Two years ago, a radio reporter from Boston’s WGBH gained access to the studios of Radio Concorde, a low-power FM radio station broadcasting in a hole-in-the-wall office building.
For a reporter to walk through the doors of Radio Concorde’s broadcast hub was unprecedented at the time — the station went to great lengths to keep its exact location a secret, with one official going as far as to deny any knowledge of the operation when questioned early on in a phone interview.
The reason for that was understandable: The station was broadcasting on a frequency that requires a government-issued license, and Radio Concorde didn’t have one.
Earlier this month, that finally caught up to Radio Concorde when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) levied a $4,000 fine against station owner Acerome Jean Charles in a crackdown on so-called “pirate” radio stations in Boston.
Prior to the settlement, Radio Concorde had been broadcasting on 106.3 FM. The frequency was unused, and Radio Concorde’s signal was barely city-grade, predominantly targeting the Mattapan neighborhood of Boston, home to hundreds of Haitian immigrants.
Then, in 2013, Bloomberg Radio came to town. Originally launched on an AM frequency, Bloomberg soon secured a low-power translator at 106.1 FM to reach certain portions of the Boston radio market that struggled to receive the AM station.
In the United States, the licensed FM radio spectrum runs from 88.1 megahertz (MHz) to 107.9 MHz. Unlike other parts of the world, radio stations in America are separated by 200 kilohertz (kHz), which is why radio stations always end with an odd number after the decimal point.
That separation, in theory, is intended to keep radio signals from interfering with each other, especially when dozens of stations are licensed to serve metropolitan areas that are in close proximity. But realistically, the separation is often not enough to keep channels from interfering with each other, especially if they’re broadcasting right next to each other on the dial and at a high degree of power.
This is what happened in Boston: After securing the FM translator at 106.1 FM, Bloomberg began receiving listener complaints that another station was interfering with their signal. That station: Radio Concorde at 106.3 FM.
Bloomberg filed a complaint with the FCC, and the agency’s field investigators started looking into the matter.
Low-power radio stations are allowed to broadcast without a license, but only at a maximum power of 100 watts — enough, the FCC says, to cover a radius of about 3.5 miles, depending on terrain and other factors.
But the FCC’s investigators found that Radio Concorde was broadcasting at a much-higher power. Exactly how much isn’t clear in documents released by the agency this month, but it was enough for regulators to charge Jean Charles with violating Section 301 of the federal Commission Act.
In late 2019, the FCC proposed a $151,000 fine against Jean Charles for operating an unlicensed radio station. Earlier this month, the agency agreed to reduce the fine to just $4,000, but as a condition of the settlement, Jean Charles was ordered to destroy all of his FM transmitters and other broadcast equipment.
The consent decree dealt a major blow to members of Boston’s Haitian community who have come to rely on Radio Concorde over the years for news and information.
“Some people, they don’t really speak English, and they are at home,” a Haitian bakery owner told WGBH Radio in 2018. “This is their life. They listen to the radio. The Haitian radio is very, very, very important in our community.”
Securing a radio license for Radio Concorde to return to the airwaves will be difficult — the FCC requires low-power stations to apply for licenses during a specific window of time, and the agency doesn’t open that window very often. When they do, it can still be a long wait between the time a station applies for a license and the time it actually goes to air — as long as 10 years by some estimates.
And the station will never be able to come back to AM or FM radio under Jean Charles’ ownership: The FCC permanently bans anyone from obtaining a broadcast license following a fine, and as a condition of the consent decree, Jean Charles cannot even broadcast an unlicensed station at low-power.
That means someone else will have to partner with Radio Concorde to bring it back to the airwaves, something that appears unlikely to happen for now.
The FCC settlement said Jean Charles can continue to operate Radio Concorde online. As of today, the station streams a limited amount of programming via its website.