The rise and uncertain future of ''pirate'' radio in Boston

Will Boston’s unlicensed radio stations go legit?
By CHRIS FARAONE  |  April 7, 2011

AFTER HELPING push the Local Community Radio Act through Congress last year, stations like TOUCH 106.1 have to decide whether to remain unlicensed or try and go legit.

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.

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