The future of WRR, Dallas’ classical radio station, hangs in the balance

KERA, North Texas ‘public radio and TV operator, has moved closer to taking over management of WRR-FM (101.1), Dallas’ classical music station. The Dallas Office of Arts and Culture agreed to KERA’s proposal, and the Dallas City Council will vote on it in June. If it’s approved by the City Council, KERA would be in charge starting in December.

The City Council could alternatively choose to sell WRR. The station is valued at more than $ 13 million and the city would use $ 5.6 million from the sale proceeds to pay off station debt. If the station is sold, there’s no guarantee it would remain classical.

Under KERA’s proposal, WRR would be run by KERA, but owned by the city. WRR would remain a classical music station, and would operate from its Fair Park studios for at least the next seven years.

KERA beat out the Dallas Symphony Association, which also submitted a proposal to manage the WRR. “We have the highest regard for KERA, and have no doubt they would do a good job managing the station,” Kim Noltemy, the DSO’s president and CEO, said in a statement.

WRR was unusual for being both a city-owned radio station and a commercial classical station. It relied on on-air advertising, which proved difficult because of its relatively small share of the area radio audience. After eight years of WRR running a deficit, Dallas started looking last June for new management.

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Jennifer Scripps, the city’s former director of arts and culture, said at the time that WRR’s ongoing deficits, plus growing competition from alternate classical music sources online, prompted reconsideration of the city’s relationship to WRR.

“The economics continue to be a challenge, with the rise of streaming and such,” she said. “What are the options for a strategic partner? Most radio stations don’t have the [city-owned] station’s pension burden.

“We are very interested in exploring a new model, because it’s not sustainable to continue dipping into reserves.”

WRR 101.1 FM studios inside Fair Park in Dallas, June 01, 2020.(Ben Torres / Special Contributor)

WRR would transition to being non-commercial under KERA. This would allow it to be more sustainable, says Nico Leone, KERA’s president and CEO. “Classical music is still doing really well in public radio in part because there’s a slightly different economic model.” With the new model, WRR could attract additional philanthropic support. It would also need to hold public-radio-style membership drives.

The station would complement KERA’s existing offers of public television, radio news and information; another radio channel (KXT) broadcasting a “a unique mix of new, local and legendary music”; and the arts website Art & Seek. (KERA and The Dallas Morning News are collaborating on a series to document how the pandemic has impacted North Texas’ arts and culture.)

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“WRR has a solid staff. They do great work in the community, ”Leone says. “We think we can take that and build on it in part because of our other platforms. There’s a lot of great programming in the non-commercial space that we can bring in. ”

Since 1978, the WRR is supposed to be broadcasting City Council meetings, but hasn’t done so since 2020. The City Council would revoke the mandate if they approve KERA’s proposal.

Other terms of the deal require KERA to air public service announcements every day on WRR or KERA’s other platforms to promote arts organizations and city programs.

Legally, KERA cannot talk to WRR staff members until after the City Council vote. But Leone emphasizes that the station would remain locally programmed and hosted.

Still, members of The Friends of WRR, a nonprofit that supports the station, are concerned. Rachael Glazer, president of the board, worries about the following sentence in the request for proposal (RFP) sent out last June: “If the station’s operating and capital reserves were exhausted, the City would not be able to require it to remain a classical station . ”

Glazer believes this means that the city would sell the station if new management were unable to make WRR profitable.

But a spokeswoman for KERA says that sentence is not in the contract approved by KERA and the Dallas Office of Arts and Culture. The contract says the station would remain classical, and there are no financial conditions attached to the requirement.

Special contributor Scott Cantrell contributed to this report.

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