On the second floor of a nondescript office building in Mattapan, up the stairs and behind an unmarked door, I found what I had been searching for: the spartan office of Radio Concorde — an unlicensed, low-power station that broadcasts news, talk and music in Haitian Creole.
Broadcasting without a license is illegal. Yet for over two decades, Concorde has kept going, even as the Federal Communications Commission has gotten more aggressive about a cracking down on unlicensed stations, so-called “pirate radio.”
But that’s not what they’re called in Mattapan, at least not according to Dieufort “Keke” Fleurissaint.
“It’s not the way in the past, when we have the pirates in the Caribbean come in and steal our golds from the Carribeans," Fleurissaint said. "This is totally different."
Concorde began in 1993 as a source of information for Boston’s Haitian diaspora, which has become the third-largest in the country.
Fleurissaint, a regular on many of the programs across the dial, argues the FCC’s crackdown on unlicensed stations deprives that community of important information, which is why many stations continue broadcasting even after they get shut down and fined.
“Even stations who dare to remain in operation, I’m sure that they have some fines levied against them, although they’re still taking the chance to continue to operate because they see the need,” he said. “If all the Haitian radio stations shut down, where will those almost 100,000 Haitians get the news? Nowhere. They will not understand what’s going on.”
At La Foyer Bakery in Mattapan, traditional Haitian fish and meat patties are baked while employees listen to Radio Concorde, catching up on news from the old home and the new. Owner Edna Etienne said the radio plays all day long.
“It is the most important way of communication that we have is the radio,” Etienne said. “Some people, they don’t really speak English, and they are at home. This is their life. They listen to the radio. The Haitian radio is very, very, very important in our community.”
Etienne said it would be a “disservice to the community” if unlicensed stations like Radio Concorde, which will celebrate its 25th anniversary on the air this July, weren’t there to provide the news. “All those stations get shut down,” Etienne said, “and the Haitian community would shut down, too.”
Rony Raphael migrated from Haiti to Mattapan in the mid-1980s and found a home in radio — and a place to share information that could help other immigrants get their footing as well.
“It is fundamental that we keep our cultures, our identity, alive, because that’s all we got left at the end of the day,” Raphael said, chatting with me on a couch at Radio Concorde.
“This is a healing process for any community, because it’s not easy to adapt to a new environment, to a new culture,” Raphael continued. “Though I’ve been here for more than two decades, I’m still learning how to adapt to this culture. When you have a radio station that plays the tunes that you used to hear back home, it’s soothing to the soul.”
Raphael is a regular guest and host on some of the unlicensed stations anyone can find on the radio dial driving through Mattapan and Dorchester. They’re relatively public and often feature well-known community leaders and elected officials. Former state senator Linda Dorcena Forry, for example, regularly appeared on Radio Concorde during her 2013 campaign for the office.
“When folks come here from different countries around the world, when you’re able to hear the news in your native language, it makes a difference where you feel connected, and you feel like you’re aware of what’s taking place around you,” Dorcena Forry said.
Although it’s easy to find on the dial, Radio Concorde is much harder to locate in person.
When I called to say I was coming, a man on the phone told me he didn’t know what I was talking about. Later that day, when I showed up the first time, the place was empty. Afterwards, one of the hosts told me they’d taken the station off the air, thinking I was from the FCC.
The fear is understandable. Since 2011, the FCC has shut down more than ten unlicensed stations in greater Boston alone. After the FCC issues numerous warnings, federal agents will arrive with a warrant, seize broadcasting equipment and issue fines in the tens of thousands of dollars.
Although these low-power stations only broadcast 100 watts, reaching approximately 3.5 miles, the FCC says they disrupt other signals and cause interference.
For Mary Menna, vice president and market manager at Beasley Media, these stations present a problem with a simple solution.
“Government is there, and there are rules, and I think people should just follow the rules,” Menna said.
Beasley owns big names like 98.5 The Sports Hub (WBZ-FM), Alt 92.9 and Country 102.5. Menna says unlicensed stations cause interference, listeners complain, and she calls the FCC to shut those smaller stations down.
“Or what’s even worse is they don’t call and complain, and they just switch the dial to another radio station that doesn’t have interference,” she said. “Because you don’t even know about those listeners that you lose.”
For Menna, it comes down to a question, “If there is a legal process to get licensed for low power FM and create that programming, why wouldn’t you go through the rules and regs?” she asked. “Why would you just not do it the right way so that you can become a legal broadcaster?”
The answer is a bit complicated.
Under the Local Community Radio Act of 2011, unlicensed stations can apply for “non-commercial-educational” licenses — as long as they meet certain requirements.
First, stations must apply during a filing window when the FCC is accepting applications. Since the law passed, there has been a single, one-month filing window in October 2013.
According to the FCC, which did not respond to multiple requests for comment, the eligible stations need to have served the particular community for at least two years, broadcasting at least 12 hours a day, with at least eight hours of locally-originated programming.
But there’s a catch — stations that have existed in the community for that long cannot ever have been fined or shut down. Otherwise, they are ineligible for a license.
That’s what happened to Charles Clemons Muhammad, who broadcast TOUCH 106.1 FM out of Dorchester’s Grove Hall neighborhood from 2005 until U.S. marshals seized his equipment and the FCC fined him $17,000 in 2014.
“Once you’re hit with a fine, the law says that you can never ever apply for a license for the rest of your life,” Muhammas said, sitting in the studios of TOUCH 106.1, which now operates exclusively online.
Muhammed had been issued several warnings from the FCC prior to the shutdown and knew what he was doing was illegal. But he persisted out of protest. “I decided to keep TOUCH on the air because the law that was in place was an unjust law,” he said.
In 2009, Muhammed walked over 500 miles to Washington, D.C. to push for that low power FM law. But because he had been fined, he could not apply for a license after it passed.
Since 2011, one license has been awarded to Boston, at 102.9 FM. That bandwidth is split three ways between the City of Boston, Lasell College and Boston Praise Radio.
“They have to share the same frequency, which means one is on for eight hours, then it signs off, then another one comes on, then that signs off, then another one comes on,” Muhammed said. “That’s not fair. That’s not fair at all.”
Clarification: This article has been updated to reflect that Beasley Media owns WBZ-FM.