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.

A loyal listener of WRR for decades, Carr, the wife of Dallas oilman William Plack Carr and a longtime arts patron and socialite, essentially began a one-woman campaign to stop even the talk of a sale. Carr will not admit this. In the best monied Dallas tradition, she is abundantly modest and passes the credit around to other members of the Friends of WRR. But it was Carr, jet-black hair knotted into an elaborate bun and dressed in her trademark brilliant-yellow suits, who kept city politicos from selling WRR.

"I tell everyone who wants to learn how to influence City Hall to take a lesson from Sis Carr," Bartlett says. "Bless her heart, she showed up at every town hall meeting in every council district to register her opinions about WRR. There she'd be in her bright yellow. She'd walk in the room, no intention of calling attention to herself. She'd sit about halfway back, just listening. Then when the topic turned to WRR, Sis would stand up ever so politely and say, 'You're not going to sell WRR, are you? I like it.'"

But it isn't just Carr's yellow outfits and demureness that catch the attention of elected officials. In the past five years, the Friends of WRR's list of directors has come to read like an invitation list for the Crystal Charity Ball--Henry S. Miller III, Van Cliburn, Morton H. Meyerson, Ray Nasher, Deborah (Mrs. W.A. Tex) Moncrief, to name a few. Even Dallas Cowboy Emmitt Smith sits on the board--but on the group's letterhead his name is misspelled "Emmet."

The group boasts 2,000 members, an annual budget of nearly $100,000, and office space right in WRR's building. WRR is the only for-profit station in Dallas benefiting from the hard work of a nonprofit lobbying group, but that distinction is apparently a mere quibble. No one in the Friends or associated with the station considers the alliance the least bit curious.

Friends Executive Director Betsy Jessiman says the group's main goal is to make sure Dallas and Fort Worth always have a classical radio station. In this case, the station belongs to the city, and no one has yet convinced the Friends that a new owner would maintain the classical music format, she says.

The group's concerns are not unwarranted. If Dallas sells WRR outright, FCC rules would prevent the city from mandating that the station remain classical. Some radio industry experts say that, given the sluggish ratings and small market share of most classical stations, the first thing a new, heavily leveraged owner might do is change the format to a sure moneymaker.

The number of commercial classical radio stations in the United States has held steady at about 40 for several years now. Some major markets, including San Francisco, Chicago, and Boston have more than one. Inside Radio's Tom Taylor says it's no sure thing that a new owner in Dallas would immediately reformat WRR. In fact, trends in the industry are pointing more than ever toward tightly targeted markets, he says. "Sports, talk, classical, that sort of thing," Taylor says. "There's a demographic among classical radio listeners that advertisers find attractive--usually upper-income, well-educated consumers."

But that is a risk the Friends are not willing to take.
"There is no other place where people who love classical music can go to hear classical music on the radio," Jessiman says. "The Friends are not the least bit convinced that a new owner would maintain the format. The Friends are bright, realistic people who understand business. I don't think they would ever support any change based on the idea that maybe the station will remain classical, or a new owner might keep the format."

If the city entered into a Local Marketing Agreement, however, it could require a classical format, because the city would still hold the station's license. Such an arrangement still could be profitable. For the past three years, WRR has consistently ranked between 17th and 20th place in Arbitron's ranking of area radio stations.

But the Friends oppose an LMA as well. The group may be concerned mostly about keeping WRR a classical station. But the end of city control would also mean the end of the group's influence over its prized cultural toy, and an end to pliable city functionaries like WRR General Manager Greg Davis.

Carr certainly isn't convinced that she would have the ear of any megamedia owner who might come charging into Dallas with a checkbook. Certainly not the way she has had the ear of the city council.

"The history of these things is not in our favor," she says.
The Friends are the force to reckon with on the matter of WRR's future, and the city council knows it, says Councilman Stimson, an accountant by profession who has supported gathering appraisals and information about a possible sale.

"The Friends of WRR are very powerful, very influential people," Stimson says. "When they're in the room, you know it. They've been very effective in using scare tactics that a sale of the station will be the end of classical music in Dallas."

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