Radio Free Gomer

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 Observer may 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.

Be that as it may, there are sound arguments against shutting off regional access to a city-owned classical music station because one geographic segment of the city doesn't listen as loyally as another. And we do have to factor in race here. Is it even conceivable that the city, on finding that fewer black people attend concerts at the Meyerson Symphony Center than whites, would decide to reserve the main floor center seats for white people and ask people of color to sit in the balcony?

I hate putting it that way. I had lunch last week with a bunch of the would-be tower swappers, and they are all sophisticated people, many of whom have successful histories of providing broadcast content to the black community. It would be a ridiculous stretch to paint them as a bunch of deliberate radio segregationists. But then again, some of the worst, dumbest stuff white folks do is what they do unthinkingly.

I read a wonderful letter to the editor recently defending WRR; I forget which Dallas daily newspaper I saw it in--one of them--but anyway, the letter writer talked about how the audience for classical music is built "one set of ears at a time." If WRR reaches one kid in one house in Southern Dallas and touches that child's brain, then that child will become a parent who will raise his or her children with classical music in the house. We talk about wanting to foster a vibrant cultural climate in the city. Isn't that what WRR does?

One part of the proposal that is especially suspect to me is that WRR, which is a city department, would be taken over by KERA-FM, the public radio station. To buttress that idea, the swappers have been talking about WRR as if it were especially badly run.

I don't think so. They sell ads. They're in the black. WRR goes out into a very competitive market with very non-competitive content and still manages to pay its own way. How is that poor management? Does the Meyerson pay its own way?

And why KERA to run it? Last time I heard anything about KERA, it was millions of dollars in the red, laying off scores of employees at the same time and in the same market where WRR was showing a profit.

The last and most powerful argument for this deal is that the swappers are offering to throw in a one-time cash payment of $60 million to the city. It wouldn't go to help fix any potholes: It would go into a trust fund for the arts. The problem is that no one at City Hall knows what relationship that $60 million may have to the actual value of the WRR signal. Council member Mitchell Rasansky has suggested the value of the signal could be twice that amount, and he could be right. Or wrong. Nobody knows. You have an old dog-eared Bible on the table at your garage sale; a guy runs up and offers you $10,000 for it; that seems like great money until you find out the Bible was worth $1.2 million.

One good way to do this is to bring in a respected radio-industry broker to put a realistic market value on everything. What is the WRR signal worth? What will the other guys gain in the swap?

But another way to handle this is to leave WRR the hell alone. In a city that is thin on cultural assets, thin on parks, thin on geography, here is a valuable jewel in the municipal crown. And it pays for itself!

The main guy pushing this deal has been Michael Spears, former operations manager at KRLD-AM, a big buddy and former employer of Mayor Laura Miller. He's also a neighbor of mine, a bright, likable person and a radio-biz insider who is now between employments. Miller appointed Spears to head a special panel on what to do with WRR after Spears had already put together the rudiments of the swap. One of the main players in Spears' swap plan is Hymen Childs, owner of Service Broadcasting, a former employer of Spears. I spoke to Childs at the end of last week, and he said right off the bat that he would have no objection to bringing in a broker to put market values on the deal.

But I think Miller has bigger questions to answer than cash values. Why should her friend and former employer, Spears, be talking with his friends and former employers about deals for WRR? What if we just stop this merry-go-round? Maybe the smartest thing to do with WRR is to just listen to it.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze