On the heels of the FCC and US Attorney shutting down unlicensed Rika FM in New York City, on Thursday three stations in the Boston area were taken off the air, as well. The most prominent of these stations is Touch 106.1 FM, which was a fixture in Dorchester’s African-American community. Like the Rika FM shutdown, Touch was raided by U.S. Marshals, under an order from the US Attorney.
Public TV station WGBH had the only reporter on the scene, capturing some rare news footage of an FCC raid. In the short segment that aired Thursday night reporter Adam Reilly and the anchor have a brief and surprisingly empathetic exchange about the station, wondering out loud, “why now?” since the station had been operating in the open for years.
Addressing the “why now” question: it seems pretty clear that the FCC is making a coordinated effort to shut down unlicensed stations that are operating out in the open, especially those that otherwise look more like licensed stations. It’s also clear that somebody at the US Attorney’s Office has been convinced to take this on, something that otherwise happens rarely.
Perhaps this sweep is 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.
An operator of Touch, “Brother Charles” Clemons, was fined by the FCC in 2008, and a US District Court judge issued a summary judgement against him in 2012 for non-payment. Even seeking such a judgement is a relatively unusual occurrence in unlicensed radio. This is likely related to the fact that Touch remained on air, whereas most stations that are contacted or fined tend to shut down, relocate or otherwise assume new station identities.
The unfortunate aspect of the Rika FM and Touch 106.1 situations is that both are stations that serve minority communities that are not otherwise well served by licensed stations in their areas. Of course, one might note that LPFM stations could have been opportunities for these stations. Although, strictly speaking, the principals behind Rika or Touch are ineligible to be formally tied to an LPFM license as a direct result of being involved in unlicensed broadcasting. That said, an LPFM could serve their audiences if operated under different auspices.
However, the practicalities are not so simple. Radio dials in top urban markets, like New York and Boston, are crowded. Even with the second-adjacent waivers made available in the Local Community Radio Act, there still are no LPFM frequencies open in too many inner-city neighborhoods where they are most needed.
As REC Networks’ Michi Bradley points out in a blog post, Touch’s 106.1 FM frequency would not be eligible for LPFM under current rules, as a result of being too close to stations in Hyannis, MA, Woonsocket, RI and Nashua, NH. Yet, she points out that it could operate at lower power and not cause interference. In fact, she says that if Touch were a translator repeater station rather than a LPFM, then it could be eligible to exist at that frequency under FCC rules. The catch is that translators may only repeat programming, not originate it.
What this all boils down to is that even with the window we just recently had for new LPFM stations, some places on the dial where LPFM stations could have been placed were denied because of an arcane rule that was codified in statute as a result of overall unfounded fear by the NAB, NPR and the state broadcast associations that LPFM would cause interference. This is why we need to repeal that portion of the LCRA and leave LPFM engineering to the engineers and don’t try to dumb down the service.
Indeed, the consequences of this artificial limiting of LPFM are real. The Dorchester community lost a vital station yesterday that might have had an opportunity to be licensed if the FCC simply treated LPFMs under the same rules as a repeater for a commercial or non-commercial station.
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