Unlicensed radioman says he'll go the distance

Charles Clemons, operator of the unlicensed Grove Hall radio station TOUCH 106.1 FM told the Reporter this week he plans to take advantage of the new political climate and go for a walk - from coast to coast.

"This is the prime time to show President Barack Obama that we're serious about our voices," said Clemons. "It's not fair that one community has more media control than another community. Only 1.3 or 1.8 percent of all radio stations are owned by African-Americans."

Calling it the Walk for Power, Clemons hopes to bring nationwide attention to the plight of and need for low power FM stations in urban and rural communities. By a conservative estimate, unlicensed radio stations around the country number in the hundreds, and TOUCH is definitely not the only unlicensed low power station on Mattapan and Dorchester's airwaves. Several stations broadcast every day, often representing immigrant communities with little access to the air on licensed stations.

A group called Free Press analyzed FCC data on radio ownership in 2007 and estimated that around 8 percent of all full power radio stations were owned by minorities, lending credence to Clemons' number. But the FCC's data on ownership is incomplete. The Government Accountability Office recommended the FCC collect better information on ownership in 2008, but the Bush Administration never acted on the suggestion.

Now in the middle of its fourth year, TOUCH 106.1 has outlasted many of its peers. A fixture in Grove Hall and its limited signal area, it has taken to calling itself the fabric of the black community, which isn't too far from the truth. Talk shows in the morning hours take in dozens of listener calls each day and the station airs a host of local advertisements and public service announcements.

If the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has its way, that public service won't last. On May 7 last year, Clemons received a forfeiture order from the FCC that levied a $17,000 fine for operating TOUCH.

"Most stations shut their doors, disappear and come back at a different location when the FCC comes down on them, but TOUCH is one of the only ones to stand their ground and assert they have a right to the airwaves," said Pete Tridish, the director of electromagnetism at the Prometheus Radio Project - a non-profit that won a lawsuit against the FCC in 2003 blocking the consolidation of media ownership, helps low power radio stations get set up legally, and also advises unlicensed stations like TOUCH.

With Obama in the White House, Tridish said things could be changing for low power FM. Rep. Harry Waxman (D-CA) wrestled the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee away from Rep. John Dingell (D-MI) in December. Dingell reportedly stalled the Local Community Radio Act of 2007, which would have allowed for thousands of new low power FM stations, and also took campaign donations from the National Association of Broadcasters, the act's main enemy.

Waxman, on the other hand, was one of the bill's co-sponsors, and folks like Tridish say things are bright on the legislative horizon with him in charge. A version of the Local Community Radio Act is being re-introduced this session.

"Right now in Washington everything is about the stimulus package, so there's no news yet," said Tridish. "But starting next week I'll be there three days a week, working. I think it's very cool that he's doing this walk."

Clemons said he hopes to connect with other low power FM deejays and operators along the way, and several TOUCH listeners have already said they'd fly to various parts of the routes and walk along with him.

"The fine is there and it's gonna be there until it's taken care of, but in the meantime we have to fight to have an equal playing field," said Clemons. "In the 50s and 60s bathrooms wasn't public, and the same thing's going on in media today. Especially when it comes to mainstream media. Mostly talking about certain things with one community - that plants a seed of low esteem. Everybody should have a voice and that's a key."

Clemons plans to put one foot after the other out of the TOUCH studio on March 2, and estimates that he'll end up somewhere on the West Coast some 175 days later. Asked if he thinks he's physically ready, Clemons says he doesn't even plan to train for the long slow haul across the nation.

"Whatever the mind and heart believes it shall achieve," he said. "I say five words every day: pray, create, adapt, improvise and overcome. That's my mandate and I can do it. I'm not doing it for Brother Charles, I'm doing it for the people."