Static Quo

The City of Dallas could make a fortune from WRR-FM. But powerful friends don't want anything to change at their little radio station.

Fifty yards from the Fair Park Midway, and mere spitting distance from the landmark Texas Star Ferris wheel, sits a squat, putty-colored building. Modest signs first lead visitors down a narrow alley to the building's locked back door. It takes more poking around corners and tiptoeing through shrubbery to find the public entrance to WRR-FM 101.1, the only government-owned commercial radio station in the country.

Since its birth in 1920--the year licensed radio broadcasting began--WRR has been owned by the City of Dallas, and since 1948 it has been the only commercial, 24-hour classical music station in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

With city backing, no direct competition, and a prime spot on the FM dial, the station should be wildly successful. But instead, WRR cowers in the Ferris wheel shadow, a media midget stunted from years of mismanagement and abject neglect.

For a little more than two years, the station has been run by a 39-year-old city bureaucrat--WRRGeneral Manager Greg Davis--whose closest brush with real-life broadcasting came just after college, when he was a camera operator and technician at a Lubbock television station. (On his resume, Davis claims he was the station's news director, although employees of KLBK-TV don't recall it that way.)

Since Davis took over WRR in 1994, he has been disciplined for repeatedly missing work and lying about it on his time sheets, and was forced to pay back $200 to the city after auditors caught him fudging on his expense account.

The station's second-in-command--Kevin Connell--is a former topless-bar disc jockey who recently was suspended for 10 days after lunging at Davis during a heated conversation.

On the air, WRR has a reputation for its bumbling impersonation of a professional radio station. It is known for unimaginative programming, fawning interviews with conductors, and goofy promotions. Newly awakened listeners are greeted each morning with a "March of the Day." Symphonies often are truncated in the interest of time. Composers' names are frequently mispronounced, despite the pronunciation guide kept in the control booth.

The station brags that it is financially self-sufficient, never taking a dime in taxpayer money. But as a city ward, it is staffed by city employees and pays next to no rent for its Fair Park offices and no corporate taxes. Even so, it has barely managed to make a "profit" in seven of the past 10 years, and has been carried by the city during lean times.

Every shred of logic dictates that the city should unload WRR and get out of the radio business. It would be difficult for anyone to do a worse job managing the station.

Talk of selling WRR--or leasing it out to a private operator--has floated about City Hall for at least 10 years, and the idea is again percolating through official channels.

Now may be the best time ever for the city to dump its little radio waif. Industry deregulation is driving up the prices of most broadcast properties, and WRR could be worth as much as $30 million to one of the hungry media conglomerates scouring the countryside for fresh acquisitions. One company, in fact, has already offered the city $25 million for the station.

But as with many of the city's strange entanglements between public service and private business, logic won't decide WRR's future. Emotions, politics, and social clout will.

The station probably would have been sold years ago were it not for a gaggle of social heavyweights with hefty pocketbooks who call themselves the Friends of WRR.

Formed in the late 1980s, the nonprofit group has come to view WRR as its own plaything. The Friends wield inexplicable power over the station, renting an office in its building and offering advice on programming and budget matters.

Judging by the group's letterhead, a spot on the Friends' board of directors has become de rigueur among many of the city's elite, wealthy business leaders, and arts patrons. Led by octogenarian socialite Sis Carr, the group has almost singlehandedly obstructed every attempt to alter WRR operations or ownership. With their hefty budget and access to city leaders, the Friends are widely credited--or criticized--for preventing the city from undertaking any serious consideration of WRR's future.

"There wasn't anything we did of any consequence at WRR that didn't involve the Friends," says a former station employee. "The budget, appointments, privatization--they had something to say about everything. They're supposed to be a support group, but they have enough power to change station policy if they want it badly enough."

In theory, WRR could make the city a lot of money, and probably could be made into a better radio station in the bargain. But any discussion of WRR's fate must consider the Friends, who will brook little meddling with the pet radio station the city has provided them.

"It is odd that city government has hung onto what is essentially a private business," says former Mayor Steve Bartlett, who has long advocated selling WRR. "But it's kind of a Dallas tradition. We talk capitalist and act socialist."

In the best Dallas tradition, WRR has big historical roots. According to a history commissioned for the station's 75th anniversary in 1995, WRR sprang from the "daring proposal" of three men to build a wireless radio communication system. Western Union telegraphers Frank M. Corlett and Ben Emerson approached Henry Garrett, an electrical engineer with the Dallas Fire Department, with a plan for a two-way communications system, linking crystal radio sets in the homes of volunteer firefighters and fire emergency vehicles. The central Dallas fire station served as the transmitter base.

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