McHenry Tichenor, media mogul and Spanish-language radio pioneer, was born on December 21, 1897, in Morganfield, Union County, Kentucky. He was the fourth of five sons of Joseph M. and Effie M. (Coon) Tichenor. His father, a telegraph operator and later a farmer, had served during the Civil War as a private in the Twelfth Kentucky Cavalry. Educated in public schools in Hopkinsville, Christian County, Kentucky, McHenry followed his older brother, Warren Clay, to Oklahoma City, where both were employed in the newspaper business at the Oklahoman and the Oklahoma City Times. In 1917 the brothers served in the Oklahoma National Guard. The unit was called to active duty in 1918, and the 186 men and 212 horses went to war in 1918 as Company F 111th Ammunition Train, Thirty-sixth Division, where Warren Clay rose to the rank of captain. By 1927 McHenry had moved to Shawnee, Oklahoma, where he was advertising manager for the daily newspaper. In 1928 he married Texan Genevieve Beryl Smith.
In 1930 McHenry Tichenor came to the rapidly-developing lower Rio Grande valley of Texas. In 1932 he was able to buy the struggling Valley Morning Star newspaper with its offices in downtown Harlingen, Texas. The purchase from the March-Fentress Group was said to cost $50,000, of which $10,000 was cash. Five years later Tichenor sold the paper to Hubert Hudson for $125,000.
Tichenor served as administrator for the relatively new Valley Baptist Hospital and guided it out of serious fiscal difficulties. In 1942 and 1943 he served on its board of trustees. This is likely where exposure to less fortunate patients led to his quiet lifelong medical philanthropy. In the mid-1940s Tichenor and his wife purchased the estate of land promoter, Al F. Parker, in La Feria, Texas. The structure and its beautifully landscaped surroundings occupy a city block and are currently maintained as the McHenry Tichenor Museum Project, a fitting legacy for the character and leadership of Tichenor.
In 1940 Tichenor made a decision that would shape the rest of his life.He organized the Harbenito Broadcasting Company. The name was a combination of Harlingen and the adjacent city of San Benito. The radio station opened with a paltry 250-watt signal and a staff of eleven. It secured the call sign KGBS, and popular belief holds that Tichenor used the initials of his wife, Geneviere Beryl Smith, for the call sign. In January 1944 it became an affiliate of the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) and later a minor affiliate of ABC.
GBS, however, was also the initials George B. Storer, founder of Storer Communications. In a shrewd move Tichenor, in 1950, sold the call sign KGBS, allowing it to become the call sign of a Storer station in California. His South Texas station then became KGBT by 1952.
By 1954 Tichenor's broadcasting entity had expanded with the acquisition of radio station KSOX in Harlingen. On 1530 kHz, this first 50,000-watt station on the Texas side of the Rio Grande valley was originally built by former Harris County judge and Houston mayor, Roy Hofheinz. After the purchase, KGBT gave up its 1240 kHz dial spot for 1530, moved into studios and offices at 1519 West Harrison, and in time, adopted full-time Spanish-language programming—one of the earliest stations in Texas to do so. This innovation was revolutionary for its time. In 1957 a new television studio for KGBT-TV was added by Alfred R. Beck, chief engineer of the station. By 1960 the principals of the station were McHenry Tichenor, president; J.C. Looney of Edinburg,vice-president; and Troy McDaniel, secretary-treasurer and general manager of the station.
Tichenor was very active in other areas of economic development in the Rio Grande valley. In the early 1950s he served on the first Cameron County-appointed South Padre Island Park board. This board laid the groundwork for the erection of the first causeway ever to connect the island to the mainland. It was named the Queen Isabella Causeway, and its completion dramatically changed the economic and development potential of the island. The Harlingen Chamber of Commerce honored McHenry Tichenor for his achievements by making him an inaugural inductee in its Harlingen Historical Hall of Fame in 1971. He was inducted into the Texas Business Hall of Fame in 1989 and received the Pioneer Broadcaster of the Year Award from the Texas Association of Broadcasters in 1993.
Tichenor tutored and nurtured his sucessor and only child, McHenry Taylor Tichenor, Sr., who, in the 1980s moved the Tichenor Media System (TMS) into a buying spree of radio stations and changed their format to Spanish language, a wise move that foresaw the changing market demographic. In the early 1990s TMS owned the biggest chain of Spanish-language radio stations in the nation and played a major role in helping to promote Tejano music across the airwaves of Texas and the rest of the United States. In 1997 TMS merged with Heftel Broadcasting to become the nation’s largest Hispanic radio group (known as the Hispanic Broadcasting Corporation) with thirty-eight radio stations in every major U.S. Hispanic market. HBC merged with Univision Communications in a deal that was approved by the Federal Communications Commission on September 22, 2003. At the time of the merger, HBC owned sixty-eight Spanish-language radio stations.
McHenry Tichenor's wife Genevieve died in 1985. He died at age ninety-eight on October, 24, 1996, in La Feria, Texas, and was buried next to his wife at Mont Meta Memorial Park in San Benito. Starting with one radio station in 1940, Tichenor grew the company to twenty stations at the time of his death and was on the verge of acquring sixteen. In the Rio Grande Valley he founded KGBT AM, KELT FM, and KGBT-TV 4 and owned these plus valley stations KIWW-FM, and KQXX-FM.
McHenry Tichenor wrote an anecdotal autobiography titled Bits and Pieces from the Life of McHenry Tichenor that was published in the 1980s. Characterized as an individual with a "great sense of humor and a man who had strong values," Tichenor’s civic and charitable endeavors impacted many citizens of South Texas.