The FCC this week proposed a $453,015 fine against Gerlens Cesar, who runs Radio TeleBoston, which broadcasts news to Haitians in the Boston area, and a $151,005 against Acerome Jean Charles, who runs a station called Radio Concorde, also aimed at the Haitian community.
One FCC commissioner, while backing the fines, however, said the fact that it's a sorry state of affairs that Haitians and other immigrants are forced to turn to unlicensed stations because current FCC rules make it almost impossible for them to win licenses in cities such as Boston.
The fine against Cesar would be the largest ever against somebody for running a pirate station, the FCC says.
FCC investigators warned the two they faced fines if they continued broadcasting as part of sweeps in several cities last year: Radio TeleBoston has been on the air since October, 2011; Radio Concorde for more than 25 years.
The FCC received complaints from residents of Boston and Randolph, Massachusetts of an illegal station operating at both 90.1 and 92.1 MHz. One of those complaints identified Cesar, owner of GC Computer, as the operator of Radio TeleBoston. FCC Enforcement Bureau field agents were able to locate the transmitters and determine that they far exceeded the allowable power level for unlicensed broadcasting. The Enforcement Bureau issued Cesar multiple written notices that his conduct was illegal and had to cease. Cesar nonetheless continued to broadcast Radio TeleBoston from multiple transmitters and frequencies, none of which were licensed, resulting in today’s proposed fine.
The FCC issued a similar statement about Jean Charles:
The FCC received a complaint from a local Boston-area licensed broadcaster alleging that Radio Concorde’s broadcasting on 106.3 MHz was interfering with the broadcaster’s new FM translator station at 106.1 MHz. FCC Enforcement Bureau field agents investigated the complaint and formally and repeatedly warned Jean Charles, instructing him to cease unauthorized broadcasts, and outlining the consequences if he continued to do so.
In a statement, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, a Republican, said it's time for pirate operators to cut the crap:
[T]here are many legal alternatives to unlicensed broadcasting. In 2013, we held a successful filing window for low-power FM (LPFM) construction permits, and as a result, nearly 1,400 new stations catering to diverse local interests have been licensed. Next year, we will hold an auction of construction permits for 130 vacant FM allotments. ... Those particularly eager to get on the air have other legal
avenues, such as collaborating with existing stations. Indeed, one of those newly licensed LPFM stations, WBCA-LP, Boston, Massachusetts, is a community radio station that allows residents to apply for time on the air. Finally, Internet streaming has become a popular and accessible platform for distributing audio programming without an FM license.
WBCA's license is owned by the city and operates out of BNN studios in Egleston Square.
In his own statement, fellow Commissioner and Republican Michael O'Rielly called the two men "perpetrators" with a "shameless level of disregard for the law," who he said actually risk the lives of their listeners by never broadcasting emergency notifications.
Commissioner Geoffrey Starks, the sole Democrat on the commission board, agreed with the crackdown on the two stations for interfering with licensed stations, but said things should never have gotten to this point:
[I]t is impossible to consider today's actions without experiencing the disheartening realization that something is not working as it should. There are no excuses for those who choose to break the law or violate our rules, but I can't help but think about what impact the Commission's longstanding abdication of our diversity obligations has had on the development of unlicensed stations serving immigrant communities. Our numbers reveal that representatives of the communities that largely turn to pirate radio – Haitians, Jamaicans, Trinidadians, folks from Grenada or Guyana, to name a few – are absent from the ranks of licensed operators. Opportunities to obtain licenses are few and far between. And, even when they do open up, opportunities remain severely limited in urban population centers like New York, Boston, and Miami, where unlicensed operators have historically operated.
Where would we be today if we provided real opportunities for these operators years ago and were more intentional about making sure our licenses were distributed with diversity obligations in mind? What if we listened to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals the first or second time, or even the third time when it issued one of its Prometheus opinions telling us we need to better study how our rules and policies impact ownership opportunities for women and people of color? And what if we acted years ago to put in place solid, legally sound programs to promote ownership diversity? On this fourth remand from the Prometheus court, I have called for us to improve our data and conduct new empirical research to support targeted efforts to improve broadcast ownership diversity. Our work here is long overdue.
In 2018, WGBH profiled Radio Concorde, then broadcasting from Mattapan:
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.
IIt 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."