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Natasha Brennan
Special to Indian Country Today

A Southern California college district is weighing changes that could have major implications for the only national network that televises exclusively Native American and Indigenous content.

The San Bernardino Community College District’s board of trustees met this week to discuss a recommendation to transition its broadcast facilities and equipment to San Bernardino Valley College.

Those facilities are home to FNX/First Nations Experience – which reaches more than 46 million people across the nation, showing programs on history, language and culture in 22 states – and KVCR, a public media organization that broadcasts in the surrounding area as both an FM radio station and TV channel.

The proposal throws FNX’s future into doubt, opponents say, and jeopardizes access to PBS and NPR content the surrounding Native American population relies on.

District officials say the goal is to realign KVCR with the district’s mission to provide experience that prepares students for four-year universities and the workforce.

At a meeting Thursday, the board decided to create a framework for transitioning parent network KVCR, its facilities and equipment to San Bernardino Valley College; but assured the community that ending FNX and KVCR’s other operations would not occur at this time.

“Today wasn’t a dramatic trigger pull, just approving a plan to mitigate the deficit and ensuring students are served,” Board of Trustees Vice Chair Stephanie Houston said.

The board spent over an hour discussing the proposal to move KVCR back to its original home and use it as a lab for the district’s multimillion-dollar media academy.

The district’s interim chancellor, Jose Torres, confirmed that FNX does not receive KVCR funding. FNX is mostly supported by the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, which has donated $2 million a year for the past five years, former FNX leadership said.

Henry James Vasquez, chair of the Native American Community Council of San Bernardino and Riverside Counties, said many Southern California Native Americans rely on not just FNX, but all of KVCR’s television and radio broadcasts for news and entertainment.

Henry James Vasquez, chair of the Native American Community Council of San Bernardino and Riverside Counties, reads a letter from the council protesting changes to KVCR, citing the many Southern California Native Americans that rely on not just FNX, but all of KVCR’s television and radio broadcasts for news and entertainment. (Screenshot of board of meeting)

“The loss of KVCR’s delivery of PBS, NPR and especially FNX TV for the Indigenous community of the inland region of Southern California would be extremely detrimental,” he said.

FNX, with consultation from San Manuel Band of Mission Indians elders, began broadcasting in the Los Angeles area in 2011 and went national in 2014. The channel is aired statewide in Alaska and Utah, and is on main channels in New Jersey, New York and Chicago. In April, FNX launched Indian Country Today’s daily newscast.

“The loss of this facility would be such a betrayal of the understanding that the community made with the leaders of the San Bernardino Community College District and the leaders of San Manuel,” Vasquez added. “The services that KVCR provides are priceless.”

Director of Native Student Programs at the University of Redlands Elizabeth Shulterbrandt also described the recommendation as a blow to the Native community.

“Many of our Native students regularly watch FNX at home,” she said. “To miss seeing or hearing about themselves and their culture would be a setback for their self esteem, their mental health and their confidence.”

Director of Native Student Programs at the University of Redlands Elizabeth Shulterbrandt described the recommendation as a betrayal to the Native community, citing concerts to Native American students’ self esteem should they lose local television representation of their communities. (Screenshot of San Bernardino Community College District’s board of trustees meeting)

FNX producer and director Frank Blanquet, Yucatec Maya, who has been with KVCR for 15 years and helped launch FNX, said the network has given Native creators an avenue to share their work.

“The very existence of FNX is directly impacting Native content creation,” Blanquet told the board.

In the district’s meeting agenda, an analysis of KVCR’s funding issues recommended that FNX no longer broadcast nationwide and may need to find a new home if necessary.

Blanquet continued his address to the board by mentioning access to services and affordability. 

San Bernardino and Riverside Counties are home to 15 tribes and more than 37,000 Native Americans, according to the most recent census. San Bernardino has areas without access to high-speed internet, TV and satellite services, he said, and the loss of KVCR's affiliations would deprive many residents of over-the-air programs, educational content and children's shows.

FNX producer and director Frank Blanquet, who has been with KVCR for 15 years and helped launch FNX, shares his opinion with the board. (Screenshot of San Bernardino Community College District’s board of trustees meeting)

Vocal supporters of the recommendation, most of whom were trustees, said one of the biggest reasons for the transition is to save money. The main source would be cutting contracts with PBS and NPR that cost over $1 million a year. Houston, the vice chair, called allocating KVCR funds a “hemorrhage” and the plan a way to stop the bleeding while making room for student involvement.

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But FNX and KVCR employees alleged the district is to blame because it has mismanaged funds and installed poor leadership.

The district has owned and operated KVCR since 2017, when it received $157 million in spectrum auction proceeds from the Federal Communications Commission. A spectrum auction is a process the government uses to sell the rights to transmit signals and assign scarce spectrum resources.

Rick Dulock, KVCR’s program director, said many employees like himself were former students and were not involved in the policies that separated the students from KVCR operations. He said KVCR encourages work with students, despite its frustration with district decisions.

Dulock said the district failed to follow its hiring committee process in selecting multiple general managers over the years. And he noted the current interim general manager, Alfredo Cruz, is the only one of the six who had prior public broadcasting experience before KVCR. Cruz resigned in 2017 only to return again recently.

“We’ve been hiring the wrong people and refusing to hire the right ones,” Dulock said.

One trustee agreed that this “revolving door” of management was less than ideal; another called the situation as a whole “piss poor,” to which others agreed.

Fundraising was a point brought up often during community comments. KVCR is in the middle of a pledge drive. The issue of fundraising has been a point of debate, especially between the district and FNX.

“KVCR is positioned in one of the most philanthropic areas in the region and has not been allowed the means to succeed,” Blanquet said. “FNX alone has a lot of support from tribes that have the means and expressed the desire to support us financially; however, we have not had the leadership to move those relationships forward. They have stalled. Not on our end, but with the leadership of this college.”

The original recommendation on the board’s Oct. 8 agenda included a proposal that was discussed in the previous meeting: KVCR will no longer broadcast PBS and NPR; FNX will no longer broadcast nationwide and will need a new home if necessary; the facility will become part of SBVC; and KVCR’s $21 million endowment will be repurposed for other uses pending board approval and collegial consultation. The agenda noted trustees will attempt to repurpose staff.

The recommendation comes after the board’s July 9 discussion regarding several years of reported losses by KVCR. The board continued its discussion in a Sept. 24 meeting, where it was noted that KVCR endowment balances are projected to lose over $4.8 million from the 2021 to 2025 fiscal year.

Trustees disagreed on the language before voting on the recommendation Thursday, with Trustees John Longville and Donald Singer holding their positions from the previous meeting that PBS and NPR affiliations, along with FNX, were assets to the community. They argued ending these programs would be unpopular and could disrupt relations with the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians. Longville was unsuccessful in getting the board to commit to not cutting PBS, NPR and FNX.

Before the trustees discussed the item, they considered public comment. Due to a large volume of comments, the time allotted was doubled from the usual 20 minutes to 40 minutes.

More than 90 people participated in the San Bernardino Community College District’s Board of Trustees’ Zoom meeting Thursday evening. The community discussed the district’s plan to move their television and radio broadcast network, KVCR, and how it will affect students, the national Native American and indigenous community, and affiliations with tribes, PBS and NPR. (Screenshot of board meeting)

Two students spoke in favor of the transition, saying the hands-on experience with professional equipment was invaluable. Trustees later noted ending the affiliations could make room for funding and broadcasting student work and allow for collaboration between the school’s media program and other programs. They gave the example of creating a cooking show with the culinary arts program.

KVCR employees said the transition wouldn’t create any opportunities that students don’t already have, but they welcome more student involvement, curriculum and courses. More importantly, canceling the affiliations means freeing up time on the 24-7 channels that student work couldn’t possibly fill while removing the opportunity for students to work with industry professionals at PBS and NPR to secure future internships and jobs.

The district reiterated throughout the over three-hour meeting that the outpouring of community comments were likely due to a misunderstanding of the agenda. Changes to PBS, NPR and FNX would not be immediate. Trustee Clerk Gloria Harrison noted the PBS affiliate fees of approximately $800,000 are paid through 2021.

Should the transition of KVCR to the college be approved, it will be made over a 2½-year period.

The board decided to check back in on a “methodology” on how a plan will be constructed by Interim Chancellor Torres and San Bernardino Valley College President Diana Rodriguez by December.

Trustees expect this check-in to include information on how students, KVCR, the community, stakeholders and advertisers will be consulted, as well as more information on KVCR's budgets, funding and viewership.

An official plan for the transition is expected to be approved by April 2021, and the transition is projected to be complete by June 2023.

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Natasha Brennan, Cahuilla, is a journalist and photographer from Southern California covering the surrounding Native communities. Follow her on Twitter, @Natasha_Marie_B, or Instagram, @Natasha_Marie_B.

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This story has been updated to restore a dropped word.