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.