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
'Pirate' station emerges as 'voice of Black Boston'
By Bill Forry
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
No James Brown, no New Edition, no Amiri Baraka.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
"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
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
"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
"I like Usher and Lil' Wayne. I just don't want
my kids to hear them getting freaky on the radio,"
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
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
Sassaman says that TOUCH supporters might well
channel their activism into pushing for a piece of
legislation now before the U.S. Congress. The
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
If the measure passes and a new, sympathetic
administration signs on next year, the expansion of
licenses that follow could eventually benefit TOUCH
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
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
"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
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