MCALLEN, RGV – UT-Rio Grande Valley has set up a working group to look into the possibility of the university housing and operating a National Public Radio station on campus.

Confirmation of this fact came at a town hall meeting hosted by Grassroots Public Radio RGV and held at EBC at the District in McAllen on Wednesday evening. More than 40 supporters of NPR were in attendance.

“We have set up a working group with the help of the congressman. It has members with different areas of expertise,” said Walter Diaz, dean of college of liberal arts at UTRGV.

Walter Diaz

Diaz said one of the members of the working group is UTRGV Professor W.F. Strong, an author and broadcaster whose series, ‘Stories From Texas – Some Of Them Are True,’ used to run on the Valley’s previous NPR station – RGV Public Radio 88 FM.

Earlier this year the Diocese of Brownsville sold RGV Public Radio 88 FM to Immaculate Heart Media/Relevant Radio with programming on the station changing drastically on May 30. Out went NPR programming and in came Catholic Talk Radio.

Diaz said the UTRGV NPR working group would soon be reaching out to the community for its input. “It seems to me this group would be the logical entity to be on the working group,” Diaz said, referring to Grassroots Public Radio RGV.

Diaz urged the audience to speak with one voice, particularly when talking to potential donors. He said any efforts to raise funding for a new NPR station needas to be “organized and well-choreographed.”

“We look forward to working with all of you,” Diaz added.

Professor Strong was at the town hall meeting. The previous week he had held a similar town hall meeting in Brownsville. Strong, who has set up a Go Fund Me campaign to raise funds for a new public radio station, urged supporters of NPR from both ends of the Valley to work together.

The McAllen town hall meeting featured two guests beamed on to a TV screen via FaceTime. Jose Borjon, chief of staff to Congressman Vicente Gonzalez, gave remarks from the nation’s Capitol in Washington, D.C. Non-commercial radio consultant Ken Mills gave remarks from Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Also present was Nichole Hernandez, an outreach coordinator for Congressman Henry Cuellar who is based in the representative’s Mission office.

Borjon’s Perspective:

Borjon was the first of the special guests to speak. He explained in depth the work Congressman Gonzalez’s office has been doing to bring not just an NPR station but also a PBS TV station to the Valley. He said the congressman plans to have a strategy meeting at UTRGV during the congressional recess in August.

“I am happy to report we are making great progress,” Borjon said, pointing out that his involvement in the project actually started back in 2014 when the Diocese of Brownsville announced it was selling the Valley’s PBS station, KMBH, to R Communications.

“It all started when we lost PBS and R Communications stopped transmitting because their transmitter was old. I told the Congressman this is an opportunity for us to lead the effort and try to do something to change this,” Borjon said.

“I contacted R Communications and they told me they would like to sell the station for millions of dollars and that it would cost $50,000 to fix the transmitter because it was very old. So, I went back and I talked to PBS and tried to bring them to the table.”

Borjon said he developed a good relationship with PBS and started to look at the issue in a holistic approach.

“I started to research and learn more about TV stations and radio stations. I have a degree in journalism and I used to be a journalist myself in the Rio Grande Valley. I was raised in Brownsville, Texas, and I worked for the Brownsville Herald and the Valley Morning Star and the McAllen Monitor when they were owned by Freedom Communications. So, I am well-versed in media and the landscape of the Rio Grande Valley.”

Borjon said that while the brouhaha over the demise of PBS died down, he kept in touch with PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

“After that we learned that NPR was on the chopping block. So, for the last couple of months I have met with Steve Taylor and other folks in the Rio Grande Valley to study different options.”

Borjon said he had heard good things about the way NPR and PBS was operating in Houston, housed at the University of Houston. He said he wanted to see if the Houston model would work in the Valley.

“I figured that the best place to house this, what made the most sense, would be the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley. I went back and I read a number of reports, and I studied this, and I learned most PBS and NPR stations are housed at universities, including the University of Houston and the University of Texas at Austin.”

Borjon said when he reached out to UTRGV he was told the university does not have the money to take on an NPR/PBS project.

“The university said, we don’t have the funds, we don’t have the ability to fund this. So, I went back and I said, let’s have a meeting. And after we have that initial meeting with (UTRGV President) Guy Bailey, I said let’s have a second meeting with the community and try to figure out how we can move this forward. Folks from various walks of life, including community leaders and various TV stations, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, PBS, NPR, the university, philanthropists, etc. And so we began to develop this idea. The university kept saying, we have to find the funding for this.”

Borjon said he had a good conversation with some UTRGV officials, including Vice President Veronica Gonzales, four or five days ago.

“In this conversation they agreed to partner with us to start studying the possibility of having a radio station and a TV station at the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley. I reached out to NPR, I also reached out to PBS after an initial meeting with them. And I reached out to the University of Houston because we are planning a trip to the university to visit their operations to see how they operate. To find out what their budget is and find out how they started.”

Borjon said he hoped the Valley could learn best practices for the public media setup in Houston.

“We are in the process of finalizing our working group that will include people from the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley, people from our office, and, of course, we are are going to seek people from the community. So, that’s what we are working on right now. I know the university is forwarding some names of who they would like to include and I have some names from our office. We want input from the community on who is on this working group.”

Once the working group is developed, a visit to the University of Houston will take place, Borjon said.

“And perhaps another university or another public broadcasting entity to learn how they are doing business. And then from there we are going to meet with NPR, we are going to meet with PBS, and we are going to meet with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. We have learned that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is willing to fund our project, but we need to find an initial investment that can help us.”

Borjon said he believes the Corporation for Public Broadcasting will match whatever local dollars are raised.

“So, when we find that half a million dollars, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting will match those funds with another half million dollars. So, I think the possibility is there. We need to consider studying this possibility and we need to continue doing our research.”

Borjon explained: “Obviously, our visit to the University of Houston is critical, so we can learn how they started and we can learn what their first steps were, and we can gauge how it all came about. We have also asked NPR if they can connect us with their most recent radio station, that most recently launched, so we can get an idea of how much that expense was and where the money went and what was the initial cost. We are working on that with NPR.”

Borjon said Congressman Gonzalez’s office has all the contacts.

“We have a rolodex of people and we are willing to use it, from ABC to NBC to CBS to Univision to Telemundo, to PBS to NPR to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, to the Texas Association of Broadcasting to the National Association of Broadcasting. All of these different people I have mentioned, I have already talked to all of them individually and they are all ready to help us. It is just a matter of putting it to work.”

Borjon said NPR and PBS supporters have to be realistic about when new stations could be developed.

“This plan we have could take a year or two, three years to implement. I have spoken to Steve in the past and Steve agrees with me that we have to have perhaps an interim fix. An interim fix would be where we could reach an agreement with one of the TV stations there, whether it is 48 or 4 or 5, and they agree to put PBS back online on one of their substations. We would have to work with PBS national, we would have to work with the National Association of Broadcasting, and the Texas Association of Broadcasters. We will do that.”

As for a temporary fix to bring back NPR, Borjon said a signal on the FM dial will have to be found. “We need to bring back the programming until we find a more permanent solution. That is not the perfect solution but it is a way for us to operate in the interim. We plan to explore those options as well during our August meeting, which is what we are planning to work on in the next couple of weeks.”

Public Broadcasting Act of 1967

After a brief Q&A session with members of the audience, Borjon provided more information. He spoke about some research his office has conducted that might be useful in the Valley’s push to bring back NPR and PBS. The research has focused on the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967.

“I want to emphasize that whatever we do we want the input from the public. We will be upfront and transparent about what we do. We’ve also discovered a very wonderful law which is the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967. It was signed into law by LBJ. It opened up public broadcasting. That is what created the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Today, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting funds 70 percent of all of the broadcasting in this country, both NPR and PBS stations,” Borjon said.

“What we have discovered in that bill is quite interesting. Two of the lines say, it is in the interest of the public that all citizens of this country have access to public broadcasting. And so that is going to be one of our fundamental arguments that we are going to make. It states there, clearly, plain and simple, it is the federal government’s responsibility that all citizens of this country have access to public broadcasting. In another part of that it says that it is the federal government’s responsibility that have access to public broadcasting through all possible channels of tele-communication.”

Borjon explained the significance of the 1967 act to the Valley.

“It is important for us to note (these provisions in the act) because the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) is now on the hook. They have to figure out a way for us to bring back these stations. We are in a very unique position because we had non-commercial licenses. For whatever reason when these TV stations and signals were assigned to the Rio Grande Valley and South Texas they were all assigned in a non-commercial way. That is not the case in other parts of the country. And so we are left now in a position where we are disenfranchised because all the stations are commercial, which means they are all to make money, they are all for business purposes, ABC, CBS, NBC. Whatever station is running is charging fees to run ads, and make money. That puts us in a position where we can use the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 to our advantage.”

Borjon encouraged the audience to take a look at lines 7, 8, and 9 of the 1967 Act.

“They specifically talk about the responsibility of the government to make available public broadcasting to all citizens of this country, through all mediums. I think that is very powerful. If we tell that story to the FCC  and we explain our plight, that we are in a high-poverty area, that is something that is going to help us too.”

Borjon concluded his remarks by referencing the Independent Journalism Group. He said a study of theirs concluded that at present public broadcasting, both radio and tv, has very strong revenue sources.

He said he often watches PBS programming and sees the names of wealthy donors that help fund their programs.

“I write down the names, of the people who have left all that money, and I Google them, rich people, rich families. I plan to reach out to them at some point and say, we need some money to start this public media (project) down in the Rio Grande Valley and I would like you to help us.”

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a three-part series on Grassroots Public Radio RGV’s town hall meeting in McAllen. Part Two, featuring the analysis of noncommercial radio consultant Ken Mills, will be posted on Saturday, June 15.