Classical Gas: Debate Over Selling WRR Heats Up Again
Paul Gleiser wants a radio station. But not just any radio station. He’s picky. He wants WRR-FM, the city-owned clas-sical music station. For almost forty years. WRR has been the durable central entity of city-sponsored arts culture. In good years it made a little money; in bad years it lost a little. But money wasn’t the point. The point was that Dallas had some class, and the proof was there in Fair Park under that red and white antenna. No other American city, by the way, owns its own FM radio station.
Now Gleiser, thirty-two, is trying to get the city to part with that symbol of class, and he faces an uphill battle. It all began two years ago, when Gleiser was fresh from success at KATT in Oklahoma City, where as general manager he changed the station into a money maker. He left that job and came back to Dallas (he’s a native who grew up in the radio world at KLIF, WFAA, and Belo Broadcasting) with a festering desire to buy and manage WRR. In November 1985, he made his desire known to the city council as it struggled with Dallas’s new-found budget deficit, and the council agreed to study the idea. A consulting firm was hired to estimate a price for the station. They said WRR was worth $6.6 million as a classical-only station, and $11.6 million with no constraints. Gleiser scrambled to obtain financing and threw in his bid of "not less than $6 million." Then the democratic process took over.
When the public realized that WRR might be sold, hundreds of letters began pouring in to City Hall, begging the politicos not to give away Dallas’s icon of aesthetic respectability. The council noted the outcry and voted unanimously to retain the station. And. perhaps to discourage future suitors, the council voted to give Dallas arts groups 25 percent of WRR’s profits every year and to distribute among them $275,000 of profit that WRR had accumulated over the years. The citizens were satisfied and the matter was forgotten. Except by Paul Gleiser.
In the frantic hubbub of putting together his bid. Gleiser failed to let everyone know that he wanted to keep WRR all classical. He thinks he can run the station better than the city, make more money at it, and keep it classical.
This time around. Gleiser has two major hurdles in his chosen path: he must convince people that he is sincere about keeping WRR’s classical format, and he must come up with a way to provide Dallas arts groups with at least as much money as a city-owned WRR would give them.
To allay fears that he might one day turn WRR into an all-rap or fusion jazz station, Gleiser will propose that the council take his purchase money and set it aside as an endowment to benefit the arts. Gleiser says he is willing to pay $11.6 million for WRR, putting $6.6 million down in cash and placing the remaining $5 million in a "good faith" note. If Gleiser ever fails to live up to the council’s wish to keep WRR all classical, the city could immediately cash in the note.
"At the worst," Gleiser says, "the city and the performing arts end up with the money. At best, they end up with the money and private enterprise running a classical music station."
It’s an intriguing proposal. But will it wash? Keith Nix, chairman of the Dallas Coalition For the Arts, says, "If $6-7 million were to go into an endowment to protect the arts, then the arts community would certainly be interested in that." To further assuage doubters, Gleiser has promised to create an advisory board for his WRR. The board would include members of the arts community and have the power to petition the Federal Communications Commission to repeal Gleiser’s license if they didn’t like the way he was running things.
"I have good faith in what he projects." Nix says. "If the city accepts his proposal, the question will be "will he stick to his guns?’ And that I just don’t know."
There are other people who just don’t know about that. Maurice Loewenthal, WRR’s general manager, says, "There’s no way he [Gleiser] could guarantee the spirit of continuity" of classical music at WRR. About the $5 million "good faith" bond, Loewenthal says, "If you add it ail up, it’s worth it for him [to lose the bond]. Then, in my mind, he could turn around and sell it for much more."
Even Nix agrees that the station would be worth more in a format other than classical. But Gleiser counters that every other metropolitan area in the country has a profitable all-classical station, and that they are cheaper to operate than other formats. "You do not have to give away cars and boats and trips around the world," he says. "And you don’t have to pay $250,000 to Ron Chapman to do the morning show."
Some arts advocates are leery of Gleiser’s proposal because it cannot be made legally binding: the FCC will not enforce "promises" that limit what a station owner can do with his property.
But this argument doesn’t faze Gleiser. "The FCC won’t let anyone limit the future discretion of what to do with a station." he says. That means that the city council itself could someday decide to change the format of WRR, Imagine. It’s 1995. and the council turns WRR into a profitable nostalgic rock station. On a warm summer night by White Rock Lake, you can hear those great old Beastie Boys tunes beaming from that old structure in Fair Park.