Ten decades of North Texas broadcast history is on display at NorthPark Center. WRR is starting its centennial festivities a year in advance with an exhibition chronicling its own history. The exhibition, First in Texas: WRR Radio's Centennial Celebration, will be on view at the Dallas shopping center’s SouthCourt through Sept. 16.
WRR is the first licensed radio station in Texas and the second one in the nation. The license was issued on Aug. 5, 1921.
“It’s so old, it predated the FCC. It was issued by the Department of Commerce. It predated a lot of federal bureaucracy. It has stood the test of time,” John H. Slate, a city archivist for the City of Dallas and curator of this exhibition, said.
The exhibition, curated in partnership with Dallas Municipal Archives, lays out the radio station’s story on five two-sided pillars, each side describing a decade of history.
“We tried to put together a story that talks about the origins of telecommunications, the origins of public safety, and a cornerstone of entertainment in Dallas from the 1920s to the present,” Slate said.
The station’s first broadcasters were firefighters. Henry Garrett, a Police and Fire Signal Superintendent for the City of Dallas, realized radio would be an effective way for firefighters to communicate in the field. During the firefighters’ downtime, they played music and told jokes.
“It’s a landmark achievement in broadcasting because it’s the first municipally-owned station which itself was probably a bit of a gamble because the technology was brand new,” Slate said.
As Dallas grew as a city, so did WRR. The radio station partnered with the Dallas police department to air the first traffic reports in the country. Its broadcasters became beloved trendsetters. Jim Lowe Jr. was known as "The Cool Fool," introducing North Texans to Rhythm and Blues music and artists with his Kat's Karavan show. Lowe brought several innovations to the station, including the Library of Laffs, which played cuts from comedy albums throughout the day. Lowe was also the voice of Big Tex at the State Fair of Texas for nearly four decades. In a 1982 interview, Lowe recalled Mayor R. L. Thornton instructing him to make Big Tex talk "like a cross between Gary Cooper and Santa Claus."
With a listening span of 100 miles in any direction, WRR is one of a handful of radio stations still owned by a city.
“WRR is a source of pride for Dallas because it provided citizens with public safety but then it evolved into the ever-present sphere of radio as entertainment,” Slate said. “It means a lot to people far outside of Dallas. For many people, it’s their only source of classical music and that kind of entertainment.”
Technology played an important role in WRR’s transformation into a classical music station. The station debuted on the FM spectrum in 1948, became an all-classical station in 1964 and sold its AM station in the 1970s.
“FM was perfectly suited to become a classical vehicle. I believe around the country, the idea of classical radio coalesced at the time FM radio came into its own,” Slate said. “It all about technological advancement.”
WRR is an “enterprise” of the City of Dallas Office of Arts and Culture (OAC). It generates revenue through advertising and sponsorships. A small portion of revenue exceeding expenses has been transferred into the OAC’s Arts Endowment supporting small and mid-size arts organizations.
“Dallas has always had an arts community, an arts scene. The growth of WRR as a medium to bring classical music to Dallas and the North Texas area was a natural move for a place that has had an interest in the fine arts. Having WRR has only helped to improve it,” Slate said.
Local arts institutions are at the heart of WRR’s broadcasts. “Over the past thirty years, The Dallas Winds has partnered with WRR at Labor Day Picnics, live remote broadcasts, and in concerts at Fair Park and the Arts District. We’ve been alongside the station for musical instrument drives, air-conducting contests and now a featured ensemble on Monday Night at the Symphony. Classical music enjoys a broader audience here in North Texas thanks to WRR’s steady presence,” Kim Campbell, Founder and Executive Director of The Dallas Winds, said.
“The Dallas Symphony is very grateful to have worked with WRR as a broadcasting partner for many years. WRR gives the Dallas Symphony the ability to reach many more listeners than those who are able to attend live concerts at the Meyerson. We are thrilled to have one of the top classical stations in Dallas,” Kim Noltemy, Ross Perot President & CEO of the Dallas Symphony, said.
During the coronavirus pandemic, WRR aims to comfort one listener at a time. “WRR's role during this time is to be the calm in the eye of the storm. Radio is a very personal medium. Much radio listening is done one person at a time, and we are cognizant that this pandemic is also affecting one person at a time. Sure, all of us are following the news these days and tracking statistics ... but each one of those statistics represents a real person, a mom, daughter, sister, aunt. And each person who's affected, their life touches so many others. Our role at Classical 101.1 WRR is to reach people with music that calms, music that's life-affirming, music that's passionate and engaging. Music that helps you cope. Because music is also very personal. Music and radio are really made for one another, and together bring comfort and companionship to so many. They are most certainly needed at this challenging time in our history,” Mike Oakes, WRR’s General Manager, said.
“I think it’s important to always remember a wonderful institution like WRR provides comfort to people who are isolated, people who can’t get around. WRR is their friend,” Slate said. “In lieu of a lot of things that have been put on hold right now, it’s nice to know WRR is there for expanding people’s horizons, keeping them sane and feeling good.”
Learn more: https://www.wrr101.com/exhibit/