Staying Classic: Texas’ First Radio Station Needs New Management

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Dallas classical music radio station WRR is unique for a number of reasons: it was the first licensed radio station in Texas, the first west of the Mississippi River, and it is owned by the city of Dallas.

“He is celebrating his 100th birthday. It is a truly historic and wonderful asset. But yes, unique,” ​​said Jennifer Scripps, director of the Dallas Department of Arts and Culture.

WRR’s studios are in Fair Park, the grounds of the 1936 World’s Fair – now the Texas State Fairgrounds and therefore close to the greatest of all Texans.

“It’s really in the shadow of Big Tex and in the shadow of the Cotton Bowl and all the wonderful institutions of Fair Park,” she said.

Dallas Municipal Archives

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Exterior of the current WRR building.

WRR, 101.1 FM, is committed to doing police and fire transmissions. But over the next few decades, as more and more Americans bought radios, WRR began airing a wide array of radio dramas of the day.

Finally, in 1964, WRR settled into a classical music format – where it has been ever since. Unlike other municipal services, the WRR has no place in the budget. Their operating expenses for a staff of eight are between $1.8 million and $2 million a year, and they pay for it themselves.

“WRR is able to sell ads and they are expected to break even,” Scripps said.

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Dallas Municipal Archives

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A WRR ad.

But between the changing media landscape – from streaming to podcasts to satellite radio – and more recently complicated by COVID-19, WRR has had a harder time breaking even. Dallas is therefore looking for a not-for-profit entity to run WRR, but in a cost-effective way.

KERA, the NPR and PBS affiliate in Dallas, plans to submit a proposal to the city to take over management.

“We believe there are many opportunities to grow audiences both for WRR and for all KERA services, including our PBS station,” said Nico Leone, President and CEO of KERA.

“There aren’t many city-owned stations in the country anymore and the classic format continues to thrive within public radio, but there are very few commercial stations across the country,” Leone said.

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Dallas Municipal Archives

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WRR WRR alongside Dallas Police and Fire Department outside the Cotton Bowl in the 1950s.

While Leone points out that public radio stations have largely led the way in doing classic work as a format across the country, KERA’s offering may not be the only one.

Kim Noltemy is the President and CEO of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.

“We’re very interested and we think it’s a treasure and hope we can make it an even bigger asset for everyone,” she said.

Noltemy noted the middle ground the DSO and WRR could occupy.

“We haven’t made a final decision, although it’s a very interesting and attractive idea for the development of the artistic community, the classical music audience, and obviously the heart of what we do is live music. “, she said.

Noltemy believes that WRR’s commercial status can help leverage its attributes for the benefit of the DSO.

“We want to be able to preserve that commercial format so that we can say, ‘Buy tickets now, that’s an incredible performance,'” Noltemy said. public radio.”

With 20 years leading the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Noltemy knows classical music. But there is another potential offer.

“I used to listen to WRR with my grandmother every Saturday morning,” said Jeremy Hays, who runs Friends of the WRR. He fondly remembers when he first heard the station.

Original Fair Park building from WRR.jpg

Dallas Municipal Archives

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WRR’s original Fair Park building.

“She would pick me up and take me to breakfast and we would drive and listen to WRR and she would tell me about the tracks that were on it and how much she loved the station,” Hays said.

The Friends of WRR organization is also considering submitting a proposal to run the station. He fears that the ambiguity of the City’s request for proposals (RFP) leaves too much to chance.

“Our initial reaction was, ‘Wow, this is happening really fast,’ and it’s also happening the same summer that WRR turns 100,” he said.

Hayes said the fate of this public treasure deserves a public hearing.

“There was no opportunity for community or public participation. And we just think that a historical entity like WRR should have more than four weeks for its fate to be decided,” he said.

The City’s Jennifer Scripps sees it differently.

“It was a standard purchase. We extended the two-week deadline just to kind of eliminate all of that,” Scripps said. “We have also opened the station to tours for interested bidders. We have been extremely responsive with questions that are shared.

DSO’s Kim Noltemy believes that regardless of who wins the bid, the WRR is key to DFW’s continued success in attracting new business.

“Having this really good classic station that helps get that word out is just one more piece of the puzzle,” she said.

WRR Classical Carpool Karaoke with Dallas Opera cast members of ‘The Magic Flute!’

KERA’s Nico Leone said it was important to consider how WRR fits into the larger art scene.

“Our hope is that whatever the city chooses to do, it will make a decision based on the needs of the public, the needs of arts organizations in the area. And I think if the city keeps that front and center they will make a good decision about the future of WRR,” he said.

Friends’ Jeremy Hays was philosophical about the future.

“What will the second century of the WRR bring? I think as long as classical music can speak to people, can touch their hearts, can get them the emotions they need to feel…as long as it can – like it has in the COVID-19 pandemic – to be a comfort to people in difficult times, so I hope the WRR will continue to be there to provide that support,” he said.

The city closes applications on July 29 and will begin reviewing them to make its decision.

Editor’s Note: TPR is a member of the Texas Newsroom, a collaboration of public radio stations across the state, including KERA. TPR independently reported and edited this story; this story has not been reported, reviewed or edited by KERA executives or reporters.

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