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.

Members of the Friends board of directors play down their obvious wealth and social connections.

Alan Kailer, for instance, is a partner in the high-profile Dallas law firm Jenkens & Gilchrist and a past president of the Friends of WRR. "I've talked to several of the council members myself about WRR," Kailer says. "Obviously, they are aware of my professional association when they talk to me. But what I've repeatedly heard cited as the reason for the city backing away from a proposal is not any of the big names involved, but the fact that they get a ton of letters from all over the city. This is much more widespread than just a few influential people."

Kailer might get an argument from Bartlett about that. When talk of privatizing the station first began, the former mayor says, "I had 12 council members tell me they were in favor of it. Now, there are some very fine people in charge of the Friends of WRR, but when they started calling and writing, the pressure got too great for the council to handle. In the end, only four council members said they would vote in favor of it.

"I always believed the people of Dallas would benefit by getting out of the radio business. The city would have had $15 million for capital improvements, more zoo exhibits, you name it. And I'm convinced the private sector could do a better job with the radio station. What continues to hold this whole thing up is a fine Dallas tradition that says, 'It's always been done this way, it works OK this way, so we can't do it differently.'"

In truth, Dallas easily could improve both the profits and quality of WRR without losing the city's only classical station.

The easiest way would be through a Local Marketing Agreement, under which a private operator could be required to keep the classical format, and which might make the city some money.

If the city wants an LMA to succeed, it can look at the arrangement governing KING-FM in Seattle, one of the highest-rated commercial classical stations in the country.

KING is owned by three of Seattle's largest arts groups through a nonprofit corporation called Beethoven Inc., which controls the station through a board of directors including the owners, general manager, and members of the community.

Beethoven Inc. contracts with Bonneville Broadcasting of Salt Lake City--which owns numerous radio stations, including KDGE-FM 94.5 in Dallas--to run the station's business and advertising. All the station's after-tax profits are split between the three arts groups, ensuring them a reliable source of funds, according to KING General Manager Peter Newman.

"It has worked fine for us," Newman says. "What it boils down to is a guaranteed income for the station."

Seattle's arrangement is not exactly an LMA, but it does show that creative, moneymaking options exist, even with changes in ownership or management.

Dallas also could consider selling WRR's FM signal and buying a cheaper frequency on the AM dial. The signal would be weaker, and AM quality is not as good as FM. But such a swap has been suggested by Councilman Larry Duncan as a way to keep the classical format and continue live broadcasts of city council meetings.

But rather than seriously studying WRR's future, the city has loped along, drawing up halfhearted proposals and asking for appraisals of the station--just in case the city council ever decides to sell it.

The staunchest supporters of the status quo on the city council--Paul Fielding and Donna Blumer--consistently have refused even to consider any of the options. Mayor Ron Kirk, whom the Friends' Carr describes as "very supportive of our station and of the arts in Dallas," has been steadfast and ever-so-cautious in his insistence that mere talk of a sale hardly means it's a done deal.

Supporters act as if the station is wildly successful, which it clearly is not.

One measure of success in the radio industry is the share of the market that a particular station "pulls." WRR consistently pulls about a 2.2 share--meaning 2.2 percent of the radio audience.

According to Arbitron figures, WRR consistently ranks last among the nation's 24 other commercial classical stations in the amount of money it makes compared to the number of listeners it has. (In other words, because WRR ranks in the top 20 for audience share, its revenues should reflect as much. Historically, the station's revenue share as a percentage of its audience share has hovered around 50 percent.) Even with the benefit of the doubt, the station should be doing better. Much better.

Sometime this month, the city council's transportation and telecommunications committee is supposed to receive a new appraisal of WRR's market value. A bonanza of offers to buy the station might well follow. WRR has something the media giants want--a perfect spot on the FM dial.

Friends of WRR aside, there are some people who firmly believe the city should get out of the radio business. A check for $30 million or so could go a long way toward doing things cities actually are supposed to do--like fixing streets, building low-income housing, or perhaps getting a serious recycling program in gear.

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