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.

Other critics claim that hopes for an LMA were doomed from the start because the city demanded requirements that any private operator would find unreasonable.

"Once I saw the specifications the city put out on proposals, I felt I could not do business with them. I just couldn't live under their specs," says Philip Jonsson, who owns two Little Rock, Arkansas, commercial radio stations. Jonsson is president of Signal Media, a Dallas broadcasting and publishing company, a self-described lover of the arts, and son of former Dallas Mayor J. Erik Jonsson.

In its call for proposals, the city set 16 conditions that a private operator would have to meet. Some were logical, like maintaining the classical format, assuming all existing business contracts, and maintaining the station's fixed assets. But many requirements were restrictive enough to border on the absurd. The private operator, for instance, would be required to continue broadcasting the city council's marathon meetings every second and fourth Wednesday of each month--not exactly a ratings draw.

The operator would also have to submit a "narrative" of a five-year marketing plan for the station, and open all its own books for inspection. The operator also would be required to prove the "effectiveness, suitability, and comprehensiveness" of its employee management approach--ironic, considering that the station's own general manager was under investigation for alleged abuses of city policy when the specifications were drawn up.

The proposals from Stanton and North Texas Public Broadcasting did not measure up, Suhm says, and neither could guarantee that the station would make adequate profits.

But others are less convinced the proposals were so terribly inadequate.
"We made it extremely difficult, which we are prone to do," says Councilman Stimson. Bartlett puts a finer point on it: "When we bid something out, we tend to write down the solution first, and then put it out for the lowest bid. We tell people how we want a problem solved. Cities that are successful with privatization write out what they hope to achieve, then invite the marketplace to achieve it."

Bartlett says he has watched in awe as the city, potential buyers, and loyal listeners have quibbled over WRR's fate. Dallas loves to cling to the status quo, he contends, no matter how irrational that affection is.

"There is this perception in Dallas that if it's always been done this way, we can't do it any differently," Bartlett says.

But indirectly, Bartlett himself is partially responsible for the paralysis that afflicts the city's treatment of WRR. In 1991, it was Bartlett who sent up a trial balloon, proposing that WRR be privatized.

Almost at once, a force rose to fight the idea--the Friends of WRR. The Friends had formed as a low-key, nonprofit group made up of members who liked the idea of a classical music station.

But the prospect of a WRR sale--and the possibility that new station owners might dump the classical format--fueled the Friends to hurricane strength.

At the eye of the storm is the lady in yellow--octogenarian Sis Carr.

Who could resist Sis Carr? Now in her eighth decade, the kindly, wealthy, and eccentric arts patron has for six years made it her business to defend WRR from the clutches of private enterprise. A blaze of primary color wherever she goes, Carr's presence in a room attracts attention--rather like sunlight glinting off metal.

Sitting in her secluded North Dallas home on a recent morning, Carr discusses the issue of power in the WRR debate. She is dressed for a rapidly approaching luncheon date--coincidentally, it is the Friends of WRR's monthly lunch meeting at the Dallas Museum of Art--in a delicate lemon-yellow suit with black braided trim.

Her neatly manicured nails are painted a lacquered yellow. A massive yellow diamond draws attention to her left hand. She has welcomed guests into her heavily paneled living room, where custom, overstuffed furniture is upholstered in crisp toile de Jouy.

Dressed in a lightly starched, yellow Oxford shirt, Carr's assistant, Martin, serves glasses of ice water with blazing yellow beverage napkins. The room has a view of a garden, where yellow roses and golden-bloomed forsythia bushes sway in the hot summer breeze. The curtains are yellow, the room's accessories--including candles and bric-a-brac--are yellow. The house numbers on the mailbox at the Carrs' long, private driveway are painted yellow. And in the circular driveway is Carr's Lincoln Continental, custom-painted the color of butter.

"We go through this talk of selling the station every few years. When new council people come on they really need to be informed about WRR," Carr says with a pleasant smile. "They need to know why people love it, and why we want it to remain a city-owned station."

In 1991, when talk of selling WRR began circulating, Dallas' social set was perturbed. A couple of years earlier, former WRR Sales Manager Sue Swigart had started the Friends of WRR as a support group for the station. But when talk turned to a possible sale of the station, the Friends amped up their power, thanks to the efforts of early co-chairwomen Carr and Sarah White.

A sale or even the slightest change in management would spell the death of classical music radio in Dallas, Carr and the Friends feared. They intended to stop it, and Carr leapt to the front lines.

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