In Grove Hall, radio rebels dig in

Touch FM's MC Spice exhorts listeners to nominate their "Wednesday women" yesterday - the women they know and admire who own businesses in the community. A contest of slow jams determines which nominee will win free ads on the station. The station was recently fined $17,000 by the Federal Communications Commission for operating without a license. Photo by Pete Stidman

It's five minutes after 6 a.m. on a Tuesday morning and the loyal listeners of TOUCH 106.1FM - those who are awake, at least - have to settle for the crackle and puff of static from their speakers.

No James Brown, no New Edition, no Amiri Baraka. Just static.

Over in Grove Hall, someone - probably the station's do-everything morning talk show host MC Spice - is running late. Either that, or the feds have slipped in overnight and cut the power cords or ripped down the antenna that pumps TOUCH FM into the ether above Dorchester, Roxbury, Mattapan and J.P. each day.

It's damn near 6:10 a.m. and the panic starts to set in. Is it over? Have the radio rebels at TOUCH FM finally caved under the pressure from the dreaded FCC?

Nahhh.

Suddenly, the beat kicks in and the silky sounds of a lady announcer - definitely a native Bostonian - purr into a microphone. Next up, a classic Marvin Gaye joint from 1963. He wants a witness with a quickness.

A new day has begun at TOUCH, the "pirate" radio outfit with a secret location that has - over the last year-and-a-half - definitively emerged as "the voice of Black Boston" on the radio dial. The only question is, will they make it 'til tomorrow.

Spice, the station's 41 year-old creative director who anchors the four-hour "Big Morning Thing" with Mattapan side-kick Jonathon Gates, is soon at full throttle. He reads the morning news and weather. For a moment, he frets that Sunday's Man Up-Gang Truce Rally that the station is leading might be a drizzly affair.

Undeterred, Spice launches into an appeal for support, no matter what the clouds bring.

"We need the black men in our community to step up. Ain't no one else gonna do it. We need to be accountable. You never shot a gun? Okay. You never sold drugs? That's fine. You're still accountable for what's happening on these streets, right."

Spice's tough love message is peppered with calls from "the community" - black men and women, mostly African-American with heavy Boston accents. They share stories of dead and jailed children. They chide neighborhood businesses who fail to support this weekend's march by refusing to post flyers in their windows. They pledge their devotion to the one radio station that captures their spirit. They ask Spice to play an old favorite from their childhood. He obliges.

To local ears, their voices are familiar and authentic.

But it's strange to hear them on the radio at first. There's no other place like it on Boston's dial. And if the FCC has its way, the station could be silenced.

Touch FM (officially LP-WTCH Boston) - which sprang from the bosom of the Grove Hall Neighborhood Development Corporation offices in the fall of 2005 - is unlicensed. They admit it. They're pirates.

And they are unrepentant, even in the face of the most recent broadside from the government: A May 7 forfeiture order from the FCC that levies a $17,000 fine on station founder Charles Clemons. The ruling stems from a pair of site visits made to the suspected TOUCH offices at the corner of Cheney Street and Blue Hill Avenue in 2007. The order accuses Clemons of "willfully and repeatedly" using the frequency without a license and for "failing to permit a station inspection."

The station went public with the threat from the FCC last week, with Spice and Gates railing against the agents whom they say tried to ferret out their studio quarters last month. Calls poured in all morning from listeners pledging to do their bit to keep TOUCH on the air.

It's hard to know just how many people catch the 100-watt signal emanating from a Grove Hall rooftop. But each day around 9 a.m., the station's Internet server maxes out as office workers tune into TOUCH's streaming audio link online, presumably from Greater Boston locales where the radio signal is weak or non-existent. They can only handle up to 5,000 online listeners at a time. The traffic eases up around 5 p.m. when the work day comes to a close.

Whatever the total audience, there's no doubt that the station has found its intended niche.

Michael Kozu, a community organizer for the Grove Hall based Project RIGHT, says that the station has developed a robust and devoted listenership.

"I think they really have filled a void, particularly for communities of color. When you look at major radio stations they pretty much bypass the needs of communities of color, especially since WILD sold their FM station," Kozu said. "The problem is that because [TOUCH] has such a limited coverage area, their reach doesn't cover as much as it needs to."

The Grove Hall Neighborhood Development Corporation (NDC) is a non-profit with a solid reputation, much of it earned by successfully developing the Mecca shopping center on Blue Hill Avenue. The NDC owns the Mecca Mall, which boasts tenants like Stop & Shop and Dunkin' Donuts as anchors. The shopping center is widely credited with sparking a cycle of economic growth in the immediate neighborhood, which straddles the Dorchester-Roxbury border.

The NDC's executive director is Sr. Virginia Morrison. She also happens to be the mother of TOUCH's founder, Clemons, a former Boston police officer who once worked as a program director at the old WILD.

Morrison, who makes recorded cameos on TOUCH using the handle "Information Mama," says that the station's musical fare - a steady mix of old-school R&B, party tracks and slow jams - is a deliberate departure from the typical play-lists of high-power commercial radio. The mission, she says, is in line with that of the NDC: to raise the expectations and activism of a neighborhood still struggling with its share of blight and violence.

"They consciously make sure there isn't anything negative in the music, whether its jazz, R&B or hip-hop," Morrison says. "It proves you can program radio all day without being negative."

Listeners tend to agree. One woman who wrote into the station last week said that TOUCH has earned her support because she can play it all day without worrying about her kids picking up new "x-rated" words.

"I like Usher and Lil' Wayne. I just don't want my kids to hear them getting freaky on the radio," she wrote.

The music is only part of the TOUCH appeal. Throughout the day - and especially in the morning - the broadcast is liberally laced with public service announcements for community events. The May 24 Kite Festival at Franklin Park is sponsored by the station. So is the first annual LaQuarrie Jefferson Memorial March, also dubbed the Man-Up/Gang Truce March, from Grove Hall to City Hall, set for this Sunday at 11 a.m. You'll also hear about sign-ups for the Mattapan Patriots, a pet project of morning disc jockey Gates, who runs the Pop Warner program.

There are ads for local businesses too. The caterer across the street in Grove Hall. The hair salon on Morton Street in Mattapan. According to Spice, the station often agrees to play a certain number of ads each week in exchange for the store's promise to keep their in-store radios tuned into TOUCH. The aim, he says, is to get the information out, not to turn a profit.

In the morning, between bursts of Motown and Public Enemy - The P.E. anthem "Shut em' Down" is on heavy rotation lately - the duo of Spice and Gates offer pointed commentary on the "issues of the day," typically with a strident activist bent. One show recently included Boston Police officers, who defended the controversial Safe Home initiative to search local home for guns. The program has been widely panned by African-American leaders as an abuse of civil liberties.

"On a few occasions, women have called in to talk about the problems they are having with their teenage child," Morrison said. "They literally are reaching out over the airwaves."

"It's not canned or put-up," she says of the morning show. "Every day it's a new topic. It addresses the negative and positive situations within our community with what can be considered a holistic approach."

Spice, who cut his teeth in the music business at 17 volunteering at WILD, was a producer and writer on Mark Wahlberg's early rap albums (he wrote the lyrics to the Platinum hit "Good Vibrations" and still collects royalties from the song's frequent airplay) and has worked as a producer and on-air talent in big-league radio markets like Philadelphia and North Carolina. After more than a decade out of Boston, he was recruited by Clemons last year to take charge of TOUCH's management, even as he continues to run his own production company, creating radio spots and voice-overs for VH1, Wendy Williams' radio and TV programs, among other clients. Spice frequently talks openly about his own "thug" ways as a younger man on the air and takes direct aim at those in the most peril today.

"I'm not going after the 'agency' kids who are already going to the Boys and Girls Club. I want to reach the high-risk, already-over-the-edge dudes who think the Boys Club sucks," he says.

Such outreach, in all of its variations, is what has endeared TOUCH FM to many of its listeners in Boston - and to some important allies far beyond its signal. The Prometheus Radio Project, a Philadelphia-based advocacy group that assists low-power FM stations, has been working with TOUCH and Charles Clemons for several months. The group - with the slogan "Freeing the airwaves from corporate control" - argues that there is plenty of room on the FM dial for additional low-power stations run by non-profits, just like TOUCH.

"There are very few cities that would benefit more than Boston from having more low-powered FM stations," says Hannah Sassaman, program director for Prometheus. "I would say that the people who care about TOUCH FM have a right to use the airwaves. We don't advocate pirate radio, but we stand with TOUCH FM as they prepare their legal actions."

Sassaman says that TOUCH supporters might well channel their activism into pushing for a piece of legislation now before the U.S. Congress. The so-called Local Community Radio Act of 2007, introduced last June, is co-sponsored by Sen. John McCain and is also supported by 90 other members of Congress, including Sens. Clinton and Obama. The act would expand the number of low-powered FM licenses offered into markets like Boston. It's an expansion of an earlier Congressional act in 2000 which authorized free, low-power FM licenses to be issued in rural areas of the country.

Advocates like Sassaman say that the FCC actually wants to issue more licenses, but is waiting for the Congress to make its intentions clear. Last week, Prometheus Radio Project flew TOUCH FM's Charles Clemons to Washington D.C. to help lobby for the bill. He met with several key lawmakers, including Congressman Edward Markey, who has been generally supportive of the low-power movement, but has not yet signed onto this latest legislation. Markey, who chairs a Congressional subcommittee on telecommunications and the internet, is considered a key voice on the matter.

If the measure passes and a new, sympathetic administration signs on next year, the expansion of licenses that follow could eventually benefit TOUCH FM.

Yet, even if the bill becomes law, the chances of more than one license being issued in Boston is slim. And to complicate matters, Clemons would likely be banned from applying, given his history of piracy.

Meantime, the immediate future for TOUCH - like the weekend's forecast - is a bit cloudy. The FCC, which is known to tolerate a certain level of pirating on the AM side of the dial, is less patient with FM scofflaws.

MC Spice and TOUCH see their predictament and their response to the FCC's demands in a different light. The current government position, Spice says, is unjust to urban community groups. The station will likely plan a summertime fundraiser that Spice believes will raise enough to pay the FCC fine in full.

"Our attitude is, we're going for it. This is a state of emergency in our community," Spice says. "I say we'll get the money and fight the fine and we'll appeal and appeal and fight. If or when they come and take the equipment, we'll go out and get more. We're David, they're Goliath. We're not going anywhere."