A government-enforced shutdown last month of three unlicensed community radio stations providing programming to ethnically diverse neighborhoods underscored the prevalence of so-called “pirate radio” not just in Boston, but also in its suburbs.
Of the three stations raided by federal agents, one transmitted out of Everett, Brockton, and Boston, while another was solely Brockton-based, according to the US attorney’s Boston office, which initiated the cases.
Since 2003, the Federal Communications Commission has taken enforcement action 37 times against illegal radio stations operating in Eastern Massachusetts . The bulk of those actions have come against low-frequency stations in Brockton broadcasting to the city’s vast Cape Verdean and Haitian populations.
Although illegal, such radio stations are a vital resource in immigrant and minority neighborhoods that are underserved by commercial mainstream broadcasters, advocates contend. In addition to playing music with an ethnic flair that’s heard nowhere else on the dial, many unlicensed community radio stations feature talk programming that encourages listener participation on topical issues such as immigration, local and international politics, and sports from back home.
“It’s sad to see that [federal agents] shut them down, because even though they are pirate stations, they truly are the main source of communication in those communities,” said Yessenia Alfaro, director of organizing at Chelsea Collaborative , a social justice nonprofit. “It certainly has a negative impact when they shut these down. They are the main outreach vehicle for people who speak a different language.”
Some outfits, like Radio Uganda Boston in Waltham, opt to have an online presence outside of radio, but many new immigrants and low-income families have no access to computers or can’t afford the monthly bills for Internet access, Alfaro said. Many also cannot read, even in their native language, rendering radio the only source for information, she added.
Despite the potential for tens of thousands of dollars in fines and seizure of transmitting equipment, “pirates” continue to take the risk in order to serve the underserved, said Bruce Conti, a longtime radio enthusiast from Nashua and the international radio columnist for the National Radio Club magazine DX News.
Even if they have tried to operate legally, most individuals have been priced out of potential station ownership under relaxed FCC rules that have the majority of radio stations owned by large corporations, like Clear Channel and CBS, Conti said in an e-mail. There are also no available open broadcasting channels to be had in Greater Boston.
“So an interested buyer can only wait for an existing radio station to become available/for sale, again driving up the cost of entry,” he wrote. “Licensed commercial radio stations in the Boston metro area have abandoned service to the inner city, so most . . . pirate radio stations in Boston are filling a void.”
Among those shut down last month was Radio Tele Boston, which transmitted at 100.1 FM out of homes on Walnut Street in Everett and North Manchester Street in Brockton, and two locations in the Mattapan and Dorchester neighborhoods of Boston, according to court documents. The operator was listed as Gerlens Cesar of Brockton. A man who answered the phone of a number listed for “Cesar Gerlens” in Brockton stated that he only spoke Creole and was unable to comment.
The other Brockton station, 88.7 FM, was transmitting out of a two-family house on Crescent Street. Federal agents sent a notice last August to building owner Solange Germain after receiving a complaint that the station was causing interference with Boston station WERS on 88.9 FM. Agents seized the station’s equipment last month. Germain could not be reached for comment.
The stations were shut down for violating the Communications Act of 1934, which bans operation of unlicensed radio stations. Due to the FCC’s limited enforcement staff, some stations operate unmonitored for long periods of time, said Assistant US Attorney Christine Wichers, who is prosecuting the three cases from last month.
Even when the FCC becomes aware of an unlicensed station, usually after complaints from licensed operators, it sends multiple notices to operators asking them to shut down voluntarily before taking more aggressive action, such as seizing equipment or issuing fines, she added.
“I think it’s sort of silly when people say the FCC is trying to put out of business good community stations serving people,” Wichers said. “To me it’s like, ‘Look at that person — they’re so nice driving the elderly to appointments, but they don’t have a driver’s license.’”
Some pirate station operators will voluntarily shut down after receiving a violation notice from the FCC, but only temporarily. In many cases, even after equipment is seized, the same pirate station will be back on the air within months, based on the number of FCC notices issued to repeat offenders.
Brockton City Councilor Moises M. Rodrigues said that “99 percent of the elected officials in this community have gone on those stations, including me.” Among the most popular in the community is Brockton Heat, an unlicensed station that serves the Cape Verdean and Haitian communities, he said.
The stations “provide some valuable vital information to the community,” Rodrigues said. “None of us connected or otherwise are proponents of illegality in any way, but there’s a great need for information reaching into these bilingual communities. Especially if you’re a bilingual community, other than the Hispanic community, you have absolutely no way of getting or gathering information at all from’’ licensed radio stations in the area.
While an increasing number of unlicensed station operators are making the switch from radio to the unregulated online world, many still choose traditional radio because equipment like transmitters, especially used gear, is relatively inexpensive, said T. Barton Carter, a professor of communication law at Boston University. Opening a station can cost tens of thousands of dollars up front, not including application and certification fees, whereas illegal stations can run on just a few hundred dollars’ worth of equipment easily purchased online, he said.
“There just is an availability issue,” Carter said. A large commercial station, he said, is going to try to find the largest audience, “so you can argue that that does prevent people from being served — very specific minorities.”
To address this, Congress approved the Local Community Radio Act, which opened up low-power FM stations for noncommercial uses, but there were only a few of those licenses available in the region. A window to apply for a low-power FM license opened briefly last fall, from Oct. 17 to Nov. 14, but it is unknown when or whether there will be another opportunity, Carter said.
This is why Radio Uganda Boston is only available online, said Geoffrey Nsereko, the station’s public relations director. Organizers attempted to lease air time at a licensed radio station, but at $2,500 for each three-hour block, it was an investment the station could not afford, Nsereko said.
Priced out of the airwaves and not interested in operating without a license, Radio Uganda Boston has been streaming solely online since 2009 from Waltham, home to one of the largest concentrations of Ugandans outside of Africa. The station has become a “go-to” source for immigrants learning to navigate a new culture and trying to find local resources, such as job postings and health centers. It is also a mandatory stop for Ugandan politicians, he said.
Nsereko, best known in the community by his radio name, “Simple,” said he has noticed as of late that more users are accessing the site from smartphones, giving programming greater reach. Research shows that an increasing number of people now own the Internet-capable cellphones, which could have an impact on the future of pirate radio.
Even cellphone companies known for inexpensive plans are offering smartphones to their customers, said Alexandra Babbist, program manager at the nonprofit Watch Community Development Corporation in Waltham, where she teaches English as a second language, mainly to Central Americans.
Many new immigrants have pay-as-you-go cellphones, she said, “and all of those are smartphones now, so they may have more access to the Internet . . . even if they don’t have a computer at home.”
Although being online allows Radio Uganda Boston to reach a global audience, Nsereko said, having a home on the broadcast dial would be ideal to reach those with no computer or Internet access.
“I think it’s very important for our people coming in, immigrants. It gives them a sense of direction in terms of starting a new life,” Nsereko said. “We’d love to be on the dial radio.”