August 16, 2007 — Vol. 43, No. 1
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Community radio station aims to keep Hub in Touch

Howard Manly

The basement office of Touch FM has a handful of rooms, and all of them are cramped.

One of the radio station’s owners, Charles Muhammad, has an office that doubles as storage space. Stacks of paper cups occupy one corner. An old Lou Rawls album resides in another.

His desk is cluttered with papers and awards, most noticeably a dark gray obelisk given to him last February by none other than Mayor Thomas M. Menino, trumpeting Muhammad’s community service.

Despite the mess, he is comfortable sitting behind his desk. As a partial defense, a sticker reads, “Einstein’s desk was messy, too.”

Make no mistake, Muhammad clearly has other things on his mind. Chief among them is growing the low-powered radio station that he, John Laing Jr., owner of Laing Enterprises, and Leroy McLaurin, a former news photographer, started last November in Grove Hall.

After all, a radio station is not about the office space, but about the programming, and Touch FM is clearly rolling. The music is old school rhythm and blues, hip-hop and everything soulful in between, including reggae and rap.

The Delfonics and Blue Magic are not strangers here. Neither are Afrika Bambaataa and Kurtis Blow. And that is the way Muhammad likes it.

A disc jockey himself, Muhammad prides himself on playing music that doesn’t degrade women, use a lot of profanity or promote violence.

“It has to be 100 percent clean,” Muhammad says. “Now, because we have 40 or so different personalities that work here, everyone has different perceptions of what clean means. So I get around that by saying it has to be ‘extra clean.’”

The station is more than the music. What is turning people on is the programming. As a community station, Touch FM reflects the needs and talk of communities of color, focusing on everything from substance abuse to black history, community empowerment to financial advice.

“This is the evolution of the revolution,” Muhammad says. “We are doing the right thing, and nobody is here to speak to our community with our perspective.”

That is an understatement. With the departure of WILD-FM last year, Boston’s black community has few local options. All of that changed when Touch FM hit the airwaves nine months ago.

With a five-foot antennae perched atop a small building on Cheney Street, Muhammad says he has just under 100 watts to serve as the “fabric of the community.” It’s not much, but then again, it doesn’t have to be right now.

The 100-watt cutoff is key, because the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) requires a license if a radio station exceeds that amount of power. As a nonprofit educational entity, Muhammad says he is applying this fall to the FCC. For the first time in the last seven years, the FCC is awarding stronger signals to nonprofit, community-based radio companies.

The FCC awards are probably easier to obtain in smaller, more rural markets. In urban markets like Boston, FM signals are rare. But, as Muhammad says, “it’s still worth a try.”

To that end, Muhammad has garnered about 3,000 signatures of support for his efforts. He has talked with U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy about his plans, as well as local elected officials including City Councilor Chuck Turner, state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson, state Rep. Marie St. Fleur and others.

“In order for Touch to work, the community must be involved,” Muhammad says. “We don’t want the same thing that happened to WILD to happen to us.”

What happened to WILD was a lack of money and grassroots community support. Radio One Inc., the media conglomerate owned by Cathy Hughes, eventually sold the station for about $30 million. With virtually no signal space left on the FM dial here in Boston, it would be very difficult and expensive for a community-based organization to come up with that kind of cash to finance a deal, even if a signal came up for sale.

“It would be a minimum of $10 million,” Muhammad estimates.

But he is not discouraged. In fact, he is out in the community every day — burying the n- and b-words in Grove Hall one day, attending the Panamanian flag raising ceremony at City Hall the next.

“My partners and I are from the community,” Muhammad says. “We are residents of the community and we care passionately about the community. Our community is in a state of emergency and there is no other voice out there to serve the community.”

The creative force behind Touch is MC Spice, an old school hip-hopper. His show “Holla Back Live!” is considered to be one of the first hip-hop talk shows in the nation. And given Touch’s Internet presence through its Web site, Spice is heard all over the world.

But it’s the community that Muhammad wants, and so far, it’s been an uphill battle. To keep costs down, Muhammad says, all of the station’s employees are volunteers. In fact, the station plans to hold “rent parties” pretty soon to keep the operation afloat.

“It sounds a little ghetto, but my folks here are telling me that people are loving it,” Muhammad says.

“We are a low-powered voice of the people,” he continues. “All we are trying to do is broaden and strengthen our signal to reach as many people as we can. I know individuals in our community don’t have a lot of money. But they shop at stores or use banks and eat at restaurants. They should ask those establishments to sponsor airtime on Touch.”

If not, all the ado about the loss of WILD-FM would be just that — talk.

Charles Muhammad, one of the owners of Touch FM 106.1, gives a good neighbor award to a tenant at Mission Main housing development during last week’s national Night Out. Muhammad wants to give Boston’s African American community a stronger radio voice. To keep costs down, all of the station’s employees work free of charge. (Tony Irving photo)

The ladies of Touch FM 106.1 also played a part during last week’s national Night Out as they visited with community residents at Academy estates. Billing itself as “the fabric of the community,” Touch FM focuses on being the voice of the people. (Tony Irving photo)

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