Shut down a pirate radio station, and you might be shutting down a community’s lifeline.
While there can be good cause for the federal government to close down radio stations that operate in the shadows — like their failure to transmit emergency broadcasts or disclose political ad donors — the massive fines levied last month against two unlicensed Boston stations that served the Haitian immigrant community went too far. Radio is still a vital service in many immigrant communities, and while policing the airwaves, the federal government also needs to work harder to help integrate immigrants into what can be a daunting licensing system.
One of the fines, $453,015 against Radio TeleBoston operator Gerlens Cesar, is the largest the agency has ever slapped on a pirate broadcaster — and it even made one of the FCC’s commissioners uneasy. The agency says Cesar broadcast without authorization on the 90.1 and 92.1 FM bands from a variety of locations in Greater Boston. Another broadcaster, Acerome Jean Charles, was fined $151,005 for illegally broadcasting Radio Concorde on 106.3 FM from Mattapan.
Dieufort Fleurissaint, a minister and the chair of Haitian Americans United, a Boston advocacy group, said the radio stations play a vital role in the community, sharing information about the Boston Public Schools and tips for how to get health insurance. With the 2020 Census coming up, radio would be a big part of ensuring Haitians are counted. “It would be a big loss if those community radios are shut down,” he said.
The FCC cracked down because pirate radio stations, beaming their signals out of basements or storefronts, may cause a variety of problems. Because they don’t participate in the Emergency Alert System, they arguably put their listeners in danger. And they don’t necessarily follow consumer protection rules against payola or disclosure in political advertising. Their signals can interfere with licensed broadcasters who are following the rules.
But in Greater Boston, they’re also the glue that holds some immigrant communities together, providing foreign-language news and connections to home countries. Finding a way for such stations to operate legally would be in keeping with the FCC’s mandate to supervise the airwaves in the public interest.
According to FCC commissioner Geoffrey Starks, who supported the fines, the FCC has to do better connecting immigrant groups to legal opportunities to broadcast. “There are no excuses for those who choose to break the law or violate our rules," he wrote in an opinion, "but I can’t help but think about what impact the Commission’s longstanding abdication of our diversity obligations has had on the development of unlicensed stations serving immigrant communities.”
He also wrote, “Where would we be today if we provided real opportunities for these operators years ago and were more intentional about making sure our licenses were distributed with diversity obligations in mind?”
FCC chairman Ajit Pai suggested some options for unlicensed Haitian operators: broadcasters could shift to internet radio or apply for time on WBCA-LP, a low-power station owned by the City of Boston. (The city said it would welcome proposals from the Haitian broadcasters.) Pai also touted the FCC’s plan to auction off 130 vacant frequencies — though as it turns out, none of those frequencies are in Massachusetts.
Longer term, the most obvious solution for Boston community groups seeking space on the spectrum would be to obtain a low-power FM license like the city’s, a special class of licenses for noncommercial stations that broadcast to a three-to-five-mile radius. The FCC hasn’t accepted new applications for such licenses in more than five years, although it just adopted new rules that should allow it to accept low-power FM applications again soon.
But there’s a major hitch when it comes to pirate stations getting those licenses: The FCC is bound by a congressional directive that excludes anyone who previously operated an illegal station from obtaining a low-power license. That’s a counterproductive rule, and basically means that stations like the Haitian broadcasters couldn’t go legit if they tried. Lifting that overly punitive restriction would be a good cause for someone in the state’s congressional delegation to take up.
As the internet gobbles up traditional media, the persistence of pirate radio shows that there’s still a demand for over-the-air broadcasts, especially in urban immigrant communities. Congress and the FCC should accommodate that demand by finding a viable way for such communities to connect to each other and their culture without being outlaws.