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editorial

FCC takes down TOUCH 106.1, but license shortage remains

The recent shuttering of TOUCH 106.1 FM, an unlicensed radio station based in Grove Hall, was certainly a long time coming. For operating without a broadcast license, the station was fined $17,000 by the Federal Communications Commission in 2008. The fine was never paid. Later, the station attracted the attention of the US attorney’s office, which received complaints that its owner, Charles L. Clemons Jr., was using TOUCH to promote his unsuccessful mayoral bid last year.

Clemons’s actions, clearly, should not be an example for others; ignoring fines is a surefire way to force the government’s hand. But the fact that a locally popular black-owned media outlet didn’t have a license underscores a deeper problem in radio regulation. Community-oriented broadcasters see opportunities in areas underserved by other media, but have too difficult a time getting legal permission to be on the air.

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The FCC has a category of licenses, called low-power FM licenses, which are designed specifically for educational or non-commercial uses, a definition that, given the station’s programming, TOUCH might have met. But these licenses are extremely scarce. There wasn’t a single one available in Boston between 2001 and 2013, and last fall saw only one new opening. An FCC spokesman said the agency never received an application from TOUCH; Clemons maintains otherwise, saying he believes one had been submitted. If he’s wrong, he’s much more complicit in the silencing of TOUCH 106.1 FM than he is letting on.

Still, it might be possible for Boston’s bandwidth to host more low-power radio stations. They only broadcast at strengths under 100 watts, which translates into a radius of roughly 3 miles — meaning that multiple stations could share the same frequency in the city. If it is feasible to do so, the FCC should expand the number of licenses available. If not, then the agency should work with local governments, which often hold multiple licenses, to free up more space. (Unlike private entities, government agencies do not have a cap on the number of licenses they can own — for example, the City of Boston owns such a license, and the Boston Public Schools has an application pending for another.)

As broadband availability increases and Internet radio becomes more prevalent, radio broadcast licensing will become less important — indeed, TOUCH is now broadcasting online. But in the meantime, perhaps a little-used government frequency could be made available. Preserving diverse voices on the radio is worth the extra effort.

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