|Image courtesy of the Rio Grande Guardian|
Just after 2:00pm on Thursday, May 30, 2019, the two stations that comprise Rio Grande Public Radio (RGPR) ceased broadcasting. At that moment the Rio Grande Valley became the largest metro area in the U.S. to not have a NPR station.
According to a report in the Rio Grande Guardian [link], RGPR announcer Mario Muñoz read a prepared statement written by the licensee, the Diocese of Brownsville.
The statement by the Diocese (shown on the right) expressed polite thanks to RGPR’s listeners, supporters, staff and volunteers. However, most of the statement was a self-indulgent defense of the Diocese’s actions.
The statement made no mention of the loss of NPR.
Before it went out of business, RGPR had been the sole source of NPR news programming in the Rio Grande Valley for more than 30 years.
The Valley is a unique area that has been in the national news lately because of its location just north of the Rio Grande River.
According to the most recent U.S. census data, more than 1.3 million people live on
American side of the border. South of the Rio Grande River, in Mexico, there are at least a million more people.
It will be hard to replace RGPR because very few radio stations cover the entire market. Until recently, the Rio Grande Valley was a string of farming towns spread across an 80-mile wide area. Almost every town had local radio stations that served only a limited area.
About 30 years ago, after the passage of NAFTA, the Valley became a boom area. The towns became a “mega city” from McAllen on the west to Brownsville in the east.
With two FM signals, RGPR was one of a handful of FM stations that reached Brownsville, Harlingen and McAllen, three of the largest cities in the Valley.
In March the Diocese sold the two stations for $1,231,000 to Immaculate Heart Media [link]. Immaculate Heart is a Catholic organization that is best known for its radio formal Relevant Radio.
After the sale was approved by the FCC, the purchase was completed on May 29. On that day Relevant Radio replaced NPR on local radio.
WHY PUBLIC BROADCASTING FAILED IN THE RIO GRANDE VALLEY
In the early 1980s, the Diocese of Brownsville bought a failing UHF TV station and began broadcasting PBS programming on KMBH-TV. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) provided ample support, in part, because the Rio Grande Valley had one the largest Hispanic populations in the nation.
A couple of years later, at CPB’s urging, the Diocese bought two FM signals. With CPB’s financial support, the stations became members of National Public Radio.
However, the relationship between CPB and the Diocese was rocky from the start. Even though the Diocese brought PBS and NPR to the Valley, they never embraced the concept of public broadcasting.
CPB and The Vatican had different agendas. Conflicts arose and the Diocese became more secretive. Though CPB continued to provide money, the Diocese seldom listened to CPB’s advice.
The situation was further complicated by the lack of experience in broadcasting by the leaders of the Diocese. Simply put, they were not business people.
|Monsignor Pedro Briseo|
Things turned from bad to the absolute worst in 1985 when the Diocese appointed Monsignor Pedro Briseo to be in charge of the stations.
Briseo not only had no experience in broadcasting or business, he was an arrogant, spiteful man who alienated many people who could have been allies.
Briseo ignored and mocked CPB while enjoying his role as a local hero who brought federal money to the Valley.
In 2010, the Diocese moved Briseo out of broadcasting and sent him to a small parish in northern Mexico.
In an attempt to help debt-prone KMBH-TV, the Diocese took out a $700,000 loan from a local bank. Unfortunately they did not have a plan to pay the money back and were in default. When news about the unpaid loan was covered by the local press, it further damaged the credibility of the Diocese and it more difficult to raise private support. (The Diocese eventually paid the money they owed the bank.)
Around the same time the PBS program Frontline produced the highly acclaimed documentary Hand of God. The program dealt with sexual abuse of children by priests in Boston. It exacerbated the conflict within the Diocese between public broadcasting’s mission to report news and the Catholic desires to bury the story.
KMBH-TV planned to air the Frontline program and they promoted it on the air. Conservative Catholics in the Valley could not tolerate the program being aired on a TV station owned by the Diocese.
Minutes before Hand of God was set to air on KMBH-TV, the Diocese pulled the program. This managed to offend everyone. The about-face became a national news story and was widely criticized as an example of censorship.
Finally the Diocese had enough and sold KMBH-TV to a commercial broadcaster in 2013.
Meanwhile Rio Grande Public Radio had its own problems. Station manager and Program Director Chris Maley shunned best practices and refused outside advice.
Maley incurred the ire of listeners when he scheduled his own daily local blues show from 3pm to 5pm instead of NPR’s newsmagazine All Things Considered. Though ATC was available to RGPR at 3pm, RGPR didn’t air it until after 5pm.
Under Maley’s leadership, RGPR barely had a pulse. CPB ended its financial support in 2014. According to Rio Grande Public Radio’s FY 2017 tax filing, by 2017 total annual revenue had dwindled to $105,451. In FY 2017 members gave a paltry $5,207 (5% of revenue) and underwriters spent $25,862 (25% of revenue). The Diocese provided the rest.
WHY NPR IS NO LONGER ON LOCAL RADIO IN THE RIO GRANDE VALLEY
We personally observed many of the events described above during two consulting efforts by our parent company Ken Mills Agency, LLC.
In 2009 we were part of an effort by Texas Public Radio in San Antonio to bring a competing NPR station to the Valley. This never came to fruition because at the time the U.S. was in a deep recession and no money was available.
Since March of 2019, after the sale of RGPR was announced, we have provided pro bono consultation to several folks who wanted to establish a new NPR News station in the Rio Grande Valley.
Though there has been sincere interest, no new NPR station is likely to appear in the Valley for quite some time.
Ironically, the biggest obstacle we have faced came inside RGPR itself. During the recent lame duck period after the sale but before the deal was finalized on May 30, the two primary announcers on RGPR – Chris Maley and Mario Muñoz – refused to tell listeners that the station was being sold and NPR would soon leave the airwaves.
This made it nearly impossible to mobilize community support for a new NPR station. Many people didn’t know RGPR was going away until Muñoz read the statement from the Diocese on the air just before it was ending.
We don’t know if there were contractual issues that prevented them from saying anything. But it appeared that Maley and Muñoz didn’t have the courage to inform the public that a valuable public resource was about to go away.
Public radio continues to serve Americans because people care about it and support it. NPR will return to the Valley someday because there are plenty of people who will support it.
We will do anything we can do to make certain it happen.