Some Options for Fighting the Federal Shutdown of TOUCH 106.1 FM
Several days ago, the federal government shut down TOUCH 106.1 FM - an unlicensed low power radio station serving Boston's African-American community - and two other unlicensed immigrant run stations in Brockton. The move, while not unprecedented, is considered unusual by observers in the know. In essence, the enforcement action is viewed as a nod by the Obama administration to the concerns of the National Association of Broadcasters and National Public Radio - longtime foes of low power radio - that the 2010 passage of the Local Community Radio Act not be interpreted as meaning open season for unlicensed broadcasters to set up shop at will. Especially in the crowded airwaves of America's urban radio markets.
Funny thing, though. The airwaves of America's urban radio markets aren't really crowded. Even before digital broadcasting became technically feasible, other countries - notably Greece - allowed major radio stations to broadcast .1 MHz apart. Using both the even and odd frequencies on the radio dial without significant problems. Unlike the US where only the odd frequencies (e.g., 106.1, 106.3, 106.5) are used.
Of course, once digital broadcasting became widespread this non-issue of interference risks to major stations from low power stations should have been eliminated once and for all. But the US decided to back the proprietary bandwidth-hogging hybrid digital/analog technology In-Band On-Channel (IBOC) instead of other options like the Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB) system used in the United Kingdom that would have allowed for far more radio stations to operate within the available bandwidth. Existing US stations placed an emphasis on keeping their existing frequency assignments over the public good when lobbying for IBOC. Another non-issue, but there it is.
Beyond such complex technical discussion, however, lies the fact that most US radio frequencies were handed over to commercial interests by the 1930s - despite heavy support for allowing various forms of community and public radio to dominate in that period.
Once deregulation of broadcast radio and TV began in the 1980s, the corporate owners of commercial stations dropped any pretense of programming in the community interest. As major conglomerates then bought up more and more radio stations in markets like Boston, and the FCC ended requirements that live DJs and engineers must be physically present to run every station, automation took hold - accelerating the move away from local programming.
Seen in that light, unlicensed broadcasters like TOUCH 106.1 FM's Charles Clemons are doing a public service by running their operations and trying to provide community radio for local audiences like Boston's African-American community ... that has lived in a radio desert since WILD FM was sold to Entercom Communications Corp. in 2006.
Clemons, for his part, has sworn that he will fight for his right to run a community radio station in an underserved community for whom broadcast FM radio is still a major means of getting news 24/7.
But in the interim, I would suggest that other stopgap solutions be pursued by Clemons and his allies.
One obvious idea springs to mind: WUMB FM, the college radio station at UMass Boston has long been (sporadically) criticized for the fact that the small clique of one-time students that founded the station in the 1970s gave themselves permanent jobs and turned a community radio station that was supposed to be licensed to train UMB media students in broadcasting - and, critically, to serve the largely African-American, Latino, and immigrant neighborhoods surrounding it - into a staff-run folk (and more recently a pop and adult album alternative) music station mainly aimed at white suburbanites. Like basically every other major radio station in the Boston area.
This might be the time for a significant grassroots campaign aimed at forcing WUMB management to devote major blocks of programming to directly serving the needs of the communities surrounding the station.
Another option would be to push for blocks of programming on NPR affiliates WGBH FM and WBUR FM that will properly serve the communities in question. Because they are public radio, yes? So why are they only serving part of the public in the metro Boston area?
Part of the solution for unlicensed stations like TOUCH will necessarily be legislative. For example, the Local Community Radio Act will have to be amended to allow more low power stations in urban areas. Existing technology has allowed for more stations for decades, and it's past time to put the arguments of the broadcast industry (and, sadly, NPR - who should be community broadcasters' biggest ally) to the contrary to rest. An additional helpful regulatory change would be the relatively simple matter of the FCC allowing broadcast translators (transmitters that are set to simply repeat a broadcast from a distant station) to transmit original programming. That would allow stations like TOUCH to exist in crowded markets like Boston as a translator repeater FM station rather than a low power FM station - using bandwidth already allotted for that purpose, but underutilized.
Whichever direction grassroots activists like Clemons decide to take this struggle, Open Media Boston supports any solution that expands the public's control over our own airwaves and restricts commercial interests ability to dominate radio markets like Boston ... to the detriment of its residents that have few significant broadcast media outlets providing programming in the community interest.
Ultimately, grassroots democratic movements are going to have to push for a vastly expanded public communications infrastructure. Until such movements gain strength, it's vital that all people interested in communications equity fight and win a series of smaller battles. Which in this case means helping TOUCH 106.1 FM to get back on the air in some fashion as soon as possible.
Jason Pramas is Editor/Publisher of Open Media Boston, and Adjunct Professor of Communications at Lesley University