The Hub’s unlicensed radio stations spin their wheels in the face of adversity
With Santa’s helpers all around and kids holding slices of pizza, a toy drive at a union hall is a strange place for Team Jerk to be spinning. A partnership of three area DJs, the crew represents some of Boston’s most popular unlicensed radio stations — Big City 101.3 FM and Boston 87.7 FM — and is generally known for spinning the latest hip-hop and soca “chunes” and for its erudite scholarship of Jamaican dubplates and dancehall riddims. Today, however, the three are playing the roles of neighborhood activists and elves.
“While our radio presence focuses on music first, and generally Caribbean music, we end up being involved in community events because of the listenership we’re attracting,” says Deejay Dex, who in his early 30s is the youngest of the trio.
Along with partners Jeff2Timez and Ill Neil, Dex has held down urban radio for years in the Hub. Despite its underground arrangement, Big City, where Dex commands the decks on weekday afternoons, is a decade old. The station began broadcasting in 2008 to fill the gap left since Hot 97.7 FM, a commercial hip-hop outpost owned by the national giant Entercom, switched formats in 2005. As individual artists, Neil and Jeff have been active since the early ’90s, the latter having produced several classic Hub rap tracks for acts including the Almighty RSO.
Unlicensed frequencies often fall into the category of Low Power FM (LPFM), a label that includes any station that broadcasts with a signal of less than 100 watts, which generally reaches between three and five miles. Though the digital revolution has changed listening habits for many people, in Massachusetts, immigrant communities in urban centers like Boston, Lowell, Brockton, and Worcester still rely on these outlets for critical information and entertainment. For people who are just starting in the Commonwealth, unlicensed frequencies — sometimes dismissed as pirate stations, a characterization their listeners and DJs eschew — offer programming in Spanish, Haitian Creole, and Portuguese that can’t be found elsewhere on the dial.
Despite the importance of stations that connect with underserved communities — a point even noted by the mainstream press in Boston and elsewhere, albeit seemingly reluctantly and certainly infrequently — the Federal Communication Commission (FCC), which regulates airwaves, continues to rain down on operators like Big City. A few days after Team Jerk held its holiday toy drive in Dorchester, the FCC in New York City summoned three unlicensed stations to shut down immediately. Nationally, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has made closing such operations a priority and has even asked Congress to hold broadcasters criminally liable (instead of only issuing fines).
Meanwhile in Greater Boston, authorities have shuttered more than ten so-called pirates since 2011, with United States Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz proudly noting, “As prosecutors we work in conjunction with the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau to identify violators of federal communications law. It is a public safety hazard for illegal radio stations to broadcast, potentially interfering with critical radio communications.”
Not surprisingly, the Ortiz version failed to acknowledge the importance of these resources.
About an hour into their holiday gift drive, the members of Team Jerk ask the Santa on stage to step aside and make way for a dance-off for young people to compete for extra presents. Fifty or so kids, ranging from oblivious toddlers to eight-year-old tryhards, gather at the foot of the stage. Dex flips on “Drop that #NaeNae,” the viral dance of 2015, and the crowd erupts. Young cats “whip” their fake steering wheels around with the confidence of a goomba in a Cadillac. Meanwhile, a group called Divas Mentoring Divas holds a winter vacation “feminar” to teach young girls the basics of modeling, acting, and performing. Globe Santa, this is not.
On April 17, 2014, US Marshals accompanied by FCC officials entered the offices of TOUCH 106.1 FM near Grove Hall on the Dorchester-Roxbury line. In the raid, they seized all of the equipment connected to the station’s transmission board, crippling its ability to broadcast over airwaves.
TOUCH billed itself as “the voice of Black Boston” and provided up-to-date city news, as well as a platform for local politicians and government employees to discuss issues with their listeners, plus various musical and educational programs. Station owner Charles Clemons, a former police officer and candidate for mayor of Boston who is known to friends and listeners as Brother Charles, was forced to move TOUCH entirely online, a transition he says negatively impacted the size of his listener base, which skews older and toward the analog side of the digital divide. In addition to being a vocal advocate for embattled stations like TOUCH, Clemons has run for public office in two cycles — once for mayor, another time for city council — and suggests the resulting heightened profile put a target on his back.
“I walked [more than 200 miles] on foot to raise awareness on this issue,” Clemons says in an interview at his office in Dorchester, speaking to the plight of unlicensed stations looking for a way to go legit. “While I was widely credited as drawing attention [that led] to the Local Community Radio Act, we were also made out to be an example a few years later.”
The Local Community Radio Act, signed into law in 2011, bars stations that have operated illegally in the past from obtaining new licenses. Though the measure came as a result of lobbying by groups like the Philadelphia-based Prometheus Radio Project that advocate for such operators — as well as local operators like Clemons — this stipulation disqualified hundreds of unlicensed stations serving communities around the country.
Since 2011, only two radio licenses have been offered up by the FCC in Boston. One of those bands — 102.9 FM — was split three ways between Lasell College, the community and religious programming of Boston Praise Radio, and Boston News Network, a public-access cable channel controlled by the city. For Clemons, the ordeal has amounted to a slap in the face.
“It was probably a message the FCC wanted to send to the other 22 or so unlicensed stations that broadcast from Blue Hill Avenue,” says Clemons. TOUCH focused on a lot of talk, political and otherwise, and catered largely to the baby boomer generation and older, but also featured younger personalities and Boston hip-hop icons like Rusti Pendleton, who used his platform to highlight neighborhood issues and local talent.
“I had a weekly show on TOUCH called The Councilor’s Corner,” says Boston City Councilor Tito Jackson, who says many of his constituents in Roxbury, Dorchester, and the South End rely on unlicensed frequencies for news. Jackson’s not alone in tapping such lines of communication; while on one hand the government drives the likes of TOUCH out of business, on the other, even pols like Boston Mayor Marty Walsh have made appearances on TOUCH and other stations embattled with the FCC.
Adds Jackson: “Solutions to problems usually exist closest to those problems. LPFM stations have a real potential to reach specific places, individual neighborhoods, and allow for us to hear directly from constituents … It’s a very critical service for our distinct immigrant communities. It empowers those who need information about resources, jobs, legal ramifications. There’s a whole host of reasons why these communities need these stations that may seem trivial to those who have access to money.”
Radio Concorde is one of Boston’s longest-running unlicensed stations, having first signed on in the 1980s. Its home base in Dorchester is only about two rooms, approximately 150 square feet total, located in a nondescript two-story office building on Blue Hill Avenue. It started decades ago to serve the growing Haitian diaspora, which is now estimated to number 150,000 in the Commonwealth. For an operation that isn’t recognized by the FCC, Concorde is relatively significant, broadcasting out of two cities, on 106.3 FM in Boston and on 102.9 in Brockton.
“We’ve been on for 24, going on 25 years,” says program manager Samuel Osias, who boasts about the influential guests the station has had despite its lack of a license. He adds, “We’ve had Deval Patrick, the current Gov [Charlie] Baker, and many city council members, especially from the 4th District … When Wyclef [Jean] was running for president of Haiti, we even had him over a few times.”
Like many other low-power and unlicensed stations that broadcast in French Creole or Spanish, Radio Concorde serves mostly as a talk radio station, offering a forum for hosts, guests, and callers to riff on current events and providing a platform through which members of the local Haitian community, many of whom are new to America, can stay informed.
“Today we discussed the racial tension at Boston Latin,” said Osias, referring to the recent conflict between administrators and a group of black students at the elite test school over racist remarks on campus. “Many community elders have been calling in to say, ‘Are you guys surprised?’”
By mission, Concorde has historically been both a vital information source and a rallying point for the Haitian community. “We organized so many protests,” Osias says. “Back in the 1980s when health organizations were saying Haitians brought HIV to the USA, we organized a protest down in Dedham … outside the Red Cross. When there was a coup d’etat in 1991, Haitians flocked [to] downtown Boston in front of the JFK building.”
And when the 2010 earthquake sent shockwaves through the Haitian population and their extended families, Concorde became a clearinghouse for everything from financial to emotional support. “Our airwaves were open to all people who had family in Haiti and were worried about their loved ones,” Osias says. “Many would come to the station to donate items, which we shipped at our own expense.”
Despite the importance that Radio Concorde has in the community — Osias boasts that 90 percent of Haitians in the state have heard of the station — the enduring lack of official sanction is a constant source of anxiety. “[Being shut down by the FCC] is always on our minds because this is all about money,” he says. “It’s about protecting the interests of the big guys.”
Osias continues, “It’s not that different than gentrification. Now, Mattapan Square is dead. So the black folks are being pushed out so whites can move in and come in with their investments.”
Without immigrant centers or community stations being protected, Osias says government and culture in general in Boston stand to grow less friendly toward immigrants and people of color.
“When you get here, it’s as if you’re obligated to listen to radio or watch TV that you don’t understand,” he says. “If they allow TeleBoston [another unlicensed Haitian station] or Radio Concorde, you can slowly work your way into the system, because you can understand the language the speaker is speaking in. Without these stations, it’s almost like taking your right to know away from you.”
Beausejour Antoine, a Brockton-based photojournalist who has appeared regularly on stations including Concorde, echoes the laments of Osias.
“I’ve been doing radio since 1998 in Boston,” says Antoine, “and our stations have really served the community, especially in regards to immigration and police. It’s very important for the community, because we speak in French or Creole, and a lot of people get in trouble because they are not informed. It would be great if we could just get one license for a dedicated legal station, [rather] than have to rely on a dozen smaller ones.”
“When TOUCH went away, where is that platform?” asks Neil of Team Jerk. “Where is that older crowd that was listening?”
The seizure of equipment at TOUCH, news of which reverberated loudly in the local media, sent a chilling effect through many low-power operators in Boston. Neil continues: “I had just signed off the air when we got a phone call from one of our friends at TOUCH, and she said, ‘Let the people know they’re here.’ They were telling us what was happening as it was happening over the phone, and it was scary.”
“It was scary for all the DJs who are volunteering their time to do this,” adds Dex, who explains the looming threat faced by on-air personalities. “If the FCC comes along and takes your equipment, what [am I], as a DJ who is supporting my family, going to do? We do this for the love of it. We all have day jobs.”
For the members of Team Jerk and others on the music side of unlicensed radio in Boston, significant motivation comes from the lack of local representation on local commercial airwaves. Among innumerable other factors, including contemporary forms of payola — in which DJs are paid, directly or otherwise, by record companies to play certain tracks — the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which deregulated the radio industry for the worse, has given way to unprecedented homogenization in music programming.
“On paper, there’s only one radio station catered to an urban audience, and that one is corporatized and won’t play anything that’s not Top 40,” says Neil in reference to JAM’N 94.5 FM, a Clear Channel-owned enterprise that has historically ignored local artists. Neil says corporate radio here slept on the latest New Edition album, “which should be getting more attention in the city [where] they were born and bred.” By comparison, when New Kids on the Block reunited in 2008, local frequencies like Kiss 108 FM propped the aging, white boy band relentlessly. Adds Neil: “And [New Edition is] famous. The corporate stations don’t give the black community in Boston real representation.”
The FCC has made attempts, however superficial, in the past to check businesses for using public airwaves without also providing a community service, namely supporting local indie performers. In 2007, four of the biggest broadcasters — a group that included Clear Channel and Entercom — paid more than $12 million to settle a payola scandal and in doing so agreed to designate 8,400 half-hour blocks of airtime for independent labels. Nearly 10 years later, however, you’d be hard-pressed to hear leading Hub rap artists like Dutch Rebelle, Cousin Stizz, or Rosewood Bape on corporate radio. As a result, says Neil, “It’s hard for black artists in Boston to take their careers to the next step.”
Dorchester native Rey Royale, a soul singer from Dorchester, says he owes much of his popularity thus far to Big City. “Dex is one of the first DJs to spin my solo music — they’ve gotten pretty big spinning new artists,” Royale says. “Stations like Big City make it a lot easier and [are] even instrumental in making people’s careers.”
Nevertheless, the FCC has remained frustratingly opaque about when there may be another opportunity for operators to win LPFM licenses. While for those who have operated stations without licenses, extenuating regulatory hurdles remain. “The [Local Community Radio Act of 2011] was so important for us,” says Neil. “There’s a dying need for it.”
As they proceed with business as usual in 2016 — hip-hop, soca, community events — the Team Jerk DJs remain optimistic about the new year. Neil continues: “We’re in the works of figuring out if there’s a station or outlet where a license gets freed up. I dunno if there’s gonna be a pool or how they do it. We’re trying to research which one of those outlets is the most realistic … The goal for 2016: We’re trying to find a home.”
Curtis Henderson, Jr. — the general manager of BNN, which will share an LPFM frequency with Lassell and Praise Radio — says Boston’s city station will launch before March. “We’re still in the process of deciding our exact programming,” he says. Considering the television side of BNN boasts more than a dozen languages in its varied programming, there will be plenty to cram in between college and religious programming, including a possible show from TOUCH owner Clemons, who already produces a show on the network’s cable access channel.
All things considered, it’s a small win for the underserved communities of Boston. Asked about the need for more low-power licenses across the board, Henderson welcomes additional competition without hesitation. “The more the merrier,” he says.