Since its birth in 1920--the year licensed radio broadcasting began--WRR has been owned by the City of Dallas, and since 1948 it has been the only commercial, 24-hour classical music station in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
With city backing, no direct competition, and a prime spot on the FM dial, the station should be wildly successful. But instead, WRR cowers in the Ferris wheel shadow, a media midget stunted from years of mismanagement and abject neglect.
For a little more than two years, the station has been run by a 39-year-old city bureaucrat--WRRGeneral Manager Greg Davis--whose closest brush with real-life broadcasting came just after college, when he was a camera operator and technician at a Lubbock television station. (On his resume, Davis claims he was the station's news director, although employees of KLBK-TV don't recall it that way.)
Since Davis took over WRR in 1994, he has been disciplined for repeatedly missing work and lying about it on his time sheets, and was forced to pay back $200 to the city after auditors caught him fudging on his expense account.
The station's second-in-command--Kevin Connell--is a former topless-bar disc jockey who recently was suspended for 10 days after lunging at Davis during a heated conversation.
On the air, WRR has a reputation for its bumbling impersonation of a professional radio station. It is known for unimaginative programming, fawning interviews with conductors, and goofy promotions. Newly awakened listeners are greeted each morning with a "March of the Day." Symphonies often are truncated in the interest of time. Composers' names are frequently mispronounced, despite the pronunciation guide kept in the control booth.
The station brags that it is financially self-sufficient, never taking a dime in taxpayer money. But as a city ward, it is staffed by city employees and pays next to no rent for its Fair Park offices and no corporate taxes. Even so, it has barely managed to make a "profit" in seven of the past 10 years, and has been carried by the city during lean times.
Every shred of logic dictates that the city should unload WRR and get out of the radio business. It would be difficult for anyone to do a worse job managing the station.
Talk of selling WRR--or leasing it out to a private operator--has floated about City Hall for at least 10 years, and the idea is again percolating through official channels.
Now may be the best time ever for the city to dump its little radio waif. Industry deregulation is driving up the prices of most broadcast properties, and WRR could be worth as much as $30 million to one of the hungry media conglomerates scouring the countryside for fresh acquisitions. One company, in fact, has already offered the city $25 million for the station.
But as with many of the city's strange entanglements between public service and private business, logic won't decide WRR's future. Emotions, politics, and social clout will.
The station probably would have been sold years ago were it not for a gaggle of social heavyweights with hefty pocketbooks who call themselves the Friends of WRR.
Formed in the late 1980s, the nonprofit group has come to view WRR as its own plaything. The Friends wield inexplicable power over the station, renting an office in its building and offering advice on programming and budget matters.
Judging by the group's letterhead, a spot on the Friends' board of directors has become de rigueur among many of the city's elite, wealthy business leaders, and arts patrons. Led by octogenarian socialite Sis Carr, the group has almost singlehandedly obstructed every attempt to alter WRR operations or ownership. With their hefty budget and access to city leaders, the Friends are widely credited--or criticized--for preventing the city from undertaking any serious consideration of WRR's future.
"There wasn't anything we did of any consequence at WRR that didn't involve the Friends," says a former station employee. "The budget, appointments, privatization--they had something to say about everything. They're supposed to be a support group, but they have enough power to change station policy if they want it badly enough."
In theory, WRR could make the city a lot of money, and probably could be made into a better radio station in the bargain. But any discussion of WRR's fate must consider the Friends, who will brook little meddling with the pet radio station the city has provided them.
"It is odd that city government has hung onto what is essentially a private business," says former Mayor Steve Bartlett, who has long advocated selling WRR. "But it's kind of a Dallas tradition. We talk capitalist and act socialist."
In the best Dallas tradition, WRR has big historical roots. According to a history commissioned for the station's 75th anniversary in 1995, WRR sprang from the "daring proposal" of three men to build a wireless radio communication system. Western Union telegraphers Frank M. Corlett and Ben Emerson approached Henry Garrett, an electrical engineer with the Dallas Fire Department, with a plan for a two-way communications system, linking crystal radio sets in the homes of volunteer firefighters and fire emergency vehicles. The central Dallas fire station served as the transmitter base.
The U.S. Commerce Department issued a limited commercial license to WRR in March 1920. KDKA in Pittsburgh had taken to the air just two and a half weeks earlier, making WRR the second radio station licensed in the nation. Not to be outdone by Pennsylvania Yankees, Dallas city fathers began touting their new baby as "the first radio station to commence operations west of the Mississippi River."
Initially, Dallas firefighters told jokes over the airwaves ("Why do firemen wear suspenders?"), and read weather reports, birthday announcements, and newspaper articles. Occasionally they even played some music. In 1939, the station began selling advertising.
For decades, WRR had both an AM and an FM signal. Radio host Jim Lowe--the familiar voice of the State Fair's Big Tex--entertained listeners on the AM dial with his "Library of Laffs," featuring the recorded comedy schticks of Shelley Berman, Bob Newhart, and Stan Freberg. On May 3, 1977, the city sold the AM station for $1.9 million. The transaction created little uproar, but did lay the pipe for the first discussions of selling the FM signal.
In 1986, WRR increased its signal output to 100,000 watts, using a new tower in Cedar Hill. And by 1990, the station considered itself truly modern--having completed the transition from vinyl record albums to compact discs.
The massive vinyl collection is now shelved in a small room in WRR's putty-colored building, the albums used only as backups if a CD malfunctions, says WRR Business Manager Jim Green, while conducting a recent tour of the station.
The rest of the tiny, two-story space is nothing if not functional--the long, close hallways are devoid of the lively posters and Xerox art that decorate most radio stations.
On an early afternoon in August, Robin Meredith, the host of "Midday Music," moves about the station, checking the Associated Press wire and tending to other chores while a lengthy symphonic selection plays on from the control booth. "She has a lot of time to move around, but she has to be aware of when the piece will finish," Green notes. "Dead air time is not a good thing."
Noticeably absent during the tour is station General Manager Greg Davis. Davis--a public employee--had promised 10 days earlier that he would be available for an interview with the Dallas Observer. But when the day arrived, Davis ducked out. "Greg had to go to a meeting outside the office," Green explained sheepishly.
That is perhaps understandable, given Davis' rocky stewardship of the station, and the fact that he seems to spend much of his time anywhere but at work.
Greg Davis was a minor functionary in the city's Department of Information Services before he was appointed WRR's general manager in May 1994. According to his resume, Davis set up audio-visual presentations, supervised some photographers, and wrote up requisitions while with the department.
Suddenly, Davis was plucked from the obscure rolls of civil servants and dropped into the biggest challenge of his career.
Before he arrived, WRR's staff had been so rocked by infighting that former WRR General Manager Maurice Lowenthal ordered his employees to attend sensitivity training.
Lowenthal, who retired to Florida in the spring of 1994, had been frustrated by the bitter feuding among his employees--particularly the sales staff. He called in a city human-resources "facilitator" to lead what WRR employees commonly refer to as "the group hug." Says one WRR employee: "We were all divided up into little groups and encouraged to talk out our problems. It didn't accomplish much, but it was pretty typical of the city's little Band-Aid approaches to problems."
Davis' presence would only add to those problems. The appointment to WRR was quite a coup for the native of Denison, Texas, considering that the largest commercial broadcasting market he had worked in previously was Lubbock. Davis' resume, filed with the city's personnel department, states that he was the "news director of the 6 o'clock and 10 o'clock newscasts" for KLBK-TV, Lubbock's CBS affiliate, from 1976 until 1982.
Davis' resume states that he "helped develop the station into the No. 1 money-grossing station in the Lubbock market." A 20-year station employee, however, remembers Davis as a cameraman and production assistant. (It seems unlikely that Davis would have been made a television news director--roughly equivalent to the managing editor of a newspaper--fresh out of college.)
Davis left KLBK to work at Warner-Amex Cable, where he helped out with local access programs. He joined the city's information services department in 1985. The department provides audio-visual services to other city departments, and installs and maintains the city's 911 and telephone systems.
When Davis was moved to WRR, later court testimony would show, employees resented his lack of Top-10 market radio experience. They also soon became frustrated with his long and frequent absences from the job.
Davis' appointment particularly rankled longtime WRR Business Manager Mary Lou Rodriguez, who felt she had been promised the top job before it was given to Davis. Except for a couple of breaks to have children, Rodriguez worked at WRR for 15 years, starting as an accounting clerk and rising to business manager. When Lowenthal left as general manager in 1994, Rodriguez became interim manager of the station.
In November 1994, Rodriguez filed a lawsuit against the city, claiming discrimination. She also filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The lawsuit, tried last month in the 101st State District Court, offered a glimpse into the politically charged, byzantine manner in which Dallas manages its radio station.
At the trial, Rodriguez testified that she had frequently managed the station in Lowenthal's absence. Lowenthal testified that he had groomed her to take his place. Both Lowenthal and Rodriguez testified that their boss, Frank Poe, the city's director of Event Services and Cultural Affairs, had assured Rodriguez during a Ruggeri's lunch that she would be appointed permanently to the top spot, after a short "trial period" to prove her management skills.
But during the "trial period," Davis was given the job, bumping Rodriguez back to business manager.
In a memo authorizing Davis' appointment, City Manager John Ware explained that the city was "re-engineering" its agencies. Twenty-four departments would be cut to 18, and Davis was among several middle managers shuffled to other jobs. (Davis started the WRR job at $48,000 a year, and his salary jumped to $64,000 in his first two years.)
Rodriguez, stung by the abrupt change, worked under Davis for three months before filing an EEOC complaint claiming that the city promoted Davis--a man with fewer qualifications--over her on the basis of sex.
In her lawsuit against the city, Rodriguez again claimed sex discrimination. She also alleged that Davis began retaliating against her after she filed the EEOC complaint by chiding her performance in memos and berating her in front of her co-workers at staff meetings. Rodriguez claimed the hostile environment forced her to quit, and sought damages for lost wages, retirement benefits, and emotional stress.
During the five-day trial in Judge Jay Patterson's court, the city's human-resources manager, Dianna Sword, testified that Davis' selection for the post did not follow normal procedures.
Instead, Assistant City Manager Mary Suhm personally steered the job to Davis. Suhm testified that she did not even interview Davis--or Rodriguez--for the job, but worked only from Davis' resume and the knowledge that he was a 10-year veteran of the city.
"I knew about him," Suhm testified. "We don't always interview people who have worked for the city for a long time."
Since Davis "was aware of how a radio station operates," Suhm testified, she was comfortable recommending him to Ware. "A person with no experience can run a radio station as long as he has a capable staff," Suhm testified.
Rodriguez did not win her discrimination claim against the city, but on August 28 a jury did find that Davis had retaliated against her, and it awarded her $160,000.
According to trial testimony, Davis was the person most astonished by his appointment. "I was ecstatic. I was elated, of course," Davis testified. "My father was a self-taught television repairman in a small town in Texas, so I had been around radio and TV all my life, and this was very exciting."
Though he had absolutely no experience in commercial radio, Davis says, he was ready to give it a shot. "I felt that I brought to the table a lot of marketing and advertising experience," he testified.
Davis testified that he intended to focus on WRR's community image. Grooming WRR's image would mean a lot of lunches out, regular attendance at the symphony and opera, and regular reports to the well-heeled directors of the Friends of WRR.
Before he could dive full time into the radio station, though, Davis had to tie up loose ends on some projects at his old job--like selling off darkroom equipment and finding a new chairman to take over the city employees' savings bond program.
"I did double duty for eight months to a year while I was at WRR," Davis testified.
The time Davis spent shuffling between his old and new jobs left him with long hours during which he was apparently accountable to no one. WRR employees--many of whom testified at Rodriguez's trial--grew angry and resentful that their general manager was not to be found when they needed him, or when city officials were trying to locate him.
In July 1994, an anonymous tip to the city's "fraud hotline" prompted the city auditor to launch an investigation into Davis. After four months, the auditor's office concluded that Davis had abused city time by not showing up for work and by lying on his time sheets.
In his first month on the job at WRR, payroll records show, Davis reported 30 hours of comp time. On May 23, 1994--his first week on the WRR job--Davis called the station saying he had a "personal problem." Records show he did not show up for work, but did claim eight hours regular time on his time sheet.
On June 1, Davis reported he had "some plumbing problems" that would keep him away from the office, but his time sheet still registered eight hours. From December 1993 to July 1994, payroll records show, Davis took four separate leave days for deaths in the family, including one day in July 1994 to attend a funeral near Lubbock for a man "who was like a grandfather to me." City policy allows paid leaves only for funerals of immediate family members.
In all, auditors found 29 instances of questionable behavior by Davis, while on city time during his first four months at WRR.
But that was not all. Auditors also found that Davis had engaged in "questionable uses" of a station policy allowing advertisers to pay the station with trades or services instead of money.
Such trade-for-service arrangements, common in radio, television, and some newspapers--allow advertisers to swap their products for advertising spots instead of paying in cash. During her time at WRR, Rodriguez says, it was not uncommon for the station to do up to $200,000 a year in trade business with advertisers. At some businesses, WRR managers need only to flash their business cards, and meals or services will be charged to the station's trade account.
Most media outlets have strict rules to make sure that free meals, tickets, flowers, and myriad other goodies offered in trade are used only for bona fide business purposes, not personal gain.
Although WRR has such a policy, auditor's office documents show that Davis used trade to entertain people who had no business relationship with WRR. On July 30, 1994, for example, he treated the owners of African Concepts--former Dallas City Councilwoman Diane Ragsdale and her sister, Charlotte Ragsdale--to dinner at St. Martins Restaurant. The tab was $65.28, which the restaurant covered as part of its trade account with WRR.
On August 3, 1994, Davis lunched with Marilyn Clark, owner of Clark and Co. Public Relations, at the Grand Kempinski. The trade tab was $35. Two weeks later, Davis sent Clark a $97 bouquet from trade client McShan Florist. The flowers, according to audit records, were to thank Clark for hosting a dinner for Davis--unrelated to any WRR business.
"Trade for services is against city policy, except at WRR. Trade is treated like cash, and the potential for abuse is high," says an audit department investigator who worked on the Davis case and asked not to be named. "It makes it imperative that a person of the highest integrity is in charge, because it can be tempting to use trade for personal gain."
The auditor's probe also determined that Davis' violations of city policies had started before Suhm decided to give him the top job at WRR.
Auditors found that Davis violated city policy in 1992 by double billing the city and state for a business trip to Austin.
On November 12, 1992, while working for the information services department, Davis attended an afternoon meeting of the 911 Administration Committee in Austin. That morning, also in Austin, he attended a Texas Department of Health meeting to review grant proposals for statewide HIV and AIDS education programs. Davis submitted expense forms, to both the city and the state, for two nights' lodging, mileage, and meal reimbursement for the trip. He charged the state $201 and the city $198.04. When the discrepancy was discovered nearly two years later, Davis was issued an "administrative warning" by his boss, Frank Poe.
Poe also put Davis on two weeks' paid leave and required a written explanation of the matter. In his November 17, 1994, letter, Davis said he "never intended to defraud the city or state in this matter."
The auditor's office concluded its investigation of Davis on December 21, 1994. Though an official report was never issued, the findings were referred to Suhm and Poe. Davis was ordered to reimburse the city for the Austin expenses and to take two weeks of paid vacation time, punishment which the auditors found meager, given the results of their investigation.
"While we disagree with the action taken, our investigation is complete," says a closing note in the audit department's summary of the case. An investigator who worked on the case says "that case was well-documented. And for what he did, Mr. Davis got a little slap on the back of his hand."
Poe did write Davis a letter of reprimand--which did not make it into Davis' personnel file.
"Greg, as you are aware, your appointment as general manager for WRR has not been uneventful," Poe wrote. "I realize we have some issues in front of us that must be resolved.
"However, it will add to our burden if we are sidetracked with other issues. Therefore I admonish you to maintain the highest standards of professional management."
In an interview, Poe says he is satisfied with the action taken in the investigation. "Greg was working very long hours and there were times he needed to take care of personal business in the daytime and would do so. This was a caution to Greg that he needed to be careful and conscientious in the way his time is recorded," Poe says.
When it comes to running WRR, Poe says, Davis is the city's man for the job.
If any radio station is begging for a strong general manager, WRR is it. During its life, the station's finances have ranged from dismal to moderately successful, with no consistency.
After Davis ducked out of an appointment to discuss WRR's performance, the responsibility landed with his boss, Frank Poe. Poe is the director of Event Services and Cultural Affairs, a domain that includes WRR, Reunion Arena, and the Dallas Convention Center.
All are city "enterprise funds," which are supposed to be self-supporting, requiring no tax dollars. WRR has been an enterprise fund for as long as he can remember, Poe says, paying its way with revenue from local and national ad sales. Poe says the station has built up a surplus, a safety net in case the station starts losing money.
"The ad revenues for WRR have consistently met or exceeded all operating expenses, including capital improvements," Poe is quick to point out. "If the station were confronted with a deficit, it could continue to operate without drawing from property tax revenues or any other city revenues."
But a look at WRR's financial data back to 1987 shows Poe is mistaken. Twice, the station landed in the red, losing a whopping $213,000 in 1987 and $16,000 in 1991. In better years, profits were meager, ranging from $3,526 in 1988 to $83,830 in 1989.
Things took a healthy swing upward in fiscal year 1993-'94, when WRR showed a net profit of $383,000. In 1994-'95, WRR posted a profit of $567,000. The station is estimating a profit of $463,000 for fiscal year 1995-'96, which ends September 30, and projects annual increases of 3 percent through the year 2001.
All "profit" figures for WRR are slightly mythical, however, since they do not reflect the special breaks the station enjoys as a city property--such as its cheap rent and tax-free status. It is all but impossible to determine--using city budget documents--whether WRR would be turning any "profit" at all if it operated under the same constraints as a private business.
Even with its unique advantages, though, the station's revenues are sluggish. Conventional industry wisdom holds that WRR's gross revenues should be much heartier, given the station's share of the Dallas-Fort Worth market. Historically, WRR should have posted annual gross revenues of from $2 million to $3 million--which has only happened in the past two years.
Looking at finances alone, a private owner could hardly do worse for WRR, and pressure is once again mounting for city leaders to sell the station.
Last March, President Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Among other things, restraints on radio station ownership--established long ago to prevent broadcast monopolies--were all but obliterated. In a city the size of Dallas, one company is now allowed to own up to five FM and three AM stations, says Sharon Hurd, a spokeswoman for the Federal Communications Commission. The new rules have spawned a buying frenzy by broadcast companies, who are gobbling up stations and other companies.
"It's absolutely a land rush right now," says Tom Taylor, editor of Inside Radio, an industry daily fax publication based in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. "Companies that want to grow in radio, that want to aggressively add to their holdings, can now do so. There's virtually nothing holding them back."
Clinton's signature had barely dried when Nationwide Communications--a Columbus, Ohio, broadcast company that already owns KDMX-FM 102.9 in Dallas--stunned the Dallas City Council by submitting an unsolicited offer to buy WRR for $25 million.
Until then, the city had rolled along thinking that WRR's value, at most, was perhaps $10 million. Suddenly, city leaders began to appreciate just how valuable their waif radio station might be.
"I don't think anyone had any idea what we had sitting over there [in Fair Park]. With the change in the law, WRR's signal was suddenly extremely valuable," says Councilman Bob Stimson. The city did not accept the surprise bid, but the council did order city staff to get the station appraised.
The time might be right for Dallas to pass WRR off to private hands, a notion that has been brewing for the past five years. The city could just sell the station outright and take the cash, or it could rent WRR's FM frequency to a private operator and share in the profits.
The second option, less final than a sale, would call for the city to enter into a Local Marketing Agreement. Dallas would still own WRR, but a private company would manage it. The LMA could be drafted practically any way the the City of Dallas sees fit.
Both possibilities--outright sale or LMA--were viable options in 1991, as then-Mayor Steve Bartlett saw it. "I've always maintained that it's a good radio station, but it could be much better. If a private company owned it, they would almost certainly make improvements in the signal [which now reaches about 100 miles], increase advertising revenues, and market the station better," Bartlett says. "There are just some things a city has no business owning, and one of them is a commercial radio station."
In 1994, the city started considering the possibility of an LMA, and even solicited proposals from interested broadcast companies. Two proposals were submitted, one by Fort Worth businessman Jim Stanton and the other by North Texas Public Broadcasting, parent company of public radio station KERA-FM 90.1.
But the LMA discussion died last May, when Assistant City Manager Mary Suhm recommended that the city council reject both proposals.
Under Suhm's leadership, it took two years for the city to study the LMA issue, and she ultimately concluded that neither proposal would increase WRR's profits.
Critics say Suhm's handling of the study was inept, hampered by her lack of knowledge of the radio industry.
One media broker familiar with WRR says putting Suhm in charge of the LMA process "would be like NASA putting me in charge of fixing the space shuttle."
"If the City of Dallas wanted to handle the WRR situation, it could," says the broker, who asked that his name not be used. "But look who they put in charge."
Other critics claim that hopes for an LMA were doomed from the start because the city demanded requirements that any private operator would find unreasonable.
"Once I saw the specifications the city put out on proposals, I felt I could not do business with them. I just couldn't live under their specs," says Philip Jonsson, who owns two Little Rock, Arkansas, commercial radio stations. Jonsson is president of Signal Media, a Dallas broadcasting and publishing company, a self-described lover of the arts, and son of former Dallas Mayor J. Erik Jonsson.
In its call for proposals, the city set 16 conditions that a private operator would have to meet. Some were logical, like maintaining the classical format, assuming all existing business contracts, and maintaining the station's fixed assets. But many requirements were restrictive enough to border on the absurd. The private operator, for instance, would be required to continue broadcasting the city council's marathon meetings every second and fourth Wednesday of each month--not exactly a ratings draw.
The operator would also have to submit a "narrative" of a five-year marketing plan for the station, and open all its own books for inspection. The operator also would be required to prove the "effectiveness, suitability, and comprehensiveness" of its employee management approach--ironic, considering that the station's own general manager was under investigation for alleged abuses of city policy when the specifications were drawn up.
The proposals from Stanton and North Texas Public Broadcasting did not measure up, Suhm says, and neither could guarantee that the station would make adequate profits.
But others are less convinced the proposals were so terribly inadequate.
"We made it extremely difficult, which we are prone to do," says Councilman Stimson. Bartlett puts a finer point on it: "When we bid something out, we tend to write down the solution first, and then put it out for the lowest bid. We tell people how we want a problem solved. Cities that are successful with privatization write out what they hope to achieve, then invite the marketplace to achieve it."
Bartlett says he has watched in awe as the city, potential buyers, and loyal listeners have quibbled over WRR's fate. Dallas loves to cling to the status quo, he contends, no matter how irrational that affection is.
"There is this perception in Dallas that if it's always been done this way, we can't do it any differently," Bartlett says.
But indirectly, Bartlett himself is partially responsible for the paralysis that afflicts the city's treatment of WRR. In 1991, it was Bartlett who sent up a trial balloon, proposing that WRR be privatized.
Almost at once, a force rose to fight the idea--the Friends of WRR. The Friends had formed as a low-key, nonprofit group made up of members who liked the idea of a classical music station.
But the prospect of a WRR sale--and the possibility that new station owners might dump the classical format--fueled the Friends to hurricane strength.
At the eye of the storm is the lady in yellow--octogenarian Sis Carr.
Who could resist Sis Carr? Now in her eighth decade, the kindly, wealthy, and eccentric arts patron has for six years made it her business to defend WRR from the clutches of private enterprise. A blaze of primary color wherever she goes, Carr's presence in a room attracts attention--rather like sunlight glinting off metal.
Sitting in her secluded North Dallas home on a recent morning, Carr discusses the issue of power in the WRR debate. She is dressed for a rapidly approaching luncheon date--coincidentally, it is the Friends of WRR's monthly lunch meeting at the Dallas Museum of Art--in a delicate lemon-yellow suit with black braided trim.
Her neatly manicured nails are painted a lacquered yellow. A massive yellow diamond draws attention to her left hand. She has welcomed guests into her heavily paneled living room, where custom, overstuffed furniture is upholstered in crisp toile de Jouy.
Dressed in a lightly starched, yellow Oxford shirt, Carr's assistant, Martin, serves glasses of ice water with blazing yellow beverage napkins. The room has a view of a garden, where yellow roses and golden-bloomed forsythia bushes sway in the hot summer breeze. The curtains are yellow, the room's accessories--including candles and bric-a-brac--are yellow. The house numbers on the mailbox at the Carrs' long, private driveway are painted yellow. And in the circular driveway is Carr's Lincoln Continental, custom-painted the color of butter.
"We go through this talk of selling the station every few years. When new council people come on they really need to be informed about WRR," Carr says with a pleasant smile. "They need to know why people love it, and why we want it to remain a city-owned station."
In 1991, when talk of selling WRR began circulating, Dallas' social set was perturbed. A couple of years earlier, former WRR Sales Manager Sue Swigart had started the Friends of WRR as a support group for the station. But when talk turned to a possible sale of the station, the Friends amped up their power, thanks to the efforts of early co-chairwomen Carr and Sarah White.
A sale or even the slightest change in management would spell the death of classical music radio in Dallas, Carr and the Friends feared. They intended to stop it, and Carr leapt to the front lines.
A loyal listener of WRR for decades, Carr, the wife of Dallas oilman William Plack Carr and a longtime arts patron and socialite, essentially began a one-woman campaign to stop even the talk of a sale. Carr will not admit this. In the best monied Dallas tradition, she is abundantly modest and passes the credit around to other members of the Friends of WRR. But it was Carr, jet-black hair knotted into an elaborate bun and dressed in her trademark brilliant-yellow suits, who kept city politicos from selling WRR.
"I tell everyone who wants to learn how to influence City Hall to take a lesson from Sis Carr," Bartlett says. "Bless her heart, she showed up at every town hall meeting in every council district to register her opinions about WRR. There she'd be in her bright yellow. She'd walk in the room, no intention of calling attention to herself. She'd sit about halfway back, just listening. Then when the topic turned to WRR, Sis would stand up ever so politely and say, 'You're not going to sell WRR, are you? I like it.'"
But it isn't just Carr's yellow outfits and demureness that catch the attention of elected officials. In the past five years, the Friends of WRR's list of directors has come to read like an invitation list for the Crystal Charity Ball--Henry S. Miller III, Van Cliburn, Morton H. Meyerson, Ray Nasher, Deborah (Mrs. W.A. Tex) Moncrief, to name a few. Even Dallas Cowboy Emmitt Smith sits on the board--but on the group's letterhead his name is misspelled "Emmet."
The group boasts 2,000 members, an annual budget of nearly $100,000, and office space right in WRR's building. WRR is the only for-profit station in Dallas benefiting from the hard work of a nonprofit lobbying group, but that distinction is apparently a mere quibble. No one in the Friends or associated with the station considers the alliance the least bit curious.
Friends Executive Director Betsy Jessiman says the group's main goal is to make sure Dallas and Fort Worth always have a classical radio station. In this case, the station belongs to the city, and no one has yet convinced the Friends that a new owner would maintain the classical music format, she says.
The group's concerns are not unwarranted. If Dallas sells WRR outright, FCC rules would prevent the city from mandating that the station remain classical. Some radio industry experts say that, given the sluggish ratings and small market share of most classical stations, the first thing a new, heavily leveraged owner might do is change the format to a sure moneymaker.
The number of commercial classical radio stations in the United States has held steady at about 40 for several years now. Some major markets, including San Francisco, Chicago, and Boston have more than one. Inside Radio's Tom Taylor says it's no sure thing that a new owner in Dallas would immediately reformat WRR. In fact, trends in the industry are pointing more than ever toward tightly targeted markets, he says. "Sports, talk, classical, that sort of thing," Taylor says. "There's a demographic among classical radio listeners that advertisers find attractive--usually upper-income, well-educated consumers."
But that is a risk the Friends are not willing to take.
"There is no other place where people who love classical music can go to hear classical music on the radio," Jessiman says. "The Friends are not the least bit convinced that a new owner would maintain the format. The Friends are bright, realistic people who understand business. I don't think they would ever support any change based on the idea that maybe the station will remain classical, or a new owner might keep the format."
If the city entered into a Local Marketing Agreement, however, it could require a classical format, because the city would still hold the station's license. Such an arrangement still could be profitable. For the past three years, WRR has consistently ranked between 17th and 20th place in Arbitron's ranking of area radio stations.
But the Friends oppose an LMA as well. The group may be concerned mostly about keeping WRR a classical station. But the end of city control would also mean the end of the group's influence over its prized cultural toy, and an end to pliable city functionaries like WRR General Manager Greg Davis.
Carr certainly isn't convinced that she would have the ear of any megamedia owner who might come charging into Dallas with a checkbook. Certainly not the way she has had the ear of the city council.
"The history of these things is not in our favor," she says.
The Friends are the force to reckon with on the matter of WRR's future, and the city council knows it, says Councilman Stimson, an accountant by profession who has supported gathering appraisals and information about a possible sale.
"The Friends of WRR are very powerful, very influential people," Stimson says. "When they're in the room, you know it. They've been very effective in using scare tactics that a sale of the station will be the end of classical music in Dallas."
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.
"The way the City of Dallas has handled this thing, it isn't logical," says Paul Leonard Jr., managing director of Star Media Group, a Dallas media broker. "It's either emotional or political, but it sure isn't logical." Leonard says he was interested at one time in brokering a deal between the city and a buyer for WRR. But as the process has dragged on, whirling into some kind of untenable waiting game, he's decided to sit out the next round of WRR debates.
The station may well be worth $30 million, he says, but that's an accident of the radio market that has little to do with the city's management of WRR. The city might be wise to take its profits before the market changes and WRR is once again an obscure little station muddling along beneath the Fair Park Ferris wheel.
"The station has steadily increased in value, and it has nothing to do with the performance of the station or anyone at the city. It's all about deregulation and market forces," Leonard says. "What the city has right now is very attractive beach-front property. But if they don't find a decent partner soon, it's just going to erode away.