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

The future of WRR-FM (101.1), Dallas’ classical music radio station, is uncertain.

In June, the Dallas City Council could decide to sell the city-owned station or transfer management over to KERA, North Texas’ public radio and TV operator. If KERA’s proposal were approved, it would be in charge starting in December.

The station is valued at about $13.5 million and the city could use $5.6 million from a potential sale to pay off station debt. If the station were sold, there’s no guarantee it would remain classical.

City officials declined to discuss the matter Thursday, but then released a memo about it Friday afternoon that included information on the potential sale.

Rachael Glazer, president of the board at The Friends of WRR, wrote in a text that it’s a shame the city is considering selling “a 100-year-old cultural treasure.”

“This same scenario has played out a few times in WRR’s history, and the city has always backed down in the face of strong opposition,” she said.

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’s proposal was selected by the Dallas Office of Arts and Culture, which oversees WRR, but still needs approval from the City Council.

KERA beat out the Dallas Symphony Association, which also submitted a proposal to manage 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 is unusual for being both a city-owned radio station and a commercial classical station. It relies on on-air advertising, a challenge 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 previously 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-FM’s studios inside Fair Park in Dallas on June 1, 2020.(Ben Torres / Special Contributor)

WRR would transition to being noncommercial under KERA. This would allow it to be more sustainable, said 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,” he said.

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 offerings of public television, radio news and information; another radio channel (KXT) broadcasting “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 affected North Texas’ arts and culture.)

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“WRR has a solid staff. They do great work in the community,” Leone said. “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 noncommercial space that we can bring in.”

WRR began broadcasting City Council meetings in 1978 but hasn’t done so since 2020. The council would revoke the mandate if it approves KERA’s proposal.

Other terms of the deal would 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 can’t talk with WRR staff members until after the City Council vote. But Leone emphasized that the station would remain locally programmed and hosted.

Still, members of The Friends of WRR are concerned. Glazer, the board’s president, worries about the following sentence in the request for proposal sent out last June: “If the station’s operating and capital reserves were exhausted, the City would not be able to require it 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 said that sentence is not in the contract negotiated 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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