By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
When Rita Webb left KNON-FM (89.3) a year and a half ago under the most trying and disheartening of circumstances, it was like being kicked out of the house she had grown up in.
Her departure from the community radio station came during a difficult period in the station's decade-long history: a new station manager and program director had been brought in; long-standing listener-supported programs had been cut from the schedule, including the Grateful Dead show and the "Hour of Slack"; and the "Voice of the People" had become the voice of one person, Bobbie Elliott, who fired favorite jocks and brought in his friends to host certain shows. Elliott even paid his pals, a first at the volunteer jock-driven station, and Webb--known to her many listeners as the twangy, durn-friendly "Ranger Rita," one of the hosts of the station's popular Super Roper shows--resigned in protest. There was no place for her anymore.
A year later, Elliott is long-gone (to KKDA-AM), and KNON has become something of an urban station, its programming geared heavily toward gospel, R&B, hip-hop, and late-night jazz; the Vietnamese programming is all but gone, and the gay-and-lesbian and Native American shows have been cut back to a meager hour. The metal and punk shows are barely noticeable on a schedule that no longer includes such old faves as Celtic music, bluegrass, and "The Jewish Music Hour."
And from a distance--actually, from her office on Commerce Street in downtown, just across from Neiman Marcus--Ranger Rita listens with a twinge of sadness at what was, and regrets what could have been. To her, KNON's old promise of being a true community radio station--one that was by the people, of the people, for all the people--had been compromised and betrayed. Though Elliott is out of the picture, Rita now says she'd never go back to KNON, not even just to step in the door.
"I just wouldn't," she says with a shrug. "Someone asked me to substitute just recently, and I said no. It was one of the country DJs I ran into, and she asked me to do it, and I said, 'No, thanks. I just don't feel it's really community radio anymore.'" Call her an idealist, call her a purist, maybe even stubborn, but Ranger Rita stands by her convictions.
So much so that she and a handful of community radio loyalists have begun a movement to launch a new radio station in Dallas that would function to "raise the awareness of local music and the music of North Texas," she says.
In June 1994, Rita and some comrades launched the North Texas Music Foundation, a non-profit whose sole intention was to buy a station or, at the very least, lease airtime from an existing one. To that end, Rita and the NTMF--whose president is John Bass, a cattle rancher by trade, and whose vice president is lawyer Walt Herring--have begun recruiting members and raised nearly $10,000, which Rita admits "isn't very impressive," but at least it's helping to publish the monthly newsletter and raise awareness about the cause. In the end, Rita figures, the NTMF won't be able to buy a station unless the group receives substantial grant money--several hundred thousand dollars.
So now she sits in a tiny office and pores over local radio statistics, especially the sheets that show how few of them are actually locally owned and operated, and Dallas population figures, trying to show how many of the city's citizens aren't being served by the existing stations.
"We're not going to go after the people who listen to KJMZ or KVIL," she says. "We're going to broadcast alternative country, alternative rock, metal, new age, Celtic, bluegrass. And there are many minorities in this community who have nothing on the radio. There are no women's shows, and I was amazed at how many Filipinos were in Dallas, not to mention the fact there's quite a large Korean, Vietnamese, and Chinese population. And there's nothing for them."
The NTMF's promotional pamphlet lists other proposed programming, much of which recalls KNON's old schedule: "Hour of Slack," the Dead show, "The Jewish Music Hour," Cajun and rockabilly, techno and metal, gospel and folk. For their model, Rita points to Austin's KOOP-FM, a format-free co-op that finally went on the air in 1994 after years of wrangling with the FCC.
"I think we need a real community radio station in Dallas," she says. "KERA started out as supposedly being a 'Voice of the People' type of radio station, but quickly got sold out to corporate interests. And KNON has one agenda--being heard by the people ACORN [a local non-profit low-cost housing organization] wants as members."
Though Rita says there's no on-air date for the station--"We're still in the planning stages," she explains, "still collecting up figures so we can actually have a good business plan"--the organization points to 1997 as one possible date. That's when the FCC licenses are up for every Texas radio station, each of which can be challenged "by anyone for any reason," as the NTMF pamphlet points out. By then, the group hopes to have raised the $200,000 they figure it will cost to hire a lawyer full time and get their own license--or someone else's.