Where church rules pubcasting, pledge drive comes up empty

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The nightmare scenario is probably familiar to anyone who ever worked an on-air fund drive: What if nobody pledges?

In February, KMBH-FM, the public radio station in Harlingen, Texas, cut short its fundraiser because it received only six pledges in three days.

“Drastic changes” in services could result, the station management warned listeners, in a chastising message broadcast and posted online: “Remember: Those who have not given their financial support will not have any right to complain when their favorite radio station changes or even vanishes from the air.”

“It was a painful, realistic warning,” said Monsignor Pedro Briseño, the g.m. of KMBH-TV/FM (and repeater KHID-FM), the only public stations for more than a million people in the Rio Grande Valley. “We simply cannot afford running a public radio station without support from the audience.”

The valley, which includes the cities of Brownsville, McAllen and Harlingen, is a borderland as far south and about as poor as Texas gets, with an average income half of the national level. Fundraisers say their work is hard because immigrant families retain a cultural bias against giving to nonprofits.

No civic force was able to maintain public broadcasting stations there until 1984, when the Catholic diocese announced plans to launch the public TV station, then KEDV.

The collapse of the February pledge drive may also have resulted in part from a series of controversies that have buffeted the stations for 15 months, which Briseño declines to discuss. He prefers to talk about plans for multicasting, new alliances and educating the audience about the need for public support.

Fathered by the church, RGV [Rio Grande Valley] Educational Broadcasting Inc. is run by Briseño, who is also pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Harlingen and an ally of the bishop of Brownsville, Raymundo Peña. Briseño believes his double roles as a priest and g.m. of KMBH makes him a community asset, but critics contend he ignores conflicts of interest and runs the station as an ecclesiastical fiefdom.

“It begins and ends with him,” said former station board member Chelse Benham. “The bishop oversees, but Briseño runs it. He is autocratic.”

(Probably the only other PBS station controlled by a religious organization is KBYU in Provo, Utah, but the control is indirect because KBYU is licensed to Brigham Young University, which is run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.)

Briseño doesn’t see Catholic Church affiliation as an issue. “As it happens, I am a priest … but I am a media professional and the son of a reporter for UPI [United Press International], raised in a journalistic tradition,” said Briseño, who grew up in Mexico. He received his doctor of divinity degree in the Midwest and has run KMBH for about a dozen years.

“It’s an odd situation,” said Guy Hallman, a McAllen resident active in the Roman Catholic reform group Call to Action-RGV. He describes himself as one of many Catholics who doesn’t complain about the church’s role in the station, but in February he objected to its influence on a KMBH program decision.

The station did not act impartially, Hallman told Current, when it decided against primetime airing on Jan. 16, 2007 of Frontline’s documentary “Hand of God,” about the child molestation scandal in the Boston archdiocese. KMBH ran the doc late that same night, without publicity, as part of a PBS satellite feed. Only one other PBS member station, which had a scheduling conflict, didn’t run “Hand of God” at the scheduled time.

Viewers who disputed the decision were told the station manager delayed broadcast so he could see it first and determine whether it was right for local viewers, according to news reports. The station later posted an online notice explaining that Frontline had changed the broadcast date too late for the show to be listed in the station’s program guide.

The explanations didn’t persuade Gerard Brazier, president of Call to Action-RGV. “We told them it was unfortunate in that it reinforced the idea the church is trying to hide things,” he said.

Call to Action arranged to show the Frontline film in a McAllen theater in February, with the director and a subject of the film speaking afterwards, and some 350 people attended. That same weekend, two months after the film’s national broadcast, KMBH aired it for the first time in primetime.

The “Hand of God” incident isn’t the only example of church influence on KMBH’s schedule, said Abner Burnett, attorney for Texas Civil Rights Project, who moved to the area four years ago. From his standpoint, Burnett said, it’s not really a public station.

“I am coming at it from a gringo perspective …,” Burnett said, “but the programming is clearly subject to censorship, and there is an agenda promoting Catholicism.”

KMBH’s schedule for April 4-13, posted on its website, lists 10 programs by and/or about Catholicism, including a weekly Mass and the primetime shows Catholic News and Inspiration and Diocese Insight. Briseño himself produces La Palabra Vivia de la Biblia (The Living Word of the Bible), a Sunday-morning Bible study. During the same week, KLRN in San Antonio airs only one program about religion — the journalistic, nonsectarian Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.

The licensee plans to air more church-related programming on digital multicast channels. KMBH-TV will air Catholic programming on one of its four DTV channels, and the radio station will devote its second HD Radio digital channel to the church, according to the diocese website.

On Nov. 3, nearly a year after the “Hand of God” blowup, the station again stirred controversy. The Valley Morning Star reported that Bishop Peña had “dismissed … without explanation” three members of the station’s board of directors — Bill Elliot, the board chair and a former radio host in the region; Betsy Price, a community radio veteran recently relocated from Utah; and Benham, a radio/television production supervisor and filmmaker. They were also the only Anglos on the board. Price, who had served only a few months, and Benham were the board’s only women.

Briseño told Current the board “is being restructured” to fit with his goal of having a small governing board. With a larger board, he said, “you may get into trouble … in terms of ownership control.” Even before the removal of three members, however, the board had only seven members, according to the Valley Morning Star.

News reports did not indicate on what authority the board members had been removed. The diocese’s spokeswoman did not provide an explanation. Its attorney, David Garza, said he would have to ask board members and examine the bylaws.

The deposed chair and Price were not available for comment. Benham said she feels no ill will toward the station. “Maybe I had served enough … ,” she said, “but it was puzzling that there was no discussion, no reasons, no advance notice.”

When the station ejected the board members, Harlingen’s Valley Morning Star newspaper set out to investigate its finances and operations. Reporter Bruce Lee Smith said when he went to the station to pick up requested financial documents, the station’s receptionist said she’d release them only if he disclosed confidential sources who had tipped off the paper about problems at the station.

He refused and was told he could wait for Briseño, who would be out of the office for an uncertain amount of time. After the reporter left, the receptionist filed a police report complaining that he became irate and verbally abused her.

That same day, George E. Borrego, Elliott’s successor as chair of RGV Educational Broadcasting, told the Valley Morning Star he was not aware of any conditions attached to the release of the documents.

Soon afterwards, the station posted a section on its website labeled “Financial transparency now online” that contains audited financial statements from the past three years.

Briseño dismisses criticism of his stations. “It’s a perception fed by an agenda of the print media,” said Briseño. “The TV stations don’t do that; they, in fact, underwrite and support programs. It’s the print that is anti-CPB and anti-public funding — this is the Libertarian agenda.” The Valley Morning Star and several sister papers in the area are published by Freedom Communications Inc., a national chain of newspapers and media outlets with a long commitment to Libertarian ideals.

Some lay leaders of the station have been removed, and some donors apparently chose not to pledge in February.  Joe and Rosa Pérez, host/producers of the FM station’s popular North of the Border music show for five years, stopped producing their show early this year after the “Hand of God” incident.

Joe Peréz said they respect the station’s staff but were protesting the church’s heavy-handed management.

“We were educators all our lives,” said Pérez. He said he and his co-host felt a need to protect their own reputation. “We called and said we didn’t feel comfortable being on a station run like this. And this is not the only time this kind of thing has happened.”

Like Burnett, Pérez thought that the lack of a conciliatory response on the part of the station and a general sense that it wasn’t a public station had a lot to do with the drop-off in public donations.

Burnett said it’s ironic that public broadcasting should be the last bastion of “the old guard, the oligarchy, the colonial Catholic power structure” in a region with a strong history of social activism. On the other hand, he said, things in the area don’t always make sense.

“In the Valley,” said Burnett, “it’s like Alice in Wonderland.”

Diana Claitor is a freelance writer and researcher based in Austin, Texas. She also heads the Texas Jail Project, a nonprofit group.

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