On those rare occasions when the FCC and Federal Marshals sweep a city for pirates, the media coverage follows a predictable narrative: law-and-order cleaning up the airwaves, in the protection of "public safety" and licensed-station profitability. The only outliers to this have been reactions to pirate-busts in San Francisco and Santa Cruz—two California communities with a long history of radical radio activism.
But Boston-area media outlets also broke the traditional mold in their coverage of an April sweep that netted three pirate stations. The first one to hit the headlines was TOUCH FM, an unlicensed broadcaster that was an anchor of Boston’s black community. TOUCH’s founder, Charles Clemons, is a high-profile figure who even recently ran for mayor.
The other two silenced stations (Radio Tele Boston and a still-unnamed outlet) primarily served the suburb of Brockton, and were no less integral to their communities than TOUCH was. The Boston Globe actually acknowledged this, as well as the larger (and still-active) pirate scene that exists in the metro area. It quotes Brockton City Councilor Moises Rodrigues, who says that "99 percent of the elected officials in this community have gone on those stations, including me. 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."
The Globe also notes that, in many cases, these communities don’t have reliable access to the Internet, and high rates of illiteracy means that pirate stations often end up being "the only source for information" available.
According to public broadcaster WBUR, the government’s enforcement efforts may be doing more harm than good. In a story on the sweep, it spoke with a principal of Radio Bel Top, a Haitian pirate that’s currently engaged in some cat-and-mouse with the FCC. Local pastor Keke Fleurissaint supports the cause: "Culturally, our people always get their news from radio," and without access to the airwaves it’s nearly impossible to "communicate…important news to the people."
The story also quotes Michael Keith, a professor of broadcast history at Boston College who notes that the city’s pirate scene vividly illustrates the limits of the FCC’s LPFM radio service. Considering that there are no real open frequencies in Greater Boston, he suggests that the FCC should make "an attempt to evaluate what kind of a public service these pirate stations were providing on a case-to-case basis and then authorize them, that might be a positive thing instead of bumping heads eternally with" pirates.
Finally, a Wicked Local article notes that the Boston Police department estimates there are "at least 10" other active pirate stations in the area, and speaks extensively with Brockton City Councilor Dennis DeNapoli, who is crafting an ordinance that would ban rooftop antennas taller than five feet as a way of trying to get "control" over the proliferation of pirates. A proposed state law that would let licensed stations sue pirates in civil court appears to be stalled.
The most important lesson from this coverage is the recognition of a need for more communicative diversity in our media environment. In this context, unlicensed broadcasting is not the problem—it’s a symptom of a much larger one that policy-efforts are not adequately addressing. So long as this exists, so will the pirate stations.