Radio BBQ

Did Mayor Laura Miller do a flip-flop on WRR, or did Schutze get it wrong?
Peter Calvin

OK. Let's just cut to the ethical chase on this whole stupid WRR radio station tower-swap deal. This is ridiculous. The city council needs to put some people in chairs, turn on the bright lights and the tape recorders and ask some straight questions.

The council will hear this week about a very complicated deal whereby the city-owned classical music station would swap towers with a commercial station; the city would get $60 million in cash; and KERA, the city's public broadcast company, would take over management of WRR under a local management agreement or "LMA."

The effect of the tower swap would be to give WRR a much stronger signal in the whiter, more northern neighborhoods and a weaker signal than it has now in black and Latino Dallas. Right now it reaches everybody equally. The main beneficiaries of the deal would be Susquehanna Radio Corp. of York, Pennsylvania, and Service Broadcasting, owned by Hymen Childs of Dallas.

Question No. 1: Who first showed up at City Hall some months ago talking to an assistant city manager about a proposed tower swap?

No. 2: Is the mayor's appointed "radio panel" in any way a part of the bid process?

No. 3: Is it true this panel recommended the city not bring in an independent auditor to assess the market values of all the components of the deal?

No. 4: Has the radio panel been pushing a particular bid or proposal? Is anybody on or associated with the panel connected with a business or nonprofit that would benefit from the deal or deals being proposed?

Because if that's the case, then someone may have put people in a position to influence the bid process. And that's a major legal issue for the city or damn well should be.

And the original question remains: Why mess with WRR in the first place? The amazing thing is that WRR is owned by the city but makes money. If we were to judge by box office alone, WRR would be the most successful major cultural institution in the city. A city department that turns a profit? Somebody should send a team of scientists to study it.

Instead of that we have all these other arts groups trying to help do it in so they can get part of the $60 million. It's like a big fat healthy baby bouncing on the city's knee, and all of its cultural aunts and uncles are gathered 'round--the big arts-maven culture-vulture types--and all they can think is, "Let's eat it."

First lesson on the road to becoming a civilized city: Don't eat the baby.

People say WRR could make more money with a "businesslike" management style. But the purpose of WRR is not to be a big commercial success. It's to provide classical music to the people of Dallas. The Meyerson Symphony Center could make more money if it went topless. "Swan Lake, With Headlights." Give me a break.

And what's so "businesslike" about KERA, the public broadcast company that would take over WRR under this deal? At least WRR makes money without running ad nauseam advertorials for Blenko Glass like Channel 13, KERA's television station, for example. If I see that stupid thing one more time, I'm going to grab my shotgun and do an Elvis on the TV.

The Blenko Glass advertorial is shown again and again on KERA as a fund-raising device. Supposedly it's the history of this outfit that makes glass objects, such as vases and stuff that looks like hand-blown bowling balls. KERA sends you some Blenko glass if you kick in a "contribution." They say it's "collectible." But is it bowl-able?

Then we have KERA radio, with those fake ads all the time that they say aren't ads. It's "underwriting." You know: "...brought to you by the law firm of Termagant, Harridan, Harpy and Shrew, protecting Park Cities residents for over 60 years from unscrupulous blood-sucking whiny ex-maids who got all jacked out of shape just because you pulled their hair or slapped them or something, which they totally deserved."

Face it: Those dumb things are ads. Dumb irritating ads, but ads all the same. KERA gets public money; they sell ads, irritating ads; and they're still in the hole. Now there's all this talk of turning WRR over to KERA to manage. Sure, "...and when you send the baby over for us to watch, don't forget to send along some Worcestershire."

Mayor Laura Miller has come out against the tower-swap part of the deal but is still pushing for KERA management. I suggested in a column last week that the mayor had a lot of explaining to do about the proposed swap. She says my column gave the unfair impression that she was pushing the swap, when she was not, and that I should give her a correction and an apology.  

All the people I've talked to about it, including members of the city council, were under the impression until midweek last week that the tower swap was a Laura Miller deal. She had appointed her friend, radio executive Michael Spears, to head up a panel on what to do with WRR after Spears addressed a meeting of the city council about tower swaps and what a good idea a swap might be.

She offered a caveat from the beginning that she wouldn't support anything that substantially impaired or reduced WRR. And she did come out very publicly and suddenly in the middle of last week opposing the swap idea. So I need to state plainly here that Miller is not now in favor of the swap, and it was my mistake not to call her last week for an update on her position.

But there is also a certain party line on this all of a sudden. I spoke to Spears two weeks ago, and he was clearly promoting the swap. I spoke to him a few days ago, and he said his panel was only a "fact-finding" body and that neither he nor it had a position on the swap. I must note--self-importantly, I'm sure--that the mayor came out against the swap and Spears became a neutral fact-finder right after I said in a column last week that the two of them had a ton of explaining to do about where this whole idea came from in the first place ("Radio Free Gomer," May 29).

And Miller is still holding out for putting KERA in charge of WRR--maybe her main agenda from the beginning. But if the aim is to make WRR more commercial, why not get somebody commercial to run it?

Chief Assistant City Manager Mary Suhm cautioned me last week that the so-called "radio panel," created by the mayor and headed by Spears, is not legally or officially a part of the decision-making process: "The radio panel is advising," she said. "That's all they're doing. They will probably stand up before the council and make a recommendation. They don't make a decision. The council makes the decision."

That may be accurate, legally. But politically and morally, if the panel is being presented to the council as objective and acting in the city's best interests, then that had better be true.

Suhm told me she also did not remember who first brought the tower-swap idea to the city. "It was more than one person," she said. "I don't know who the person was for sure."

Would be good to know--especially if it's anyone whose deal is being pushed by the radio panel.

The tower-swap deal as it is now proposed involves Hymen Childs, owner of Service Broadcasting (K104 and KKDA--"Soul 73") and a former employer of Spears. Childs has hired veteran lobbyist William Cothrum and Southern Dallas political consultant Kathy Nealy to represent him on it at City Hall.

At the end of last week, the mayor accused Nealy and Childs of making a race-card appeal to black city council member Leo Chaney when they met to lobby him for the deal. She said she heard them tell Chaney that black people don't need a classical music station because they don't listen to classical music and would be better off with Childs' "urban" station.

Both Cothrum and Nealy vigorously denied to me that they are playing a race card in presenting their case to minority council members. Cothrum said they are showing the council members research on which tower reaches which audience in the city.

Chaney, who is black, was very upset with the mayor's characterization of his meeting with Nealy and Childs. He said Nealy and Childs had discussed with him the demographic appeal of the various stations in the proposed deal. "That's a business reality," he said.

Chaney is very opposed to the signal swap, however. He says many of the calls he has received have been from elderly black residents who don't like the programming on Childs' FM station. "They say there's too much sex on it." He says many callers have told him they like WRR because classical music helps them get to sleep. (I find the same thing, even at the Meyerson.)

Chaney blamed the mayor for racializing the issue. "That station is a jewel, and it ain't about what's black, white, green or gold, and I don't like this race thing coming in. She started the whole mess with her friends, Michael Spears and Hymen Childs, and now she's trying to dog-paddle away from it."  

I wouldn't call it dog-paddling. It looks more to me like a very athletic freestyle. But in all of this, I guess there is a silver lining. The majority on the council, including the mayor, deserve credit. They are turned off by the tower-swap idea for all the right reasons: It's repugnant to them that the city would ever own a station that serves up culture primarily for white people. That's a good thing.

Council member Dr. Elba Garcia, who was born in Mexico, said, "I think there are a lot of people of color that listen to WRR in the southern sector. I happen to love classical music. Everybody who likes the symphony and the opera knows that the future of these artistic forms is to educate people to listen to them. If they're not exposed to it, how are they going to love it?"

Isn't that refreshing? Hey! What are you doing listening to me? I thought you were watching the baby! Oh, man.

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