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.