Charles Clemons Muhammad

What would lead someone to launch an unlicensed station? Inside Radio recently caught up with Charles Clemons Muhammad, the founder of Boston’s “Touch 106.1” which according to the Federal Communications Commission operated as a so-called pirate station from 2006 to 2014.

The FCC also fined him $17,000—a fine he has no intention of ever paying.

“Touch FM” is now an online-only concern that calls itself “the fabric of the Black community.” Muhammad doesn’t quite fit the image that many in radio might have of an unlicensed station operator. He spent three years working in radio and later worked as a police officer; he’s currently running for a seat on Boston’s City Council.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

First off, the FCC uses the word ‘pirate.’ What do you think of that word?

It’s a derogatory word. The proper word is unlicensed.

So how did you get started in all this?

It started when I began interning at the only Black radio station in Boston, WILD (1090), in 1979. I was interning 40 to 50 hours a week and eventually I was given the job as assistant music director and then music director and then assistant program director. WILD is a daytime-only AM and I said to myself, how come this Black radio station is not 24-hours? And so I guess that’s when the seed was planted that we needed a 24-hour station.

You eventually left radio, right?

I was at WILD for three years and then I got into the concert promotions business and then public safety—I was a corrections officer and then a police officer. But I’ve always had a love of music. I’ve been a mobile deejay doing weddings, proms and special events since 1979 and I still have my company called C.C. Sounds DJ & MC Services. Then in 2005 I heard this Caribbean radio station playing R&B music early in the morning and I wanted to know what this station was. And surfing the FM dial I kept hearing so many different Caribbean stations, whether it be Cape Verdean, Jamaican, Haitian, what have you, and I wondered how those stations were able to operate for 24 hours on FM and a Black station like WILD couldn’t get a 24-hour signal. So I went to intern for these stations—of course I didn’t know they were low-power stations.

When you say low-power, just so we’re clear, those were pirates in the eyes of the FCC.

Yes, they were unlicensed low-power stations. But they told me they were low-power stations and they stated to me that they didn’t need a license as long as they were 100 watts or less. It was a new phenomenon to me because I know the average radio station is thousands of watts.

Did that convince you to put your own station on the air?

I hosted the very popular overnight show on “Choice 102.9” called “The Love Train.” I played some slow jams, inspirational music, and conversations about the community and resources in the community. But after nine months we had a difference on the direction of the station because I didn’t want to be on a station where there was cussing or swearing and things of that nature and I ended up leaving for “102.1 Power.” That’s how I learned to build a radio station—what equipment was needed, how to put it together and how to find a frequency.

How did you pick a frequency?

Basically you just keep on moving up and down the FM dial until you find a dead spot and make sure you have one click to the right and one click to the left so you wouldn’t mess with that station. I ended up with 106.1 FM.

Were you worried about the FCC at all?

Why would I worry about the FCC when these other stations told me that I didn’t need a license if I was 100 watts or less? That’s why I did it; because we stayed at 100 watts.

So it seemed pretty above-board?

Yeah, until the FCC visited. I told them about the two other low-power stations that have been on for years; what they told me and what they said to me [about staying under 100 watts] was wrong. The [FCC officials] told me they had a complaint that I was interfering with airplanes and with another radio station—but there is no other station in this area. The only other station on this frequency was down on the Cape, which is miles away. I got a call from the nonprofit Prometheus Radio Project who told me that the FCC uses scare tactics such as supposed interference with airplanes and other stations.

Even if there weren’t any interference issues, the FCC says such stations are illegal.

Just because something is legal doesn’t make it right. I had to weigh the importance of this information for the community—this resource for the community—to what people might say is an unlicensed radio station. Rosa Parks sat in the front of the bus. It was illegal to do so. But she did it anyway. We’re the Rosa Parks of radio.

When the FCC showed up again, did you shut down?

When the FCC first came and said we were interfering with the airplanes and other radio stations I had my paperwork from Prometheus Radio Project that said they did an engineering survey and we did not interfere. The station was off for about 48 hours and when I got that paperwork, I realized they lied to me so we went back on the air.

Did the FCC come back?

Yeah, they came back [in April 2014] but we weren’t here and they snatched all [of our] equipment and shut the station off. It happened at 11am and by 11pm we were back online that same day. We were always online. Now you can listen to us by dialing a phone number [641-552-5309] or you can download our app.

What about that FCC fine?

They have fined me for something that I didn’t do.

Did you pay the fine?

No.

Did you get any sense that the FCC was enforcing its rules halfheartedly or did they really want to come after you?

I think because it was a 24-hour Black radio station that was positive, with no cussing and swearing, and connected the community to resources, I think that’s why we were targeted.

Did you would think that would be a reason they’d leave you alone?

If they did then they wouldn’t have done what they did.

Back to how Touch FM operates. Do you sell advertising?

Probably 70% of what I did came out of my pocket but then we did have folks who underwrote some of the shows.

When you were on FM did you consider Touch 106.1 as a competitor to commercial stations?

First of all, they play hip-hop. We play R&B. And we play no cussing or swearing and we had Black talk. When someone needed their rent paid, we would raise money to pay that person’s rent. When someone lost their child, we would put out our own alert. If a grandmother with Alzheimer’s was lost, we would find her. We would put that bulletin out over the air. When someone had a funeral and couldn’t pay for it, we would raise the money. This is what the station would do. We’d also have our elected officials on weekly to connect the community to their resources. It was all positive.

Any thought of trying to get Touch back on FM?

I have thought about that. I have sent correspondence to President Obama and my senators, Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, but they’ve told me that I don’t have enough meat on the plate for them to fight for me. Congressman Michael Capuano [D-MA] has been very helpful. He has sat down with me more than once and we are trying to get a special license. The same thing happened to another unlicensed radio station in Goldfield, NV. They were shut down but their senator, Harry Reid, fought for them and got a special license.

Would an LPFM ever interest you?

Three thousand licenses became available throughout the United States and three of them came to Boston. However you have three radio stations on one frequency [102.9 FM] and they’re sharing the 24 hours and each station is on for eight hours. There’s no room for me and once you’ve been given a fine you can never apply for a license for the rest of your life anyway.

With online listening growing, do you even need an FM signal anymore?

Our streaming audience is growing. We have 190,000 listeners per day in 100 different countries.

People have a certain image of a ‘pirate’ radio operator and you don’t fit that mold.

I don’t. I don’t have a parrot on my shoulder and a patch on my eye. But I swing the sword of truth. I have a radio station that’s meant to inspire, uplift, empower and connect the community to their resources. It’s in my DNA to do that. I’m a former Boston police officer and I’ve always been about service.

So was it all worth it?

Of course it was worth it to give the underserved community, the poor, the working class, a voice. Every ethnicity deserves a voice.