Radio Free Haiti

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Every evening, a handful of Haitian radio stations based in Flatbush ignite the airwaves with the mellifluous tones of Creole and French, the rhythms of compa music and passionate debates about Haitian and New York politics. For the price of a shortwave radio, about $30, Haitian immigrants can stay up to date on the tools they need to survive in the city, from immigration policies to housing law.

These sounds are not nearly what they were just a year ago, however, when more than 20 stations, most of them lacking legal permits, crowded the FM bands in Brooklyn. Last summer, the Federal Communications Commission shut down most of those pirate stations and scared the rest off the airwaves. The crackdown coincided with the stunning defeat in Congress of former FCC Chairman William Kennard’s proposal to allow up to a thousand low-power stations onto the radio. With permits to operate a station on the FM dial costing tens of millions of dollars, members of the Haitian community are desperate to find alternatives.

This spring, they learned there’s too much at stake not to.

In April, immigrants and their advocates were desperately trying to spread details of a federal rule that would have allowed more than half a million undocumented immigrants across the country to stay in the U.S. while applying for legal residency. The law was scheduled to sunset at the end of the month, and a return home for these immigrants often means they are barred from America for years.

Jean Michel, executive director of Chay Pa Lou (“The Load Is Not Heavy”), an immigration rights organization, believes thousands of Haitians did not apply because they had inadequate information about the process. “Because the pirates were not on the air anymore, the information just could not get out,” he says. “The radio is really important in our community, because most people listen to radio.” With a high illiteracy rate, he adds, “They don’t read newspapers.”

Flatbush Congressman Major Owens is considering using a Haitian pirate station as a test case against the FCC’s tactics, but Beltway insiders express little faith that Michael Powell, the new deregulation-friendly FCC chief, will revive Kennard’s proposal. “I have serious questions about the constitutionality of the FCC’s regulations in terms of free speech,” says Owens. “People like the Haitians, whose stations are only in Creole, end up with almost nothing.”

Meanwhile, the surviving stations continue to broadcast on subfrequencies that can be picked up only on shortwave radios. All day at Radio Lakay–which was a pirate station until February, when five businessmen chipped in to buy a sub-frequency permit for several thousand dollars a month–people walk into the cramped second-floor office on Church Avenue to buy these radios. On a recent Saturday afternoon, Laguerre “Tom Malé” Lamour, the station’s programming director, helped sell the brightly colored boom boxes. He is certainly well aware of the problems. As he thanked a customer, he admitted with a laugh, “You cannot fight the FCC.”