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Static Quo

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"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.

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Holly Mullen