The proposed sale of two FM stations in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley would leave the area without public radio, a threat that has spurred residents to explore starting a new NPR outlet.
The Catholic Diocese of Brownsville operates KHID in McAllen and KJJF in Harlingen through a nonprofit, RGV Educational Broadcasting. RGV applied to the FCC Feb. 12 to transfer the stations to Immaculate Heart Media, a Wisconsin-based Catholic broadcaster.
The diocese would receive $1.25 million in the deal, which awaits the FCC’s approval.
A sale would likely silence public radio broadcasts in the Valley. Immaculate Heart intends to switch the stations to a Spanish-language religious format, according to a spokesperson quoted in local media reports. The network did not return Current’s calls seeking comment.
Operating the stations cost the diocese “a lot of money per year, and it’s not part of their core mission to provide a public radio service,” said Larry Miller, an attorney with Garvey Schubert Barer who is representing the diocese in the FCC proceedings.
The diocese, once a joint licensee, has struggled over the years to keep its stations on the air. In 2008, it faced challenges raising enough financial support from listeners. By 2009, the stations had borrowed $1 million to stay afloat following several years of deficits. In 2014, the diocese sold its PBS station, which broadcast on a non-reserved channel, to a commercial broadcaster.
RGV Educational Broadcasting ended fiscal year 2017 with a deficit of $333,304, according to IRS documents.
“The broker was looking for a potential buyer for a very long time, at least a year,” Miller said. “This was all that surfaced.”
“Immaculate Heart Media was most in line with the mission of the diocese,” said Brenda Riojas, communications director for the diocese.
Representatives of local institutions who had previously expressed interest in buying the stations said they were not approached. “We had contacted Diocese representatives on a number of occasions over the last few years expressing a strong interest in serving that region,” said Don Dunlap, GM of joint licensee KEDT in Corpus Christi, about 140 miles away.
No one contacted KEDT about buying the stations, said Dunlap, who added that he’s still interested in expanding his station’s reach to the Rio Grande Valley.
He would find encouragement from local public radio fans who are considering options for keeping NPR in the Valley. Former members of a station advisory board have reunited and started a Facebook page to drum up support. “Save NPR in the RGV” is applying to become a nonprofit so it can raise funds, wrote member Edgar Lopez in a Facebook post.
The push for restored service could also find support from the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley if a communications professor at the school achieves his goal. W.F. Strong said he plans to engage the university’s administration in the effort.
“There’s a groundswell of support for the idea,” Strong said of the local response. “As usual, it’s a matter of marshaling those forces.”
Strong said the University of Texas Brownsville, which merged with two other local UT campuses to form UTRGV in 2013, had approached the Diocese of Brownsville about buying its stations. At the time, the diocese wasn’t interested. A UTRGV spokesperson said that he was not aware of anyone contacting the university about buying KJJF and KHID.
The stations provide “a lot of fine local programming,” said Strong, who also produces Stories from Texas, 6-minute segments that air on the statewide public radio news show Texas Standard. KJJF and KHID “uniquely serve our special culture” with conjunto and other Mexican music, he said.
“There’s no place for that programming to go,” Strong said.
The potential sale has even drawn attention from a member of Congress. “National Public Radio has provided Rio Grande Valley residents with high-quality informational and entertainment services for decades,” said Democratic Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, who represents the area, in a statement to Current.
“Upon hearing that a transition of ownership has been authorized, it would be my hope that Immaculate Heart Media continues offering NPR to South Texans,” Gonzales said. “In the past, I have advocated for public broadcasting, this is no different. My door is open to NPR and I plan to help them in any way possible.”
Gonzales also wrote a letter to PBS last year about the loss of an over-the-air PBS signal in the Valley. MBTV Texas Valley LLC, the commercial operator that bought KMBH-TV in 2014, aired public TV programming as a multicast channel until a power surge damaged its transmitter in early 2018.