Longform

Static Quo

Page 6 of 10

"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.

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Holly Mullen