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.