Radio Free Gomer

Why would Dallas broadcast classical music to rural meth labs?

Phew. This talk about changing up the city-owned radio station sure has some odor to it.

A group of people in the radio business have offered to "swap towers" with WRR-FM, the city-owned classical music station. WRR gets one of their broadcast towers and some money. They get the WRR tower. You and I, we might ask ourselves why a group of people in the radio business would want to swap towers with the city's station.

I guess to be fair we must allow for a range of possibilities: 1) Tower swapping is a relaxing hobby. 2) A voice from the sky has told the radio people, "Go, sell what you have and swap your radio towers to the poor." 3) They stand to make big-time moolah on the deal.

I'm going to have to go with No. 3. The other two impose too great a tax on the small amount of imagination I have left.

First of all, and I will come back to this, the whole tower-swap thing involves Mayor Laura Miller, a friend of hers and a bunch of radio-business insiders. It's like a game that got started before anybody told us why we were playing.

The WRR radio tower is extremely valuable. WRR broadcasts from a tower in Cedar Hill, which is the highest point in Dallas County. The Federal Communications Commission has assigned a "contour" to WRR--that's the area on the map to which WRR is allowed to broadcast--that perfectly encircles the city of Dallas.

The tower the radio people want to swap to the city is in Decatur in northern Wise County. Many of the smartest and most loyal readers of the Dallas Observermay actually be fuzzy on the precise location of Wise County. It is the region northwest of Fort Worth where one often reads of people fleeing with all their possessions on Harley-Davidson motorcycles because tornadoes have ignited grass fires that have tragically damaged the meth labs the people were operating in isolated wheeled modular housing units. These are not big Vivaldi fans.

I don't want to get too technical here, but I do have on my desk an engineering study by Sellmeyer Engineering of McKinney, showing the circle that represents the FCC-assigned "protected zone" for the Wise County tower--the area that WRR would reach if this tower-swap business actually took place. The circle barely gets into Carrollton. It almost doesn't get into Dallas at all.

OK, wait a minute. I know what you're thinking: Schutze, you must have your head up your sleeve. No one would ever have the gall even to propose that the city radio station surrender a primo urban contour in exchange for a tower way the heck out in the middle of Klanland. Well, let me tell you something, Mr. and Ms. Reader-Smarty: If everybody had your kind of defeatist, overly skeptical outlook on the chances of ripping off City Hall, we never would have had the American Airlines Center.

Here is how the tower swap is being justified: First off, the radio swappers say you can't go by that silly business with the engineering studies and the FCC. They say the engineering studies are just "theoretical." You and I could spend some time thinking about this argument, Dear Reader, but I beg us not to. I fear that this is the kind of undisciplined speculation that leads to homelessness and the mailing of screwball messages about the pope to newspaper columnists. I would like us to accept, for the sake of today's lesson anyway, that the field of engineering is not a hoax.

It is true that you can hear the signal from the Klanland tower pretty far down into Southern Dallas, but not in such a way that you would ever want to spend more than about 30 seconds trying. I went out in my car, tuned my set to Radio Free Gomer and drove southeast on State Highway 175 toward Kaufman. Just a few miles south of downtown, I could still hear a broadcast of some sort, but it was like listening to a loud radio in someone else's apartment. I couldn't tell if they were singing or selling bass boats.

The Wise County signal is what's called a "move-in" or "squeeze-in" signal. The people who buy these peripheral rural towers count on anomalies in the landscape and even in the weather to slide their signals out farther than their assigned circle and into the urban market. The Wise County tower does reach a very lucrative suburban market in the Ponder, Flower Mound and Grapevine areas and probably does "squeeze in" to North Dallas. It just doesn't happen to squeeze anywhere south of downtown.

That brings us to the next argument the swappers are making for the deal. They have been showing city council members a map of the WRR classical music listening area drawn for them by Arbitron, a company that does radio and TV market and ratings studies. According to the Arbitron map, nobody south of downtown listens to WRR anyway.

But Arbitron has been controversial itself of late. The rap on Arbitron by its critics has been that it does an especially poor job of accurately measuring minority audiences.

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