Operating Without A License, Boston ‘Pirate Radio’ Stations Seek A Voice

David Cange broadcasts on the unlicensed Radio Bel Top in Mattapan. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

David Cange broadcasts on the unlicensed Radio Bel Top in Mattapan. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

BOSTON — Radio broadcasting without a license — so-called pirate radio — is against the law. To underscore that, last month federal authorities seized equipment being used by three unlicensed broadcasters in Greater Boston.

The growing number of U.S. pirate radio stations has led the Federal Communications Commission to accept applications for a few new FM signals, operating legally at low power.

However, the path from illegal to legal broadcasting is complicated, if not impossible.

Boston’s TOUCH Is Shut Down

TOUCH 106.1, which calls itself “the fabric of the black community,” is one of the most well-known pirate radio stations around Boston, but you can no longer find it on the FM dial.

“They took all of our computers, all of our monitors, DJ equipment on this side, that side, ripped stuff out of the walls,” said Charles Clemons, the founder of Touch 106.1.

On April 17, federal authorities took about $20,000 worth of radio equipment from Clemons’ makeshift studio in the Grove Hall section of Dorchester.

By 11 p.m. that night, Clemons had gotten himself back up — but only online.

The problem, Clemons said, is that many of the people he’s trying to serve have no way to get online.

“You have to understand, there are some people to this day that can’t read or write, but they can listen,” he said.

Clemons said he’s ignored repeated fines and warnings from the FCC because he wanted to make sure black people in Boston had a voice.

“Everyone needs a voice,” he said. “Boston is in the top-10 market when it comes to media. How is it possible that the black community doesn’t have a 24-hour radio station? It’s not right.”

Bel Top Moves Around The Dial

Clemons doesn’t have the money to buy a license, and, for years, the FCC was not issuing new licenses, so he went on air with no license.

TOUCH-FM is no longer on the radio, but plenty of other pirate stations are. Just scan the FM dial on your car radio in Mattapan or Dorchester.

“Culturally, our people always get their news from radio,” said Keke Fleurissaint, a pastor and leader in Boston’s Haitian community. “If you don’t have this medium, the means of radio, we’ll not be able to communicate this important news to the people because that’s their source of information.”

The Haitian community is served by several unlicensed stations around Boston, including Radio Bel Top, founded by David Cange.

“We talk about health, education, politics, social services, you name it,” Cange said. “That’s what we do.”

Cange said he’s racked up about $10,000 in fines, but he can’t afford to pay them. He said he’s nervous after what happened to TOUCH FM.

“Right now, I am broadcasting with my heart like beating because any time they might pop up,” he said. “They might show up, say, ‘David Cange, shut it off!’ ”

It’s not an unreasonable fear. In fact, it’s already happened once before. Radio Bel Top used to broadcast on 88.5 FM from Roslindale. The feds closed it down last year. A few months later, it popped up again on a different frequency. Now, it’s 107.5 FM in Mattapan.

2 New Applications, With A Catch

Which raises the question: How effective is this FCC enforcement policy?

“If they really made an attempt to evaluate what kind of a public service these pirate stations were providing on a case-to-case basis and then authorized them, that might be a positive thing, instead of bumping heads eternally with these groups,” said professor Michael Keith, who teaches broadcast history at Boston College. “Because they’ll just continue to do everything they can to keep a signal out there, so nothing gets resolved.”

Last fall the FCC began accepting applications for two low-powered FM stations in Boston, the first new legal stations in years.

But for those already operating, there’s a catch. The rules specify that anyone operating an unlicensed station is forbidden from applying.

“Well, the irony is that the existence of these so-called pirate stations is what prompted the FCC to say ‘OK, we’ll legalize you,’ ” Keith said.

Keith says low-powered stations like TOUCH lobbied Congress for these changes in the law.

“But they didn’t grandfather these stations that had been the impetus and the inspiration for the creation,” he said. “So in a sense they were punishing these stations by saying, ‘Well, you were operating illegally, which disqualifies you from having an authorized or legal license.’ ”

The FCC will not comment on the TOUCH FM case. But broadly the agency says it targets stations when it receives complaints, particularly from licensed broadcasters about interference.

Since January 2003, agency records show the FCC has issued more than 90 citations to pirate stations in Massachusetts.

The U.S. attorney’s office says it has shut down eight stations in the greater Boston area in the last three years.

Clemons, the TOUCH FM founder, has asked supporters to sign a Change.org petition. He said he wants to take the “legal” route moving forward.

The question is, what legal path is open to him?

The FCC declined repeated requests for an interview and, would not clarify what options are available to unlicensed stations to rectify their wrongs.

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  • neggy

    Wait until one of those unlicensed “pirates” decides to go first adjacent to WBUR and see how you like it when your station gets lost for 3 miles around the pirates transmitter site. Has anyone mentioned the MULTIPLE times those clowns have blocked or interfered with public safety AND transportation radio systems. I would be happy to point you to the FCC website and the files of 2 local pirates that screwed up the radios that control plane placement at LOGAN AIRPORT! The Boston spectrum is at capacity, even the low power licenses are marginal and IMHO should not have been put out there by the FCC. (full disclosure I was a Chief Engineer for a FM in MA, and I have 40 years experience as a broadcast engineer)

    • Robert C Gray

      Actually, neggy is technologically way out of date. HD Radio has expanded the potentially available OTA audio dreams by 3x. And most of these potential audio streams are dormant. It would behove the FCC to put forth regulations requiring the licensees of local radio stations to activate the HD/multi-streaming capability and to also make some portion of the HD channels available to non-profits like TOUCH.

      Failing that, the FCC might set license renewals with a 0-base application that would put the usage proposals of he TOUCH’s on a equal footing with the usage proposals of incumbents.

      The employers of neggy behave as if they have entitlements in continued use of the public resources their bandwidths are. They have no such entitlement. Perhaps it is time for shaking up the cosy staion ownership/FCC practice lawyers, and the FCC commissioners. Any body agree? Disagree? Didn’t Obama once pledge to make some FCC changes?

      • neggy

        I am not out of date, I am probably the only person with a FCC First Class license, a SBE certification and 40 years as a Broadcast Engineer posting on this topic. The future is podcasting/internet streaming.

        With the decline of the AM band, you are going to see more of those HD channels filled, the problem is until the FCC makes HD radio part of type acceptance, much like they did with UHF and FM tuners over 40 years ago HD radio is not going anywhere.

        Clemons is prohibited from getting a LPFM license legally. He could have formed a group and sought one out but he chose not to because he thought he was above the law.

        If the non commercial FM’s want to pay the Ibiquity licensing fees and drop a ton of cash into getting HD 1 through HD4 up and running and turning them into avenues for the pirates, fine with me. It isn’t cheap and that is why quite a few big money companies are turning their HD units off.

        Sorry I have no sympathy for pirates. I would be more than happy to point them to any one of a half a dozen stations where they can lease time for reasonable money. I spent 8 years in a group of Boston stations that sold time to people just like these pirates. But these illegal and dangerous broadcasters don’t want to pay 50 bucks an hour to be on the radio, they want their cheaply made illegal transmitters in their bedrooms. This is not CB radio kids, when a FM broadcast band transmitter goes on the fritz, it screws things up, and I doubt any of those illegal broadcasters have a spectrum analyzer looking at their output, know what a “proof of operations” is, or is following ANSI and OSHA guidelines on RF exposure. Let me know when they get ball cancer from playing antenna technician with the power turned on

    • http://freeradiocafe.com/forum/ John Poet

      Capitalist pig.

  • X-Ray

    Does not a “black” radio station just foster the lack of integration in
    society and foster more de-facto discrimination?

  • Wyrdless

    “”there’s a legal way to do this for a reason. “”

    Right, so the FCC can choose who is heard and who isn’t as well as to extort as much tax money as possible out of the people.

    • LaurenceGlavin

      The FCC website exp[licitly declares that the agency never takes into account the content of any licensed radio or TV station as long as it’s operated within technical requirements and does not transmit profanity or libel.

      • Wyrdless

        The laws are for restricting people not for restricting the scope of government.

        These are the same people who declared that condeming a middle class neighborhood and selling it to a fortune 500 company for $1 is public use.

        I’m sure the lawyers can figure out a way torture the language to do anything they want. Either that or they simply litigate for ten years till the person gives up or goes bankrupt.

        They are the feds, they have an army of lawyers and they don’t care how much money they waste, because it gives them an excuse to beg for more taxpayer funds

    • http://freeradiocafe.com/forum/ John Poet


  • Dispatch66

    I am sure Eric Holder would approve of illegal radio so debate over.

  • neggy

    the FCC was “hands off” of Touch because every politician in MA running for every office has paraded through their studios, including our dead Governor who when informed of the impending tried to stop it. When Clemons used Touch as his soapbox to run for office, they could no longer ignore him, even though he has ignored them for years by not paying previous fines. This raid was the result of non payment of previous “N.A.L.’s” The Feds go after pirates on a regular basis, but the laws favor the pirates not public safety. IMHO the Feds should be able to get warrants and seize transmitters when found, and not play this send notice to stop crap we call a NAL here are recent enforcement actions: http://transition.fcc.gov/eb/FieldNotices/

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