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Left off the dial (continued)

Related links

Radio Free Brattleboro

Feisty little low-powered community radio station serving the Brattleboro, Vermont, area; fought an FCC cease-and-desist injunction and won a landmark ruling against the commission.

Portsmouth Community Radio

On the air since September 2004, WSCA 106.1-FM, of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, is one of the 590 nascent radio stations made possible by the FCC’s low-power FM service.

WDOA Online

A former pirate station shut down by the FCC in 1997, the Worcester-based WDOA still streams punk-rock shows over the Web.

Allston-Brighton Free Radio archives

The archived site for now-defunct community AM station Allston-Brighton Free Radio.

Prometheus Radio

Philadelphia-based collective of micro-radio activists who began as pirate-radio DJs, but now help barn-raise nascent LPFM stations like Portsmouth’s WSCA-FM.

DIY Media

Comprehensive independent resource and blog of micro-radio and pirate-radio links, news updates, and FCC updates.

Media Geek

Independent-media blog, radio show, and ’zine that follows micro-radio, pirate radio, and media consolidation.

FCC’s low-powered radio page

The FCC’s online clearinghouse of low-power-radio information; includes a searchable database of station applications, archived forms, and recent LPFM updates.

Making Waves

Michael Leahy’s 2004 documentary and character study of four 21st-century radio pirates.

Pump Up the Volume

In this 1990 film, Christian Slater plays a shy high-school student who uses short-wave-radio equipment to moonlight as late-night DJ Hard Harry, a pirate-radio rabble-rouser who inspires beauty queens to blow up their trophies in the microwave.

Radio Free Allston and Allston-Brighton Free Radio, Allston, 2000-’05

Perhaps the spiritual antithesis to Deacon Doug’s afternoon sermon was the April 5 edition of Sonic Overload, fortysomething Peabody resident Al Quint’s weekly online radio show. Beginning with a short, cynical bit from late comedian Bill Hicks called "Pope," the two-hour program then segued into the Butthole Surfers’ "Bar-B-Q Pope," followed by 10 minutes of howling, Holy Father–themed selections: 9 Shocks Terror’s "Remove the Pope," Nuclear Assault’s "Hang the Pope," Insult’s "The Pope’s a Fake," RPA’s "Shoot the Pope," Adrenalin OD’s "Pope on a Rope," and the Damned’s "Anti-Pope."

Sonic Overload, which debuted in March of 2000 under the name Inflammable Material, is one of the few remnants of Allston-Brighton Free Radio, an unlicensed low-power AM station that shuttered in January after five years on the air. When the station went belly-up due to insurmountable financial woes, Quint didn’t want to stop his weekly showcase of punk, hardcore, garage, and "other loud music," so he continued posting it on the Web. He’d already been streaming the show online anyway, since the listening area of AB Free Radio had barely reached Harvard Square from its headquarters in Allston. Since there are no legal low-power stations on the FM dial in the Boston area — and the illegal ones are few and far between — he didn’t have many other options.

Allston-Brighton Free Radio wasn’t technically illegal when founder Stephen Proviser first set up the AM station in 2000. Proviser, a mainstream-media refugee, had already been there, done that: in 1997, the Brookline resident started the 20-watt station Radio Free Allston 88.5-FM as an act of civil disobedience against media consolidation. "Yes, this project is illegal," wrote Proviser in an open letter to the Allston-Brighton community explaining his motivations. "Participating in RADIO FREE ALLSTON is a form of civil disobedience, but so were the Boston Tea Party and the lunch counter sit-ins down South. Some things are worth doing because they’re the right things to do." The project wasn’t covert. Proviser represented the neighborhood station at local community events; in July 1997, Radio Free Allston even received an official, notarized Boston City Council resolution of support.

"Radio Free Allston was part of a movement to get the FCC to pay attention to the movement of low-power radio," Proviser recalls. But when the FCC did pay attention, it wasn’t favorable; the commission shut down the station in October 1997, eight months after it began.

After staying off the air for three years, Proviser decided to return when he first heard about the FCC’s LPFM program in 2000. He set up Allston-Brighton Free Radio 1670-AM, which topped off at 100 milliwatts — the legal limit for unlicensed stations and a power level so negligible that few broadcasters even bother. AB Free Radio barely made it down the block; on a good day, its signal traveled a couple of miles.

Proviser’s attempt to go legit became doubly pointless when he learned there would be no LPFM licenses granted in Boston. "When clearly we were not going to get a license and no one could hear us, I upped the power," recalls Proviser, who also broadcast AB Free Radio online for a while. "It was a good illustration of how if you want to be heard, you’re compelled to break the law."

Over the course of its five-year lifespan, AB Free Radio hopscotched between AM frequencies, from 1580 to 1670 to 1630, sometimes occupying multiple frequencies at once. "I guess you could say it was a fluid organization," jokes former AB Free Radio board member Frank Bordonaro, whose spirituality show The Spiral Dance now broadcasts on Endicott College’s WNSH AM-1570.

In addition to music shows, AB Free Radio aired weekly programs about pets, senior citizens, sports, Jewish issues, children’s and mental health, personal finance, and progressive politics, plus foreign-language programming. But the listeners either weren’t there or didn’t know when something they wanted to hear would be on the air. "You have to drive people to these programs," says Proviser. "It’s very difficult when you’re doing multi-format radio because people are not used to that idea. Your work is twice that of a regular station: you’re not only going to have to get them to know that the station exists, you have to get them to know when the program is on that they would want to hear."

When Proviser left AB Free Radio in 2003, the station was in severe financial trouble. Although the DJs paid dues to keep the station afloat, there weren’t enough of them in the last few years to keep it solvent. By the end, nearly half the station’s programming was either computer-generated songs or re-broadcast shows from bigger stations like the BBC or Pacifica News. "Towards the end, it seemed rudderless," remembers Quint. "It fell into a state of disrepair." Finally out of money to pay its bills, AB Free Radio closed down in January.

But Proviser’s involvement with community radio hasn’t ended. Last year, he worked with a group in Dorchester to establish a local station; now, he’s helping kick off a small one in East Boston, in conjunction with the local youth-music program Zumix. "We’re undertaking a very intense outreach process in East Boston to get a network of people as our eyes and ears in the community to bring us news, to bring us coverage, reports, to make sure that their friends and neighbors know about the station," says Proviser, who’d also like to see the station get licensed.

But his extensive local-radio experience has taught him that audience is key. "At one time, the mere existence of these stations was an important symbol of the fight for voices," says Proviser. "At this point, it’s not. It’s old and stale and meaningless. You don’t continue unless you’re going to get people to listen."

WSCA-FM will hold a membership drive from April 16 to 23, with open houses on April 16 and 18 at WSCA’s headquarters, 909 Islington Street, in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Call (603) 430-9722 or visit www.wscafm.org. Camille Dodero can be reached at cdodero@phx.com

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Issue Date: April 15 - 21, 2005
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