In a part of the country that most of America has never heard of, the young children of hardworking parents are left at home during the day. Often, they have an older sibling, cousin, or grandparent to keep an eye on them. Sometimes they are alone. These are the children or grandchildren of Mexican immigrants, whose parents often work backbreaking jobs: farm labor in the 100 degree heat, factory work at the maquiladora plants, or odd jobs for any cash they can make. If the family is lucky, they can afford to live in a poor part of one of the various tiny towns scattered throughout the area. If they're unlucky, they're on one of the so-called colonias – ramshackle collections of self-built homes in rural locations, usually with electricity but frequently without access to running water or sewage systems.
Fortunately, these disadvantaged kids have a free resource available to them: the local PBS station, KMBH, provides over-the-air coverage to an enormous area. Tens of thousands of children in low-income families find PBS programming their sole source for preschool education. They learn their alphabet, their numbers, their shapes, and even English from shows like Sesame Street, Bob the Builder, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood and others. This can (and does) make the difference between success and failure for these kids when they hit the public school system, and they can continue to benefit from PBS's renowned science programming throughout their academic lives.
But that is all set to change.
The Catholic Diocese of Brownsville, who have owned KMBH since it went on the air in 1985, has found the benefits to the region are no longer worth the cost of running the station. The diocese has announced that it plans to convert the station's license to a commercial one (an act made possible by a very unusual set of terms in the license itself) and sell it to a Mexico-based entertainment company in order to make up for the station's funding shortfalls. Thus, the sole source of educational programming for so many disadvantaged children is about to go away, likely replaced by a(nother) Spanish-language entertainment network.
But as is so often the case, there is more to the story than a simple financial transaction: there is a chance that the station can be saved. Follow me over the fold for more.
The Rio Grande Valley is actually the floodplain of the Rio Grande river, a region of south Texas stretching from Brownsville and South Padre Island northwest along the Mexican/American border. The Valley is a unique part of the country with its own culture, music, traditions and of course, troubles: the high level of immigration, both legal and otherwise, means that wages are low and unemployment is high. Cities in the Valley are frequently cited as some of the poorest in the country, with high rates of unemployment, government assistance, teen pregnancy, lack of healthcare access and all the other problems associated with poverty in the United States. In addition, many of the poor live in colonias without municipal services and often without transportation, where they are bussed to and from work in the fields, factories, or wherever they can find work.
Public education in the Valley is also an issue. Education funding is often siphoned off to other areas of cash-strapped local governments. While the children of poor families are bussed to school from rural locations like the colonias, the schools themselves are often under-equipped and understaffed. The resulting environment provides little support to kids who can't afford school supplies and who may not have a good working knowledge of the English language.
In this environment, it is easy to see why the local PBS broadcast station is relied on so heavily. For many, KMBH is the only available source of English-language education programming, and the numbers prove it: right now over 20% of all households in the Valley view PBS programming solely over the air. This is the fourth highest percentage in the nation; clearly, people are watching.
Providing educational programming to the poor in the colonias was stated the goal of the Catholic Diocese of Brownsville when they set up KMBH in 1985 (after an earlier, failed attempt to create a dual-language educational station), but running a donation-driven service in an area as poor as the Valley has always been a challenge. The diocese itself also complicated matters, rescheduling or outright censoring programming that it found critical of Catholicism on multiple occasions. These actions, along with accusation of fund misappropriation, shook confidence in the station and brought donations lower and lower.
After several years of barely meeting pledge quotas, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (which provides matched funding to nearly all PBS stations) finally stepped in, performing an audit of the station. The CPB stated that KMBH's owners had failed to meet policy and financial requirements: the station was at risk of losing its funding and status as a PBS affiliate. Finally, in 2010, the diocese brought in new management to clean up the station and get funding back on track.
Unfortunately, according to a source close to the station, the new manager did not have a good grasp of the unique challenges presented by the Valley. Locally-produced shows targeted specific at Valley residents (often produced by volunteers) were moved to unfavorable time slots, despite being a popular driver of donation pledges. Even the popular nationally syndicated shows were shuffled around frequently, leaving large audiences unable to find their favorite programs. Donations continued to fall, and KMBH found itself unable to meet its financial quota in the following two years. Finally, the CPB stated that it would no longer fund the station and further, it would require its grants from the previous years (nearly $800,000) to be repaid. The diocese announced it would be seeking to sell the station, while doing "everything it can" to preserve over-the-air PBS broadcasts in the Valley.
When news of KMBH's trouble broke, the diocese was approached by at least two potential buyers with the goal of keeping PBS programming available in the Valley. One was a local radio station owner with many years of experience operating in the region. The other was the head of KEDT-TV, another PBS station in nearby Corpus Christi, who felt he had an excellent chance to maintain the station’s PBS affiliation and turn things around. Both of these potential buyers felt they would be able to maintain the over-the-air broadcasts that are so important to so many in the area.
However, in a bizarre turn that flies in the face of their stated goals, the diocese soon stated it planned to sell the station to a little-known company called MBTV Texas Valley, LLC., in a multi-million dollar deal. A portion of the proceeds would be used to repay the CPB, but the rest would go to the diocese, ostensibly to reimburse them for years of losses incurred by running the station.
The registered agent for MBTV is one Roberto Gonzales, the owner of a Mexico-based media group known as R Communications. R Communications already owns and operates many radio stations in the Valley and elsewhere, and is expanding aggressively. Roberto has stated that he wishes to use the KMBH license commercially, which almost certainly precludes the continuation of any PBS programming on the station.
As usual, it is the poor and the children of the poor that will be hit the hardest, losing access to what is, for many, the only preschool educational resource they have access to. Children of better off families will still have access to PBS via cable or satellite. Thus, the Brownsville diocese has elected to strike directly at the most disadvantaged families in the area. For an organization that claims to be on the side of the poor and destitute, this appears to be deeply hypocritical at best, especially given the existence of potential buyers who would continue the PBS programming.
So what do we do about it?
Unfortunately, the sale is not being heavily reported in the Spanish language media, so the community has been slow to respond. Additionally, those who will be most negatively affected by the loss of PBS are the poorest families, precisely those who have the least free time to organize and attend any sort of mass protest.
However, the fact that R Communications is a Mexican company (and already owns a fair amount of media in the Valley) brings an interesting option to light: the FCC has strict limits on how much of a media group operating in the US can be owned by foreign nationals or companies. Many believe that the MBTV purchase would put it squarely in violation of those rules. At the very least, the sale should require a public comment period. If the sale is blocked, then the diocese would almost certainly have to sell the station to one of the other buyers who plan to keep the PBS programming.
To this end, a grassroots effort (tentatively called Save PBS-RGV and headed by members of the KMBH community board) is underway to request a review of the purchase by the FCC, with the intent to halt or at least delay the sale. You can sign the petition here: http://rgvequalvoice.nationbuilder.com/...
It is clear that KMBH's troubles run deep, and the station could well benefit from new ownership. But taking Sesame Street away from the children of the poor while lining the pockets of already wealthy foreign companies is a gross miscarriage of justice. Please, if you are from the Valley, or even if you're not, take the time to sign the petition. If you have a bit more time, please put in a call to Tom Wheeler's office over at the FCC (1-888-225-5322) and tell them to block the sale of KMBH to MBTV.
Anyone with additional ideas on what could be done to save the station or put pressure on the diocese not to sell, please leave a comment or contact me directly so I can put you in touch with the organizers of Save PBS-RGV. They are in direct contact with the communities most affected by this issue, and they will need all the help they can get.
CPB inquiry, deficits: more tribulations for KMBH
Brownsville Herald - KMBH up for sale
Diocese working hard to keep PBS on the air
Grassroots group formed to save 'over the air' PBS for colonia children
Once the effort has a web presence set up, links will be added. Thanks for reading.