It’s probably the least threatening gang in Atlanta, but “The Georgia Gang” has survived for three decades.
Atlanta’s longest-running public affair program, the weekly program features former or current journalists parsing out a vast array of state and local issues.
Seen on Fox 5/WAGA-TV Sunday mornings at 8:30 a.m., the show began in 1981 as “Sunday News Conference” on Channel 2 WSB-TV and lasted six years. WATL-TV revived it in 1989, where it was renamed “The Georgia Gang,” later moving to WAGA.
The lineup has shifted, with only one original member left: Dick Williams,
former Atlanta Journal Constitution columnist and current editor of The Dunwoody Crier. But the simple, low production talk format has not changed.
In the early days, they were nicknamed, “Men in Chairs.” The feistiest period, Williams said, was during the 1980s and 1990s when journalists Tom Houck and Bill Shipp duked it out. “Those two made good TV,” Williams said. He recalls Shipp throwing a clipboard at Houck one time, just missing him. Houck walked off the set at least once in disgust. But they respected each other at the end of the day.
There are now three regulars. Besides the conservative Williams, the show features Phil Kent, a former Augusta Chronicle editor and fellow conservative, and Alexis Scott, publisher of the African-American newspaper the Atlanta Daily World, a self-proclaimed “bleeding heart liberal.”
Kent said all of them are pure “news junkies” at heart and could pontificate on virtually any major local topic of the day.
“I find the discussion is always interesting, always dynamic,” said Ruben Brown, media relations specialist at the American Red Cross Atlanta chapter who has watched the show regularly for the past decade. “It provides a good overall view of how the pundits and politicos feel.”
Atlanta political blogger Grayson Daughters participates in a live blog on Peach Pundit each week making snarky comments while “The Georgia Gang” is on. “This is for people with no life!” she said. But why? “We’re all political junkies. The show features all these ancient journalists who have been around forever! It’s a clash of old and new media. When do we stage a coup and take over the show?”
Williams jots topics down in a notebook during the week, then sends them Thursday night to the other participants so they’re prepared for the Friday morning taping at WAGA studios.
“We draw a lot of businessmen who travel and like to watch the show to catch up on the news,” Williams said. The “Gang” was more pugnacious in its early days, but the goal has always been to “disagree without being disagreeable. We try to engage in an intelligent discussion of issues.”
At the March 4 taping, the group hit upon a dozen issues, from Newt Gingrich’s possible presidential bid to HOPE scholarship cutbacks to illegal immigration, throwing in “winners and losers” in the final minutes. The tone was congenial.
“Not very contentious today!” Williams noted to the group. Kent protested: “Alexis and I mixed it up a bit!”
Later, Williams said Scott is “such a sweet lady and so reasonable, you don’t want to attack her.”
“But Phil does anyway,” she added, with a smile.
Houck, a liberal who left in 2001, said he feels the show is now more right-tilting than it was back when he was there. But he doesn’t feel any desire to return. “I’d probably get into fisticuffs with Phil!” he said, with a laugh.
Former AJC editor Jeff Dickerson, a self-described moderate who does crisis communications public relations work, recently left the show after 23 years. “It was a good ride,” he said. Given one of his clients is the Atlanta Public Schools, which is embroiled in a test cheating scandal frequently discussed on the show, he said “it was getting awkward what I could say or couldn’t say.”
Williams is seeking a moderate/liberal replacement, preferably with a journalistic background. “I’m still desperately searching,” he said.