On January 12, 2010, the Richter scale registered at 7.0 in Haiti, and aftershocks rippled deeply through local Caribbean neighborhoods like Hyde Park, Mattapan, and Dorchester. With cell signals severed overseas, many of the state's Haitian residents tuned in to Creole-friendly stations like Datz Hits 99.7 FM and Choice 102.9 FM in Dorchester. DJs on those frequencies helped dispatch messages from officials about public services and relief agencies. But unlike commercial radio and television stations, DJs like Junior Rodigan on Big City 101.3 FM in Dorchester also let callers use his platform to issue all-points bulletins for loved ones.
Even before the earthquake, radio had become vital to the state's burgeoning Haitian community — the fourth largest in the nation. More than 50 niche radio stations have popped up around eastern Massachusetts in the past decade, the majority of them packing an island flavor, local message, and intermittent signal. These frequencies advocate for ethnic communities that have been left voiceless. But they are part of the larger cultural fabric too; when Governor Deval Patrick needs the ear of Caribbean constituents, his staff reaches out to influential jocks like Rodigan, as do city councilors, service agencies, and state representatives.
Still, outfits like Big City and TOUCH 106.1FM in Roxbury — stations that many depend upon — are illegal. Operating without Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approval, they are emblematic of a new era in what used to be called "pirate radio." Now, some of these stations are lobbying for official clearance to use public airwaves.
At the upcoming National Conference for Media Reform (NCMR) in Boston this weekend, one planned action issue will be the fate of broadcast airwaves, and who has the right to inhabit them. Even policy makers at the FCC, which regulates and busts so-called pirates, recognize that major change is needed. In a speech last December, FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps conceded that certain communities receive an inadequate share of local news from commercial stations, which will now be made to undergo a "public value test" upon renewal of their license. Indeed, according the Benton Foundation, a media-reform nonprofit, minorities own just seven percent of TV and radio stations (and less than two percent of the latter) despite comprising a third of the population.
If there's any hope for unlicensed stations to go legit, it's the Local Community Radio Act, passed by Congress in December after a 10-year campaign by proponents of hyper-local radio. The Low-Power FM (LPFM) bill, as it's often called, will free up licenses for small, non-commercial stations operating at 100 watts or less — as compared to, say, WBUR, which broadcasts at 7200 watts. The new law could allow a proliferation of new stations, and give legal status to older ones.
However, details of how the legislation will be administrated are still hazy. And some experts say the measure comes too late, and with too little backbone.
"The whole thing is a game," says Nolan Bowie, a Berkman Center fellow who teaches public policy at the Kennedy School of Government.
Two weeks ago in Cambridge, at a pre-NCMR conference, Bowie mocked the LPFM bill for its late arrival and timidity, and rallied his audience to put airwave reform front-and-center. "If the public owns the airwaves," he challenged, "then why can't anybody just go on radio or television tonight if they want to?"
RADIO FREE ALLSTON
Even in the Internet Age, terrestrial radio is far from extinct. Though a handful of conglomerates like Clear Channel dominate FM markets nationwide, unlicensed operators have proliferated outside of the exclusive FCC licensing system — in which start-up costs can easily exceed seven figures depending on the market. That's especially true in the commonwealth, where anarchists and activists have hijacked frequencies for decades. Aside from sporadic and experimental pioneers, though, there is one unlicensed legend who stands out among the rest —Stephen Provizer,or, as one local reggae DJ calls him, "that famous white guy from Allston."
A journalist who has contributed to the Phoenix, Provizer founded Radio Free Allston on 106.1 FM in 1996. The newly passed Telecommunications Act of that year had freed media companies to acquire stations in monopolistic fashion, and concerned citizens from coast to coast began claiming airwaves for their communities. A year earlier, Provizer had flown to California to attend a conference hosted by the founders of Free Radio Berkeley, which energized the pirate movement nationwide. Back in Boston, he decided it was time to start a forum for people to share news and voice concern, particularly about American military involvement in Operation Desert Storm.
With minimal funding from grants and donations, but a wealth of public interest, Provizer and Radio Free Allston volunteers fixed an antenna on the roof of the storied Brighton Avenue hangout Herrell's, where they would broadcast in the front window. With cappuccino machines clicking in the background, they invited members of the Spanish, Haitian, and Portuguese communities to host shows, as well as representatives from advocacy groups like the Franciscan Children's Hospital who discussed local issues. But soon after moving to a more permanent location in the Allston Mall, Provizer was visited by FCC engineers who ordered him to ice the feed. The experiment had lasted nine months.
"It was depressing," Provizer says 15 years later. "There was nothing I could do about it — they just told me to close down and said they would confiscate the equipment if they had to come back. . . . I wanted people to be able to express their positions and opinions — whether they were musical, political, or cultural. It was a community station — not some kind of private station that someone was using as a platform to push their own ideas or make money — God knows I didn't."
Allston hipsters and their nonprofit neighbors weren't the only pirates under attack. InSouth Florida, a 1998 FCC raid on 15 unlicensed stations crippled the state's subterranean Latin broadcast system. Crackdowns in Miami-Dade — facilitated by the FCC along with the US Coast Guard, the US Marshals Service, and a host of other law-enforcement agencies — continued over the following two years, and expanded into nearby Texas. Meanwhile, in Massachusetts, Caribbean stations were flourishing. When controversy hit Haiti over flawed elections in 2000, listeners tapped resources like Radio Nouveaute 1640 AM, out of Mattapan, to get news from back home.
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."
PROVIDING A LIFELINE
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 email@example.com.
Reprinted from The Boston Phoenix of April 8-14, 2011.