Want to send this page or a link to a friend? Click on mail at the top of this window.

More Special Reports

Posted April 8, 2011

Jean-Claude Sanon, a local Haitian leader and broadcast commentator who ran for Boston City Council in 2009, estimates that 60 percent of area Haitians depend on radio as their primary news source. "Most of us started out by renting time on big stations, and they gave us poor service to say the least," says Sanon, currently a host on the licensed 1550 AM, but a veteran of several pirates. He adds that FFC-licensed stations often require broadcasters to sell thousands of dollars of advertising. "We wanted better treatment, so in a sense, that's how pirate radio came about here."


The exact audience size and demographics of stations like TOUCH and Big City are hard to pinpoint. But they claim to reach tens of thousands of minority listeners daily. Anecdotal evidence supports those numbers: promoters seeking to spread the word about rap, R&B, roots reggae, and dancehall shows account for the majority of sponsorships on most unlicensed Caribbean stations. The phones also ring nonstop, while e-mail and IM boxes on the studio computers fill up as quickly as the club nights they advertise.

On one recent evening, the phone lines flashed like strobe lights in the citrus-colored studio at Big City. One after another, callers rang in for the hot new jam, "Colouring Book," by dancehall outlaw Vybz Kartel. Rodigan, who holds down a shift every weekday from four to six at Big City, usually entertains all wishes, but he had reservations about this single: it's a call for fans to cover themselves in tattoos, and it suggests they use Kartel's signature Street Vybz rum to cool the needle burn, if necessary.

Other local reggae stations have "Colouring Book" in thick rotation. But Rodigan, whose roles as broadcaster and community activist are inseparable, thinks the song's message is worth additional discussion, so he puts a question to his listeners: "So tell me, everyone — should we play this or not?"

"My worry," he says, "is that Vybz Kartel is so hot right now, that kids might actually do something stupid because he told them to. I know they'll hear ['Colouring Book'] no matter what, but people should talk about this before their teenagers come home with ink on their faces. That's the difference between us and a station like JAM'N 94.5," says Rodigan. "When important issues come up, we feel like it's our obligation to talk about them on the air."

Daily do-gooding aside, there are more substantial examples of unlicensed heroics. TOUCH, which primarily serves the black community in and around Roxbury, has received commendations from numerous local advocacy groups. In its turn to shine, Choice — with help from Rodigan and TOUCH founder Charles Clemons, both of whom used to spin there — proved its worth when Hurricane Katrina crashed into New Orleans in 2005. A donation drive brought in more than five truckloads of canned food, clothing, and supplies, which volunteers drove to Louisiana. Following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, unlicensed stations across the city also stepped up; four days after disaster struck, Big City says it raised $1800 for the Red Cross at a club night, and held another fundraiser one week later.

 The FCC was apparently unimpressed by pirate philanthropy. Beginning in January of last year, the commission's regional bureau in Quincy launched its harshest campaign in recent memory, and, by year's end, the feds issued 24 citations in Massachusetts — up from 10 the year before, and double the most they'd ever given in the decade prior. Working on tips from licensed broadcasters filing complaints about interference, the FCC attempted to shutter pirate stations from the North Shore to Worcester. In 2010, only Florida had more citations issued for unlicensed activity.

Most station owners in Massachusetts ignored the fines and warnings, and continue operating today (an FCC spokesperson tells the Phoenix that federal engineers are trying to make it as easy as possible for these smaller entities, but will continue fining unlicensed operators). But while some of the community-commercial hybrid people plan on playing cat-and-mouse with regulators indefinitely — a game that rarely lands pirates in jail but often ends with heavy fines and equipment getting confiscated — others are looking for approval from the agency that's been harassing them for years.


The TOUCH studios, located in a small brick building across Blue Hill Avenue from Grove Hall, are filled with reminders of the successes and struggles they've had since first going on-air five years ago. A shelf showcases an award from the city for the station's role in fighting violent crime; the back wall has a framed letter that TOUCH patriarch Clemons, along with more than 200 other stations and groups including the Prometheus Radio Project, delivered to Barack Obama in 2009, urging the president to endorse the LPFM bill. Clemons didn't mail the note, or even fly to Washington, for that matter — he walked there, on foot, to raise awareness about and protest "the unfairness of FCC policy affecting independent, community-owned and operated radio stations in the United States." Two years later, now that Obama has signed the legislation, TOUCH is applying for a legitimate license under the new guidelines.

There's no telling how many stations will be granted FCC designation through the LPFM bill — particularly in urban areas like Boston, where the airwaves are already crowded with college and commercial programming. People who carried the bill on their backs for a decade acknowledge such limitations, most of which still boil down to the sheer saturation of big-media behemoths — still, they maintain that it's a positive move away from prior precedents like National Broadcasting Co. v. United States (1943), which ruled: "Because [airwaves] cannot be used by all, some who wish to use it must be denied . . . The right of free speech does not include . . . the right to use the facilities of radio without license."

"We're not pessimistic — we're just trying to keep expectations realistic," says Prometheus chair Nan Rubin. Along with fellow broadcast reformers, Rubin will present at a Saturday NCMR program titled, "Mr. Radio Goes to Washington: Teaming Up To Pass the Local Community Radio Act." She continues: "In a place like Boston, stations will have to compete. They can put their applications in, but that doesn't mean they'll get it. Regardless of how popular a station like TOUCH is, they're going to be thrown into this pool and made to prove their worth to the community."

Despite having been fined in the past for operating with no license, Clemons says he's adhering to LPFM requirements in hopes that he'll be recognized when airwaves eventually get parceled out. As for stations like Choice, Big City, and the towering HOT 87.7FM — all of which broadcast at way above the 100-watt low-power limit — the new legislation will not likely have much impact. LPFM bill or not, many pirates, at least in Greater Boston, will continue evading the FCC.

"The airwaves belong to the people," says Gavin Dahl, a community broadcast coordinator for the group Common Frequency, and an NCMR presenter. "The FCC has failed in protecting the public interest. Nobody owns the radio airwaves — they're licensed to groups so that they can serve the public, and if the FCC can't determine a fair way for broadcasters to represent the public interest, then of course the public is going to find a way to return that power to the people."

"You always have to stand up for what's right," says Clemons. "We're trying to do this the right way, but we know that no matter how hard we try to do what's right, the forces of evil will come at us even harder. . . . I don't have a patch over my eye, and I don't have a parrot. However I do swing the sword of truth. We may be 100 watts — but our message is much more powerful than that. A pirate wouldn't do the things we do." ^

Chris Faraone can be reached at cfaraone@phx.com.

Reprinted from The Boston Phoenix of April 8-14, 2011.

Wehaitians.com, the scholarly journal of democracy and human rights
More from wehaitians.com
Main / Columns / Books And Arts / Miscellaneous