Low-power radio has a role to play in making communities

Adam Gaffin, who writes the influential blog Universal Hub, reported last week about a “pirate radio station” that federal regulators are trying to close down.

“Feds chase radio pirates across town,” he wrote. “An unlicensed radio station kicked out of a Hyde Park office building is now broadcasting from a house in Dorchester.

“Hot 97 Boston had been serving up hip hop, reggae, and gospel from the basement of One Westinghouse Plaza, but after a visit from FCC inspectors, the station shut up shop and moved to 76 Esmond St. in Dorchester.

“On Sept. 3, the FCC notified owner Delroy Johnson to knock it off. He’s apparently paying them as much heed as Touch 106, another Dorchester pirate: The station is still on the air.”

Low-power radio stations, both licensed and unlicensed, can play an important role in keeping connected. Similar in their goal to weekly papers like our Reporter newspaper group, these small operations target small, local audiences- not broadcasts but “narrowcasts.”

As the business of the major commercial media changed, and big guys (WEEI, WMJX et al) became profit centers for corporate conglomerates, the need for localized, focused media is now compelling. As the Boston radio giants seek larger and more profitable audiences, the capacity to learn about local news and neighborhood opinion is diminished.

On Jones Hill, a positive example of successful narrowcasting is GRLZ Radio, supported by St. Mary’s Women’s and Children’s Center on Cushing Ave. The effort, while technically not “on the air,” is a live-stream internet service targeted at teen-age girls between the ages of 12 and 19. In service since 2004, it’s a splendid example of a community service for that targeted audience.

Yet even those programs require a computer and a connection to the internet. Back in the day of transistor radio, you could own a low-cost receiver and listen to any radio station – for free. In those days, too, most Boston radio stations actually were based here and hired local staff. To renew a license the FCC required each station to show how the station programming met community needs.

Alas, no more. Now it’s up to the “pirates” to take the chance, go outside the rules of the FCC, create relevant programs.

Here’s a question for the federal regulators: These stations actually do have an audience, so ask yourself this: If people are listening, are they not filling a need?

This week in Washington, a Congressional panel, the House Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet, will vote on a bill to expand low-power community radio.  Described as a “bipartisan bill,” the Local Community Radio Act would allow the FCC to license hundreds of new low-power non-commercial radio stations nationwide.

“Thousands of communities could finally have a chance to have their own radio station,” said Cory Fischer-Hoffman of Prometheus. “We hear from schools, churches, community groups, emergency responders, and local governments who want a local forum for news and information. They’re eager for this opportunity.”

Prometheus is a Philadelphia-based non-profit organization that advocates for greater public access to the airwaves through the licensing of low-power radio stations. Find out more at prometheusradio.org.