O’Brien likes to joke “you might get the WGUR signal up at the Kroger.”

But that hasn’t stopped him.

This award, it’s a wonderful thing that we’ve won. It’s an achievement. I don’t know if radio is taken quite as seriously as the rest of media, so it’s an affirmation of something I’ve worked to build.
– Jonathan O'Brien

Jonathan O'Brien outside the WGUR radio station at Terrell Hall.
Jonathan O'Brien outside the WGUR radio station at Terrell Hall.
A junior communication major from Atlanta, O'Brien quickly rose from a “homesick freshman”—who knew little about all the buttons, lights and levers on a radio control panel—to becoming news director of the student-run station, 95.3 WGUR, by his second semester. In reality, this means he’s editor, anchor and chief reporter all rolled into one. Since freshman year, he’s also been given practicum students to manage, all mostly older than him. 

O’Brien gets paid $300 a semester to do this job. 

But he says he’d do it for free. 

“There’s always been an underlying desire to report the news,” O’Brien said. “I was always fascinated with current events—anything the adults were talking about. Real-world things always interested me.”

“Why? I guess I’ll have to consult a therapist about that,” he said, laughing. “I guess because it was so normal. Everybody always said I was the kid who was mature for his age.”

To understand his rise to the top of radio news at Georgia College, one must not only ponder O’Brien’s upbringing but also the underdog syndrome that's been his life's story.

He grew up like most any other child—maybe a tad more serious—wanting to be a lawyer and then governor of Georgia. He was raised by his two grandmothers, both extraordinary women who built successful careers. They taught him to mind his manners, look people in the eye when speaking and value experience “more than any textbook.” Their influence largely made O’Brien who he is today.

“That determination, that grit of theirs, is what I focus on,” he said. “It makes me want to make something of myself and do something in life that’s worthwhile. My grandmothers always made me feel like I can do most whatever I want if I put my mind to it. They probably don’t know I get a lot of that from them.”

Junior communication major Jonathan O'Brien
Junior communication major Jonathan O'Brien

Growing up, his heroes were TV reporters and anchors. His grandma likes to tell the story of how O’Brien, at age 3, asked for the time. When she answered 8 a.m., he said, “Oh my goodness! We’re going to miss Channel 2 Action News!” 

There’s always been an underlying desire to report the news. I was always fascinated with current events—anything the adults were talking about. Real-world things always interested me ... Everybody always said I was the kid who was mature for his age.
– O'Brien

Now, O’Brien delivers the news in his own spunky, creative way—lending a distinctive Southern-accented enthused voice to news from campus, the local community, nation and world. With a million-dollar TV studio above his head in Terrell Hall and the newspaper staff next door—O’Brien can be seen daily plugging away in the university’s radio room. 

All technology at WGUR came hard-earned through ad sales and grants. It’s a small but impressive space, where O’Brien keeps the news short, factual and clear—churning it out every hour on-the-hour. Each show is 3 minutes and 30 seconds long. An additional program, “Georgia College’s Evening News,” was produced last semester three days a week live at 4:30 and 5:30 p.m. 

During important occasions, like the 2020 Presidential Election and U.S. President Joe Biden’s recent inauguration, O’Brien spearheads unscripted, live coverage that’d make most TV news editors envious. He was featured in a 13WMAZ newscast for the inauguration. He’s caught the attention of many faculty and staff on campus, as well, along with members of Georgia Public Broadcasting and the National Radio Talent System in San Francisco, which offered him a Benztown Mentorship last spring that got derailed due to COVID-19. 

O’Brien practically gave himself “an ulcer” prior to the 2020 Elections. He’d essentially been planning coverage since getting off the air after midterm elections in 2018. At that time, he flew solo as a freshman doing live reports. This time, he had help.

O'Brien in the WGUR news station.
O'Brien in the WGUR news station.
From 7 p.m. to 2 a.m., O’Brien juggled the schedules of a dozen other students. He assigned some to the courthouse and polling places to get voter reaction. Others roamed campus for faculty and student reaction. O’Brien interviewed leaders from the Young Democrats and College Republicans live on air and used audio from the Associated Press (AP) to fill in time gaps. He created table charts and spreadsheets, showing 35 open senatorial seats with details about each. He compared 2020 to elections in 2008, 2012 and 2016. All night, his students scoured the Internet for interesting tidbits, the latest news from the New York Times or what CBS was predicting. They fed this information to O’Brien via text as he continued talking on air.

O’Brien is quick to say he didn’t do any of this or achieve award-winning status alone. He names off a list of mentors who helped him, including Media Lab Coordinator Evelina Galova-Iossifov, Operations Manager Daniel McDonald at 88.3 WRGC, reporter Sandra Parrish at 95.5 WSB, news anchor Rahul Bali at Oconee Radio Group, Jennifer Seelig at KCBS News in San Francisco and longtime friend Lynn Harasin, a former reporter for Channel 2 Action News.

But his advisor gives much of the credit to O’Brien, saying he doesn’t require micro-management.

He’s on top of it and, if that’s not enough, he produced and hosted live election coverage in 2018 and 2020. That’s something done by veterans and here he was—a newbie with only talent, work ethic and an incredible drive—delivering six-plus hours of non-stop live results and analysis on air. In short, Jonathan comes as close to being the perfect student and radio journalist as possible. I look forward to following his career in radio journalism. He’ll achieve a grand slam in the business.
– Evelina Galova-Iossifov

“He’s on top of it and, if that’s not enough,” Galova-Iossifov said, “he produced and hosted live election coverage in 2018 and 2020. That’s something done by veterans and here he was—a newbie with only talent, work ethic and an incredible drive—delivering six-plus hours of non-stop live results and analysis on air.”

“In short,” she said, “Jonathan comes as close to being the perfect student and radio journalist as possible. I look forward to following his career in radio journalism. He’ll achieve a grand slam in the business.”

The 2nd-place CBI award for Best Audio Newscast came as a complete surprise to both O’Brien and Galova-Iossifov. 

The prize was for a lengthier newscast, a 9-minute “Evening Brief” O’Brien did when bored and stuck in his apartment at the beginning of COVID-19 last March. The newscast was a splicing of several stories—the most notable about Baldwin County’s first death from coronavirus. The report included facts, quotes from local health officials, audio from several AP stories, another news story from a Georgia College practicum student and sing-song advice from Sesame Street’s Elmo on the importance of handwashing. 
 
“I looked online and saw we came in second. I couldn’t believe it. I about fell out of my chair,” O’Brien said. “It was such a fun moment, because it was just so unexpected.”

Growing up, I never won many awards. I was never good at sports, was never good at any of that stuff. The awards I did win were for debate team in middle school. And I thought, ‘How funny, after all these years, the only awards I win are for talking.’
– O'Brien