Putting mayor’s race on community airwaves
Weekday listeners in the heart of Boston’s black community awake each morning to the soothing voice of Brother Charles on TOUCH 106.1 FM.
Charles Clemons dispenses soulful wisdom and urges peace after the acquittal in the Trayvon Martin case. Lately, though, he has begun speaking passionately about issues central to his long-shot campaign for mayor: ending violence, improving schools, and adding jobs in the city’s distressed communities.
It is a political message Clemons hopes will resonate with listeners who tune in to the unlicensed radio station he cofounded about seven years ago and currently serves as general manager. But his pirated use of the airwaves to promote of his political agenda casta shadow on TOUCH 106.1 FM and Clemons himself. Some question whether Clemons will actually hurt candidates who have a better shot in the race.
John Carroll, a media analyst at Boston University, said that traditionally broadcasters who run for office usually pull themselves off the air and that Clemons should vacate the airwaves.
“The problem is because he is in a hazy netherworld with an unlicensed radio station, none of those traditional rules apply,’’ Carroll said.
The station regularly airs a Clemons-themed campaign song that urges listeners to “Vote for Brother Charles.” And it promotes Clemons’s campaign stops, including a fund-raiser at the Hampton Inn.
Clemons appeared to try to avert criticism last month when he curbed his time on “The Morning Show” from four hours to one to hit the campaign trail. He said his radio station has filled a vacuum in the black community, which had nothing on the radio that focused exclusively on music and issues central to African-Americans after WILD was sold.
“The community needed a voice, and we provide the platform for them to deal with elected officials,’’ said Clemons, a former police officer who lives in Dorchester. “The governor has come by, and the mayor has come by our station.”
But some question Clemons and the station’s use of the airwaves to consistently promote his campaign.
“It strikes me as unethical for a candidate to use his own station to promote his candidacy,’’ said Kenneth Cooper, a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist, a former Globe editor, and a campaign observer. “The radio station claims to be in touch with the black community, but it doesn’t appear to be in touch with members of the black community who are interested in more than one candidate for mayor.”
The Rev. Eugene F. Rivers, cofounder of the Boston TenPoint Coalition, is backing Charlotte Golar Richie. “It’s clear that 106.1 FM is essentially being used as a megaphone for the political ambitions for a candidate that has no chance of winning,” Rivers said.
The 100-watt station and Clemons have faced scrutiny. In 2008, the Federal Communications Commission investigated Clemons for willfully running an illegal radio station and fined him $17,000.
Clemons has not paid the fine. In February 2012, a US District Court judge issued a summary judgment against him, declaring him in default, according to court documents. The government said it will collect.
The Grove Hall station serves an area that includes parts of Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan, and Jamaica Plain. It said it has 190,000 listeners, but it is unclear how the station arrived at the figure. There are nearly 190,000 people living in all three of those neighborhoods.
The station lists its owners as Leroy McLauren and John Laing, who launched a mayoral campaign this year, but failed to garner enough verified signatures. John Laing is listed as chairman of the Committee to Elect Charles Clemons, according to documents filed with the state’s Office of Campaign and Political Finance.
The station’s status as a nonprofit is also murky. It notes on its website that it is a private nonprofit radio station. However, neither the station nor its call letters, LP-WTCH, are registered as nonprofits with the Internal Revenue Service and the state attorney general’s office, according to both agencies.
In any case, federal law prohibits licensed and nonprofit radio stations from endorsing political candidates. But the law allows radio hosts to make political statements or promote their candidacy, providing they grant equal access to other candidates in the race, according to FCC guidelines.
Nonprofit organizations and charities are prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in supporting or opposing a political candidate, according to the IRS. Laing did not respond to Globe requests to clarify the station’s nonprofit status.
TOUCH 106.1 FM indicated on its website that it is “underwritten” by the Grove Hall Neighborhood Development Corporation, whose executive director is Virginia Morrison, Clemons’s mother. The station operates in the basement of a Cheney Street building owned by the neighborhood association, which is located next door.
Morrison said the organization does not own the station, but donated space in its building when the station was founded. Clemons said the station pays the nonprofit rent, but refused to say how much.
“This is a radio station in our community that encourages civic engagement,’’ Morrison said. “We love the fact that the radio station adds to quality-of-life issues.”
While it is not the only pirate radio station in Boston, it is the most popular among the minority political leadership.
Since its was founded in 2007, the station has presented itself as the fabric of the black community. It has a steady stream of sponsors from small businesses, and it offers free legal advice to people who would not otherwise be able to afford it. Listeners can call in to promote their block party, peace rally, or fashion show.
“Brother Charles has a voice for his community,’’ said Cayce McCabe, a spokesman for the campaign of Michael P. Ross, a city councilor running for mayor. “We are hoping to set up a time to be a guest on his show.”
Clemons has not hidden the fact that TOUCH 106.1 is unlicensed and has joked about it on air.
He is rooted in a low-power, community radio movement that took hold in the 1990s when advocates stressed that their voices were excluded from the airwaves. Many continued to operate as unlicensed stations as a form of civil disobedience, said Ian Smith, program director at Prometheus Radio Project, a Philadelphia-based community radio advocacy group.
Clemons’s reputation grew after he walked to Washington in 2009 to bring attention to the unfairness of FCC rules that affect independent, community-owned radio stations.
He likens himself to a civil rights icon.
“Just because something is legal, does not make it right,’’ he said. “We are the Rosa Parks of radio.”