HARLINGEN, RGV – While some conservative commentators say the $2.2 trillion stimulus bill passed by Congress includes too much “pork,” radio executives and supporters of NPR in the Rio Grande Valley say they are thrilled.
Thanks in large part to U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez of McAllen, the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) Act includes $75 million for the Public Broadcasting Service (BPS) and National Public Radio (NPR). A stipulation has to be that the media dollars must be spent on coronavirus-related coverage.
No problem, said veteran radio executive Ron Whitlock, and Federico Garza, treasurer of the Grassroots Public Radio-RGV, a nonprofit set up to bring back to the Valley.
“The coronavirus pandemic has shown just how much we need a a 24/7 public radio operation in the Rio Grande Valley,” said Whitlock. “As Cameron County Judge Eddie Treviño has said, there is too much misinformation in the community about the virus. The people of the Valley need to know, minute by minute, what is going on with COVID-19, in English and Spanish.”
Whitlock is in discussions with the region’s congressional delegation – including U.S. Sen. John Cornyn – and local municipalities to bring NPR back to the Valley.
Garza pointed out that the Valley is the largest market in the United States without an NPR station. It has been that way since the Diocese of Brownsville sold KJJF 88.9 FM and KHID 88.1 FM last May. Garza said the fact that the region is 90 percent minority should shame the Corporation for Public Broadcasting into action.
“We deserve to have this money injected into our area. We need an NPR station in our area. We need two to three million dollars of that stimulus money for the radio station’s infrastructure and operations. We desperately need to provide good, local news and information to our residents.”
Asked why the Valley deserved to get $3 million out of the $75 million, Garza said it might cost that much to purchase a radio station and operate it for the first few years.
In an interview with the Rio Grande Guardian and Ron Whitlock Reports staged before the Senate and House passed the $2.2 trillion CARES Act, Congressman Gonzalez said he was upbeat about bringing NPR back to the Valley.
“We are working on NPR and we hope to have it back soon. It is a shame if we do not have NPR and PBS in our community, especially during a crisis like this,” Gonzalez said.
“We are talking to various stakeholders about bringing NPR back. We are talking to them nationally, in Washington, to see what resources we can put together to bring NPR back on the air.”
Against all odds, Gonzalez has brought back PBS to the Valley, albeit on a temporary basis. PBS used to be provided by the Diocese of Brownsville. The church sold it to R Communications, who in turn sold it to Entravision/Fox. Gonzalez persuaded Entravision/Fox to keep PBS on the air for at least another year.
“We need to make sure we gather the resources to keep PBS on permanently because our community needs it,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez said he needs to get his two South Texas congressional colleagues, U.S. Reps. Henry Cuellar and Filemon Vela, to help more on the NPR and PBS projects. He also said he will try to get PBS to put more educational programs on the air during the coronavirus crisis because all the local schools have been closed.
This is the original language Gonzalez helped insert into the House version of the CARES Act:
CORPORATION FOR PUBLIC BROADCASTING
For an additional amount for ‘‘Corporation for Public Broadcasting’’, $300,000,000, to remain available until September 30, 2020, to prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus, including for fiscal stabilization grants to public telecommunications entities, with no deduction for administrative or other costs of the Corporation, to maintain programming and services and preserve small and rural stations threatened by declines in non-Federal revenues, of which $50,000,000 shall be used to support the public television system: Provided, that such amount is designated by the Congress as being for an emergency requirement pursuant to section 251(b)(2)(A)(i) of the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985.
Veteran broadcaster and radio station owner Whitlock engaged with Sen. Cornyn about bringing NPR back to the Valley during a conference call with reporters. The conference call was conducted after the Senate had voted for the $2.2 trillion CARES Act but before the House had taken up the bill.
Whitlock told Cornyn that Cameron County Judge Treviño has been frustrated about the lack of accurate information about the coronavirus.
“The misinformation and rumors are leading to fear and panic and hoarding,” Whitlock said. “I have been working for a long time to get the NPR and PBS stations back on the air in the Valley. It is important to get those back on the air as soon as possible.”
Whitlock told Cornyn that he had met with Congressman Gonzalez recently and had reached out for support to Congressman Henry Cuellar.
“He and I are both praying for funding. First of all we need to acquire a new transmitter for the radio station on South Padre Island that your predecessor, Phil Gramm helped me get a license for, to put on the air right after 9/11, when the bridge linking South Padre Island to the mainland was knocked out,” Whitlock said.
“Would your office be able to assist, perhaps in getting additional power for this station? It only has 40 watts at this point. It needs more watts to reach from South Padre Island to other populated areas in the Valley, such as the Port of Brownsville and Brownsville itself.”
Additionally, Whitlock asked Cornyn: “Could your office be of assistance in helping to come up with funding perhaps out of the (stimulus) bill if Pelosi is able to come over and get it passed? And/or to get additional power for the Island radio station?”
Cornyn responded: “I would be glad to have my office staff reach out to you and talk about the details and find ways we can help. Honestly, we have been so covered up with this coronavirus issue that that has been the priority. But, we are happy to work with you on that and see what we can do.”
Whitlock said he has also reached out to Bishop Daniel Flores about acquiring the abandoned PBS/NPR building in Harlingen which used to house PBS and NPR.
“I will be touring that facility and I would like to ask Ana Garcia to go with me, if she would not mind. It was built as a radio and TV complex and has some equipment still in it. That is a good place to house this operation,” Whitlock told Cornyn.
Ana Garcia is Cornyn’s South Texas district director.
Whitlock said when, not if, the Valley gets an NPR station he will insist it has no advertising during times of crisis. He pointed out that during Hurricane Beulah, when he was news director of KRIO, the station ran no advertising and no music. It was only media outlet operating for the first week after the hurricane hit the Valley. “The only thing that mattered was news and information about the hurricane and the flooding it caused. Nothing else mattered.”
Whitlock said he will be submitting his ideas and resume to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and NPR.
During his career Whitlock has been news and public affairs director of K-RIO AM 910, managing editor and public affairs director of KIII TV 3, the ABC affiliate in Corpus Christi, general manager and federal licensee owner with businessmen Glen Roney, Paul Veale, and Jim Phillips of K-DOVE FM 100 in Brownsville, and general manager and federal licensee owner of KITE FM 105 in Corpus Christi.
His Ron Whitlock Reports show has aired on KRGV and KVEO in the Valley.
One of the conservative commentators unhappy that the $2.2 trillion stimulus bill has money set aside for NPR and PBS is Charlie Kirk.
Kirk tweeted: “The final stimulus bill includes $25 million for the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. It also has $75 million for PBS and NPR. This is government at its worst, How many ventilators could that money buy? How many masks could that buy? How many lives could that save?”