Back in 1999, Radio One purchased two radio stations in Boston, a move hailed by the community as a saving grace to keep the community intact and informed. Their 1999 purchase of WBOS-FM would eventually be sold to Entercom in 2006, while heritage urban WILD-AM was sold by Radio One in 2011 after eleven years of various formats thereby silencing the voice of Boston’s African-American community. This silencing is more than likely one of many reasons a variety of “pirate” radio stations began to emerge. For whatever the reasons may be, as Chris Rock says, “grand opening… grand closing!”
As I dug deeper and researched more, this issue grew more legs than a bucket of centipedes. No tea, no shade and I’m not passing judgment on the parties involved, however this can’t be a good look for US Attorney Carmen Ortiz, the Feds, Governor Duval Patrick or any politician that sat behind a mic at any of these pirate stations before, during or after an election.
Since 2011, US Attorney Carmen Ortiz’s office has filed forfeiture actions against eight illegal radio stations (aka pirate and/or unlicensed LPFMs) in the Greater Boston, Massachusetts area, eventually shutting them down. Over the last year, Federal agents raided and pulled the plug on several unlicensed radio stations broadcasting within the metro Boston area, housed in office buildings, basements and partially boarded up houses, with most notable and visible of all stations being Touch 106.1. In a statement, Ortiz defended the actions of her office and the Feds saying, “It is a public safety hazard for illegal radio stations to broadcast, potentially interfering with critical radio communications.”
Federal agents also silenced the unlicensed stations operating on frequencies from 88.7 to 106.1 after allegedly trying to work unsuccessfully with the owners and warning them to shut off all transmitters.
The Communications Act of 1934 bans the operation of “most” radio stations without an FCC license and accordingly authorizes the government to seize electronic or radio frequency equipment belonging to any violators. How much farther do the Feds need to reach back?? Does this same doctrine apply to groups who flip the switch spewing untruths, hatred, and racist propaganda and so on??
According to the Boston Globe, Governor Devil Patrick and several other politicians of color reacted swiftly to the closing of Touch 106.1 FM. Patrick said he received advanced warning from the US Attorney’s Office about the federal raid on the station and urged the office not to proceed. His request fell on deaf ears when US marshals and agents from the FCC went to the station last Thursday and shut it down. Patrick stated he was “incredibly disappointed” about the action taken. “I understand what the legal basis is, but you’d like to think of their bringing more of a problem-solving approach. Touch 106.1 is a pretty important voice in the community. I’ve been on it many times and have tremendous respect for the team over there.” Boston City Council members and state representatives vowed to exhaust every option to get the station up and running, saying it is a community institution, information resource and vehicle for civic engagement and social change.
Charles Clemons founded the station in 2007, calling it the fabric of the black community and attracting politicians of all stripes eager to get their message out to listeners. In addition to classic soul, hip-hop, jazz, gospel and other popular music, the station was a sounding board for listeners concerned about the same problems plaguing most urban cities.
In 2008, the FCC slapped Clemons and the station with a $17,000 fine for willfully running an illegal radio station. A US District Court judge issued a summary judgment against Clemons in February 2012 for not paying the fine. Court documents state Mr. Clemons neither appealed the forfeiture order nor paid a dime of the $17,000 fine. In August 2013, the US attorney launched another investigation after receiving a complaint that Clemons was using the station to promote his mayoral campaign and subsequently ignored warnings and refused to let agents into the studio.
Clemons said he has yet to retain counsel, but has “received an outpouring of support” from local attorneys “and elected officials.”
When asked why Touch 106.1 FM did not get a license, Clemons said, “We couldn’t. The FCC has shut it down so no one could apply for a license for 15 years. It’s not fair.” Clemons has not hidden the fact that Touch 106.1 is unlicensed and has joked about it on air. He is rooted in a low-power, community radio movement that took hold in the 1990s when minorities and advocates stressed that their voices were excluded from the airwaves. Discontent was further exacerbated with passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Clemons’s reputation grew in 2009 after he walked from Boston to Washington to bring attention to the unfairness of FCC rules that affect independent, community-owned radio stations. Ortiz said stations like Clemons’ “could have applied for low power radio licenses and operated their stations in compliance with the law.”
The 100-watt station covers a 3.5 mile radius from its base of operation and claims to reach 120,000-190,000 listeners daily. Before the shutdown, Touch 106.1 was considered essential listening by many in Boston’s Black community, especially activists and politicians. However, Touch 106.1 was not without controversy within the Black community. As a means to raise funds, the station’s owners proposed charging elected officials a fee to appear on-air.
Another “cloudy” factor hanging over Touch 106.1 is ownership. Its owners are listed as Leroy McLauren and John Laing with Clemons occasionally named as an owner/co-founder. The station is in the basement of the Neighborhood Development Corp. of Grove Hall, a nonprofit run by Clemons’s mother, Virginia Morrison.
John Laing is listed as chairman of the Committee to Elect Charles Clemons for Mayor of Boston, according to documents filed with the state’s Office of Campaign and Political Finance. The station’s status as a nonprofit is also murky. It notes on its website that it is a private nonprofit radio station. However, neither the station nor its call letters, LP-WTCH, are registered as nonprofits with the Internal Revenue Service and the state attorney general’s office, according to both agencies. In any case, federal law prohibits licensed and nonprofit radio stations from endorsing political candidates. But the law does allow radio hosts to make political statements or promote their candidacy, providing they grant equal access to other candidates in the race, according to FCC guidelines. According to the IRS, nonprofit organizations and charities are prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in supporting or opposing a political candidate. Touch 106.1 FM indicated on its website that it is “underwritten” by the Grove Hall Neighborhood Development Corporation, whose executive director is Virginia Morrison, Clemons’s mother. The station operates in the basement of a building owned by the neighborhood association, which is located next door. Morrison said the organization does not own the station, but donated space in its building when the station was founded. Clemons said the station pays the nonprofit rent, but refused to say how much.
The closing of the radio station sparked reaction among industry representatives and community residents who said it raised questions about the limited number of FCC licenses in certain communities and the high cost to obtain them. They also contend there is a need to have an on-air voice in underrepresented communities that are often shut out from getting expensive radio licenses.
Clemons has taken to any form of media to shed light on the situation vowing to take the issue all the way to the nation’s capital. As of April 29, 2014, the station continues to stream via the web and via a downloadable app from the station website. For updates, log on to www.touchfm.org.
At the end of the day is this a race issue, a failure to comply issue, failure of the FCC to reinstitute programs supporting minority ownership, or the result of residents of major city with no Black radio station taking matters into their own hands?