Walk For Power On The Road

Charles Clemons, Jr., proprietor of Touch 106.1 FM in Boston, has begun his six-month stroll. Taking a page from Granny D, he’s walking from Boston to Los Angeles to raise awareness about the serious racial imbalance in media ownership that exists in the United States, and to advocate for an expansion of low-power FM (LPFM) stations nationwide. The twist in this story is that Touch FM is unlicensed, and has already been fined some $17,000 by the FCC.
However, this is no run-of-the-mill “pirate” station; Clemons himself is deeply religious, and the station’s main mission is to serve as a positive outlet of expression for Boston’s African-American community. So much so, in fact, that Boston mayor Thomas Menino saw Clemons off on his walk when it began last week, and has instructed city staff to keep tabs on his progress. The Walk for Power web site has daily updates of the walking schedule; Clemons and his compatriots are taking photos along the journey; and you can even track the walk’s progress via GPS. Cities and towns Clemons will be walking through/past are listed as well; if he’s coming close to your area, I’m sure he’d love to see you.
Though the walk’s purpose is two-fold, the chances of Touch FM becoming legal are slim, though not impossible. According to current LPFM rules, anyone who’s been caught running an unlicensed radio station is barred for life from holding an LPFM station license. There is a possibility that the FCC may do away with this unjust restriction, especially if the Local Community Radio Act is passed through Congress this year (the House version of the bill now has 38 cosponsors; a Senate version is now also circulating and has 5 cosponsors; I am pleased to note that both my local Representative and one of my state’s Senators are already on board).
In a nutshell, the LCRA would repeal wholesale the “Radio Broadcasting Preservation Act” passed in 2001, which included the anti-pirate provision. The problem is, the constitutionality of this provision has already been challenged in court – a challenge that failed. Therefore, if the FCC is given the go-ahead to expand LPFM, and the statutory rules for an expansion do not contain the anti-pirate provision, there is a chance that the FCC may re-extend the olive branch to bring more electronic civil disobedients into the fold. Then again, because such de facto discrimination has been tested and approved by the courts, it will really be up to FCC staff – and, ultimately, the Commission itself – to decide whether or not to let unlicensed broadcasters become legit.
Given that we don’t know the full makeup of the FCC yet (the one Commissioner who has publicly endorsed unlicensed broadcasting is moving on to a new job), and the fact that several technical steps need to be taken before the FCC would be able to open a filing window for new LPFM stations, it’s difficult to discern whether or not the anti-pirate provision might fall by the wayside. If the National Association of Broadcasters has any say in the matter, it will press to keep “reformed pirates” out of LPFM; it’s already engaged in a somewhat frivolous lawsuit trying to stop the FCC from slightly expanding LPFM on its own. Who knows what the trade association will try if the LCRA becomes law.
While it would be nice if the LCRA was amended to include an amnesty provision for unlicensed broadcasters, this would most likely make the legislation politically unviable. So it will be up to the FCC to define the real parameters of any expanded LPFM service; here’s hoping that they see the sense in letting those most interested in the service (by dint of jumping the gun) get a chance at legality. Otherwise, people like Charles Clemons and many others will continue to do what they do, and with good reason.
If you happen to live along the Walk for Power route, you can drop Clemons a line directly (see the Walk for Power site) to help with food and lodging. For the rest of us, Walk for Power has posted a wish list of items they need to make the journey: “What is needed now more than anything are prayers and donations.” I’m not that much of a spiritual person, so I’ve already made my material contribution. You should, too. And LPFM and pirate radio activists/supporters alike should take a gander at the walk-route and make an effort to help Clemons along the way – there hasn’t ever really been an opportunity for those on both sides of legality to help a good cause the furthers all microradio stations, not to mention the larger issue of social justice in our media environment.