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 metropolitan area in the U.S. to not have a local NPR-member station.
According to a report in the Rio Grande Guardian, RGPR announcer Mario Muñoz read a prepared statement on the air that was written by the licensee, the Diocese of Brownsville. It was reportedly the first time anyone had said on the air that the station was going away.
The statement by the Diocese expressed polite thanks to RGPR’slisteners, supporters, staff and volunteers. The Diocese called bringing PBS and NPR to the Valley a “gift” to the people of the area. The statement made no mention of the loss of NPR.
BeforeRGPRwent out of business, it had been the sole source of NPR news programming in the Rio Grande Valley for more than 30 years.
It will be hard to replace NPR in the Valley because there are very few radio stations that cover the entire market. With two FM signals, RGPR was one of only a handful of FM stations that reached Brownsville, Harlingen and McAllen, three of the three largest cities in the Valley.
In March 2019 the Diocese sold the FCC licenses for the two stations for $1,231,000 to Immaculate Heart Media, a conservative Catholic media organization, based in Wisconsin, that is best known for its satellite delivered talk shows called Relevant Radio. After the sale was approved by the FCC, the purchase was completed on May 29. On that day Relevant Radioreplaced NPR on the two former RGPR stations.
Why Public Broadcasting failed in the RGV
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.
Things turned from bad to the absolute worst in 1985 when the Diocese appointed Monsignor Pedro Briseño to be in charge of the stations. Briseño not only had no experience in broadcasting or business, he was an arrogant, spiteful man who alienated many people who could have been allies.
Briseño ignored and mocked CPB while enjoying his role as a local hero who brought federal money to the Valley. In 2010, the Diocese moved Briseño 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 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 Frontlineprogram 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 beforeHand of Godwas 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 Radiohad its own problems. In recent years there were two primary voices on RGPR: Chris Maley and Mario Muñoz.
Station manager and Program Director Chris Maley shunned best practices and refused outside advice. Maley was in charge of the programming. He incurred the wrath of NPR news listeners when he scheduled his own daily local blues show from 3pm to 5pm instead of NPR’s newsmagazine All Things Considered. RGPR didn’t air ATC until after 5pm.
Financially RGPR barely had a pulse at the end. CPB had ended its financial support in 2014. According to the FY 2017 IRS filing by RGV Educational Broadcasting, the 501c3 organization in charge of RGPR, the total annual revenue had dwindled to $105,451. Members gave a paltry $5,207 (five percent of revenue) and underwriters paid $25,862 (25 percent of revenue). The Diocese provided the rest. Then the Diocese pulled the plug in March 2019.
Why NPR is no longer on local radio in the RGV
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 groups who wanted to establish a new NPR News station in the Rio Grande Valley.
A major obstacle we faced was the insistence by the two announcers to never tell the listeners that the station and NPR were going away. 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.
Perhaps there were contractual issues that prevented Maley and Muñoz from informing the public that a valued public service was going away.