Pop-Up Station Pays Homage to TOUCH FM

When the FCC raided TOUCH FM in Boston this spring, many lamented its demise. But its frequency didn’t stay silent for long: less than two months after the FCC’s sweep of the city, a pop-up station temporarily reoccupied 106.1 FM.

Noises Over Norwell broadcast from a two-story home in Dorchester currently under the receivership of Fannie Mae. Its former owners moved back in with the assistance of City Life/Vida Urbana, a grassroots organization dedicated to fighting economic injustice in Boston. The station was a cornucopia of information, discussion, and creativity about the state of the economy and the surrounding neighborhood; when "dormant," you simply heard the ambient sounds of a lived-in home. Read More

Boston Media Lament Loss of Pirates

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. Read More

Pirate Raids Offer Glimpse Into FCC Fieldwork

It’s been a busy month for FCC field agents and Federal Marshals in the Northeast. Last week they raided and seized the equipment of three unlicensed radio stations in the Boston area, while two weeks prior they took down four pirate stations in New York City.

The Boston raids netted a long-time pirate who operated way out in the open. TOUCH FM, founded by long-time and well-respected community activist Charles Clemons, had been on the air for eight years. Clemons was also quite engaged in the movement to expand low-power FM radio and even ran for mayor of Boston last year. He’s been on the FCC’s radar since 2007, when he was first visited and warned; the agency followed up with a $17,000 fine in 2008, which was never paid.

The reverberations of TOUCH’s bust were impressive. Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick even attempted to intervene to stop the raid, but was unsuccessful. Many other state and local officials are pledging to do whatever they can to get TOUCH FM back on the air in a legal fashion, but the sad fact is there are no open LPFM frequencies in that area of Boston.

Little is known about the other two stations taken down in the Boston suburbs.

The raids in New York were the culmination of nearly two years of sleuthing. The four stations apparently operated in pairs; all broadcast a variety of Spanish-language music formats; most of them were not 24/7 operations, on-air primarily at night. The FCC believes that at least one (perhaps more) of the stations were part of a network of Latin music pirates operating throughout New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

All four stations apparently transmitted out of the same high-rise apartment complex in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, while their studio facilities were located in the Bronx, using the Internet as a studio-to-transmitter link. At least one of them was the subject of a complaint about causing interference to an FM translator chain, possibly leading to the pirate’s inadvertent rebroadcast.

What’s particularly fascinating in the New York busts is the fact that the U.S. Attorney overseeing the seizures unsealed the investigation files, giving a rare glimpse into the tools and tactics field agents utilize in their work. The two documents contain 100+ pages of goodies about the scope and severity of serious pirate-hunts.

Screenshot of FCC mobile DF displayIn addition to running down building owners, vehicle registrations, and website/social media profiles, agents take photos of their targets, make recordings of station programming, and subpoena records from phone companies (Vonage, in this case) in order to obtain identifying information on station operators.

In the field, they use a cluster of measurements to determine a pirate station’s precise location and transmitting power, down to the tenth of a meter and tenth of a decibel respectively. Their field vehicles (the unsealed files include make and model of approved field-strength meters) integrate this information into a unified display (right) providing all the essentials necessary to start the enforcement protocol in earnest.

Only federal officials appear to be involved in both sweeps. This is interesting because the state of New York has its own anti-pirate law on the books, which makes unlicensed broadcasting a misdemeanor, and there’s no word if the principals behind those stations will face further prosecution. The Massachusetts state legislature is currently debating a similar bill, which would impose stiff fines on pirates and allow licensed broadcasters to sue their pants off.

Radio Survivor’s Paul Riismandel wonders if these actions are part of some coordinated effort "timed with the ongoing approval of LPFMs in order to demonstrate to the broadcast industry that the Commission isn’t going light on enforcement, and that it isn’t deaf to the industry’s concerns." This could very well be true, though the most egregious violators are also the easiest pickings, and many of these cases have been pending for years.

With all this action, I updated the Enforcement Action Database to see if these sweeps have any nationwide implications. The answer is no: in fact, with activity reported in seven states so far this year, the aggregate rate of enforcement activity is actually running behind the norms of the last couple of years. It’s almost as if mustering the energy to make high-profile busts in two of the nation’s most notorious pirate hot-spots sapped it away from other areas of the country, or something.

Here on the Midwood/Flatbush border in Brooklyn, a cursory FM bandscan brings 16 pirate stations, the majority of which offer a smorgasbord of Caribbean music and religious programming. That’s the most I’ve ever picked up at once, and pretty compelling evidence that the recent high-profile activity uptown has not reverberated at all just 15 miles away.

Massachusetts Mulls Anti-Pirate Law

Lawmakers in Massachusetts are hard at work trying to outlaw unlicensed broadcasting. H.1679 was introduced in the state House of Representatives in January and got a hearing in the legislature’s Joint Committee on the Judiciary just last week. Floor votes are expected before the end of the year.

If approved, Massachusetts would become the fourth state in the country to pass an anti-pirate radio law.

Florida was first in 2004, making unlicensed broadcasting a third-degree felony. (Interestingly, interfering with government radio systems is only a first-degree misdemeanor.) New Jersey and New York followed in 2006 and 2011 respectively. Pirates snagged under New Jersey’s law face a fourth-degree felony charge.

In New York, "unauthorized transmission" is currently class A misdemeanor – though a bill is wending its way through the legislature to stiffen the penalty to a class D felony.

Interestingly, Massachusetts’ proposal does not make unlicensed broadcasting a criminal offense. Instead, the bill would empower the state Attorney General to initiate legal action against a pirate broadcaster, which could result in an injunction, monetary forfeiture ($5,000 on first blush, $10,000 if a pirate violates an injunction), and seizure of equipment. It would also allow licensed broadcasters to sue pirate stations in civil court for similar relief.

This effort is being spearheaded by House Representatives Steven Walsh (D-Lynn) and Robert Fennell (D-Lynn), at the behest of the Massachusetts Broadcasters Association. The MBA claims the bill is necessary because "several" broadcasters have complained that pirate stations are "impeding their signals."

The Boston metropolitan area has long been a national hot-spot for pirate broadcasting, on both the AM and FM dials, and the FCC has already raided two stations there this year. However, one station in particular – Touch 106.1 – has had such a long run and high profile that many local media outlets don’t even call it a pirate station anymore. Touch FM’s founder, Charles Clemons, is currently running for mayor of Boston, and the station just acquired the services of Jimmy Myers, a long-time sportscaster and talk-show host.

Clemons is not unknown to the FCC: it fined him $17,000 for unlicensed broadcasting in 2008 – a forfeiture that technically expired in May of this year. It’s highly unlikely that this state law was specifically tailored to attack Clemons and Touch, but if it passes you can bet they’ll be one of its first test cases.

Boston Radio Pirate Runs for Mayor

The city of Boston, Massachusetts is gearing up for a mayoral election later this year, and among the folks throwing their hat into the ring is Charles Clemons.

A former Boston police and corrections officer, Clemons may be better known as the founder of Touch 106 FM, a microradio outlet busted by the FCC in 2007-08. Clemons received a $17,000 forfeiture for unlicensed broadcasting and refusing to allow FCC agents to inspect the station.

Following the FCC action, Clemons walked from Boston to Washington, D.C. to lobby for the Local Community Radio Act, which opened the door to an expansion of LPFM (though it still bars pirate broadcasters from a path to legality).

Despite the fine, Touch FM remains on the air today. There is no indication that Clemons has appealed or paid the fine…nor any evidence that the FCC is pursuing collection.

Clemons doesn’t have much of a platform as of yet, and by all accounts he’s a long-shot candidate. It will be interesting to see whether Touch FM takes a position in the race: FCC rules prohibit broadcasters from officially endorsing a particular candidate, but considering that Touch operates without a license, there’s no reason for it to abide by such content-based regulation.