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."