MCALLEN, RGV – A Minneapolis-based noncommercial radio consultant says key players and organizations from across Texas and the nation want to help the Rio Grande Valley secure an NPR station.

Ken Mills spoke via FaceTime at a town hall meeting organized by the nonprofit group, Grassroots Public Radio RGV. 

“I want you to know, you are not alone. People nationally are following this story,” Mills told the audience. 

“I have been publicizing it on my news blog. But there are other publications. Current, which is kind of the official newspaper of public broadcasting, has picked up on it. So, people are aware.”

More than 40 supporters of National Public Radio were in attendance at the town hall meeting to strategize ways of building a new NPR station for the Valley. In addition to the analysis of Mills, a veteran broadcaster and radio station manager, they heard from Jose Borjon, chief of staff to Congressman Vicente Gonzalez.

Ken Mills

The Valley’s previous NPR station was lost when the Diocese of Brownsville sold KHID 88.1 FM and KJJF 88.9 FM to Immaculate Heart Media/Relevant Radio. The new owners dropped NPR programming in favor of a Catholic Talk Radio format.

Mills said he has been pleasantly surprised how many people have shown interest in the Valley’s plight.

“People will send me emails and ask how is it going and stuff. And this is just from some of the contacts I have,” Mills said.

Mills said many of the conversations he has held have been very encouraging. He said he has held informal talks with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

“CPB is very interested in getting behind a new station in the Valley. CPB still has sort of egg on their face from their experience of dealing with the Diocese because that did not turn out well for CPB. In fact, they took a certain amount of criticism for even being involved with the Diocese from the start. So, that is one consideration,” Mills said.

“I have also talked to the folks at NPR and you will never find a more enthusiastic group of people about having an NPR station in the Valley, than the people who produce programs and market programs for National Public Radio. They would be thrilled to be back in the Valley.”

Another group Mills recommended as a possible resource was Radio Bilingue in Fresno, California.

“I have been in touch with an organization called Radio Bilingue. They are in Fresno and they are probably the best Spanish language public broadcast organization in the country. And I think it was W.F. who told me one of his caveats for the new station was to have as much Spanish language public radio news programing and other programing as possible. I agree with that. I think NPR would also agree with that too.”

The “W.F.” Mills was referring to is W.F. Strong, a broadcaster, author. and professor at UT-Rio Grande Valley who is hoping UTRGV will help build a new NPR station in the Valley. Strong was in attendance at the town hall meeting.

Mills describes himself as a public radio insider. He has been a public radio station manager and worked in network broadcasting. He now consults on noncommercial radio and publishes management and technical news and information on his blog, Spark News. He has visited the Rio Grande Valley many times and has family there. Ten years ago he worked as a consultant when Texas Public Radio was considering the development of an alternative NPR station to the one owned by the Diocese of Brownsville.

“Keep in mind that what we are really doing is redefining people’s perception of the whole Radio Grande Valley. A lot more people know about the Rio Grande Valley now than they did six months ago because of the continual news coverage on TV. People will ask me, what is it like there, like it is Mars or something. I tell them the good news. I say, if you like fresh grapefruit that is the place for you,” Mills said.

Help From Across Texas

Mills said he has also spoken with public radio stations across Texas.

“I have networked with some of the other stations in Texas. I just spoke to the management person today at KUT. They have offered to make their statewide program Texas Standard available at no cost to the new station for an unlimited period of time. They are that dedicated to seeing this work,” Mills told the audience.

“Another organization that has been extremely helpful is KERA in Dallas. Jeff Ramirez, who is the general manager there, VP of Radio, invited me to attend a meeting in July of all of the Texas Public Radio Station managers. Just to keep them informed of what is happening.”

Mills said another station that has been “very helpful” is KTEP in El Paso. 

“El Paso and Juarez are really city sisters of the Valley and in many ways we can learn from their experience. Of how they have made their NPR station so successful. They have been on the air the past 30 years, I believe,” Mills said.

“We have also had nice inquiries from Corpus Christi, KEDT, but those discussions have not gone as far as some of the others.”

Mills said he has also been in contact with a media attorney in Washington, D.C., Ernie Sanchez. “He is my attorney and the former general counsel of National Public Radio. He has volunteered to do pro bono work until the new station gets on the air. I have also had similar experiences with technical people, engineers. You need them in this kind of a process.”

That said, the key to building a new NPR station is grassroots support, Mills said.

“The thing I want to mention more than anything is, this is all going to take place on the ground. This is all going to take place locally in the Rio Grande Valley. If there is not the entity, the will, the people who will step forward in the Rio Grande Valley, there is nothing that somebody in Washington in a political office or anywhere else can really do. Because it starts at home. The people that care have got to make it happen.”

Expectation of Excellence

In his remarks, Mills listed a few “core principles” when considering a new NPR station.

“My first advice is don’t look back, whatever you thought of the Diocese and the way they ran KMBH, it’s over, they are gone. Thank goodness, I say. It was a terrible licensee and the station had an actual reputation of being underperforming, shall we say. But that is all in the past. We can learn the lessons but we can go on from here. Because we have the opportunity to start new, what I suggest that everyone who is working on this project do is have an expectation of excellence. We do not only want to have a great NPR station, we want to have one of the best NPR stations in the nation. This is the kind of goal you can have.”

Mills said the cool thing about being part of NPR is you are effectively a member of big club.

“A station in McAllen can have just as much impact as a station in Philadelphia or New York or wherever. Once you establish yourself it is a very important thing and it is also a collegial thing around the country. When people selflessly get to together and put their best minds forward and really accomplish something for the entire community. So I think it is really important to keep excellence, to not say this is a replacement for KMBH. This is something different. It is something that transcends what was done before and is really going to be a credit to our efforts.”

Another core principle, Mills said, is to stay focused on the goal.

“The goal as I understand it is a new, excellent, NPR station to serve the Valley. That is the goal. Now, you will have different groups of people who will approach it in different ways and sometimes there is competition between those groups. But, fight that. Share. This is not something where this group or that group has the dibs on the particular station. This is about the greater good. This is about why people listen to NPR and NPR stations. And so, don’t focus on internal turf battles. Please share. I have seen situations where there are competing groups going after a license or trying to establish a station and they wind up being very counter-productive.”

Mills also advised to do it right the first time. “If we are going to put a new station on the air, let’s do it right. Let’s couple best practices and not repeat past mistakes.”

No Space on the Dial

Another key thing to do is work in an incremental fashion, Mills said.

“Take one step at a time. Don’t try to do everything in one meeting, one discussion. I know there have been a number of concerns about there is no space on the dial. Whether that is true or not, things change. I have been in the radio business for a long enough period of time that there is a continual flow of companies and people and individuals who come into the business and go out of the business and even though you might not have a place on the dial today, things change. Don’t get hung up on stuff like that.”

Another thing not to get hung up on, Mills said, is whether or not to play a particular program. 

“Sometimes, I hear people say, oh, if it does not play this or that show I won’t be interested in this project. That is down the road, we need to get a station first. So, really, my suggestion is work together cooperatively on this venture.”

Practical Steps

Mills then listed some practical steps.

“We need a designated leader of this group and a core group of people. You will have lots of people who are really interested but who are the doers, what is the interim circle and where is that going? That has to be thought about and made a reality. We need one campaign. If different competing groups are doing different campaigns, that is going to confuse people,” Mills said.

Mills concluded his remarks by acknowledging is keen to work on the project.

“I would love to consult on this project. I would love to come down and spend some time… maybe even move to the Valley. But, really, what my goal, at the end of the day, is, I want the Rio Grande Valley to have an exceptional NPR station on the air. Whomever does it, whether I am involved or not is not the important thing. The important thing is the goal. We want to do something for the community, for ourselves and really for our nation.”

Editor’s Note: The main illustration accompanying the above story was created by WAMU 88.5 FM, the Washington, D.C., NPR station. 

Editor’s Note: The above news story is the second in a three-part series focusing on Grassroots Public Radio RGV’s June 12, 2019, town hall meeting. Click here to read Part One. Part Three will be posted next week.