Worcester, Massachusset’s unlicensed Flava 105.5 has received some mostly positive press coverage recently for its focus on underserved Caribbean populations in the area. Probably not coincidentally, about two weeks after it appeared in the local newspaper the FCC issued the station a Notice of Unlicensed Operation (NOUO) ordering it to cease broadcasting immediately.
In a follow-up story reporting on the Commission’s action that appeared in the News Telegram on Saturday the station’s general manager said that “We’re no longer on the air. … We’re not in business.” However, the paper’s reporter noted that the station was still on the air as of Friday night.
Every FCC field office prioritizes unlicensed stations differently. Sometimes a station operating as openly as Flava 105.5 might go unbothered for months. Other times the Commission will act quickly once a station gets noticed. A significant variable in this is how loudly local licensed broadcasters complain and bug the FCC.
In this case it looks like the Boston field office has been hitting unlicensed stations all over its geographic area of responsibility since February. Scanning over the Enforcement Bureau’s recent field actions it looks like quite a few Massachusetts stations were on the radar. The Boston field office issued NUOUs to another Worcester station, along with stations in Hartford, Webster, Boston, Norwood, Boxford, two stations in Mattapan(1, 2) Springfield and three stations in Brockton (1, 2, 3). Additionally, the Boston field office sent NUOUs to four stations in Rhode Island and three in Connecticut over the same period.
In the first article on Flava 105.5 a local online radio director was quoted saying she’s “heard of a lot of Haitian radio stations popping up in the Boston area.” This pattern looks a lot like the unlicensed activity in the New York City and South Florida areas which also have significant Caribbean and Latino communities who are otherwise not well served by licensed stations, commercial or noncommercial.
I was actually surprised at the number of notices the Boston field office sent out this year (20!). That number alone represents a lot of unlicensed broadcasting. But if you take into account the likelihood that there are many other stations that haven’t been identified by the FCC or just haven’t been contacted yet, I’d say there’s a pretty big pirate scene going on in southern New England. The Commission doesn’t note the kind of programming aired on the stations it contacts. But just looking over the names of the persons identified in the notices there seem to be what look like a lot of Latino and Hatian names.
The takeaway from this is that there are still a lot of communities and groups who are not well served by licensed broadcasters, leading a significant number of people to take to the air without a license to fill the void. This is especially true in big metropolitan areas, like greater Boston, where low-power FM licenses have not been available in the densest population areas. I think it’s fair to say that even if LPFM licenses to become available there will not be enough to go around, and not much of a dent will be made in the number of unlicensed broadcasters.
Finally, I must note that all the Boston office has done is sent out warning letters that say the equivalent of “we’re pretty sure you’re broadcasting without a license and you better cut it out!” That letter alone is enough to scare a lot of unlicensed broadcasters off the air. But it’s a long way from the NUOU letter to a real fine, and then collecting the fine or taking a station off the air by police force.
While LPFM provided a very needed avenue for many different populations and communities to obtain broadcast licenses, the service is not and will not be enough to make up for the lack of diversity on the majority of the radio dial. While the FCC may have hoped LPFM would hold back the tide of pirate radio, a decade later there’s no evidence that happened. There may be fewer outwardly political pirates like Free Radio Berkeley, but that doesn’t mean today’s stations aren’t there for important reasons.
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