"Pirate radio" in 2017 takes many forms, but here's one: a north Miami couple hosting a transmitter in their backyard shed while a DJ's signal is piped in over the Internet and promoted on Facebook—even after multiple warnings from the government and a gear seizure by the US Marshals. Oh—did I mention the $144,344 fine? Not that anyone's likely to pay it.
Welcome to 90.1 MHz, "Radio Touche Douce," a Haitian music station appearing to be so obviously illegal that it even has the ability to unite the current fractious set of FCC commissioners. It's not even a secret; as the Miami Herald notes, the station is "the pulse of the Haitian music industry in Miami, organizing some of the most popular big-ticket parties while promoting bands and guiding konpa music fans to the next hit." But that doesn't mean it has been easy to shut down.
Here, in statements pulled right from FCC documents, is the story of how Radio Touche Douce has operated for years right under the nose of government investigators—and how the FCC has now upped the ante.
(If you want to see a map of all "pirate radio" warnings issued by the agency between 2003 and 2017, you can; the vast majority are in New York, New Jersey, Florida, and California.)
Radio Touche Douce
Our story begins at the residence of Harold and Veronise Sido, where in 2012 FCC field agents in Miami used direction-finding gear to locate a strong illicit signal emanating from the couple's backyard shed.
The agents consulted the Commission’s records and confirmed that no authorization had been issued for the operation of an FM broadcast station at or near that residence. The agents issued a NOUO [Notice of Unauthorized Operation] to the Sidos directing them to “immediately discontinue” operating the unlicensed radio station on 90.1 MHz, and warning that continued unlicensed operation could result in additional enforcement action.
But the broadcasts were picked up again on May 9, June 13, and July 3, 2012. So the FCC moved to seize the offending gear, and two days later it obtained the help of US Marshals.
As a result of those observations, the US Marshals Service executed an in rem warrant at the Sido residence on July 5, 2012, seizing the radio equipment used for the unauthorized transmissions located in a shed in the Sidos’ backyard. Agents from the Commission’s Miami Office who accompanied the US Marshals observed a laptop computer in the shed with an audio play list with "Radio Touche Douce" in the name. They also observed computer file folders with MP3 files with the name "Paz." The Miami agents have determined that Mr. [Fabrice] Polynice refers to his unauthorized station as “Radio Touche Douce” and refers to himself as “Paz" during the illegal broadcasts.
The DJ, Polynice, was fined $25,000 in 2013. He didn't pay it—and he apparently didn't stop the broadcasts. The FCC went back to the Sido residence again in 2015, and agents again detected the signal.
The agents interviewed both Mr. Sido and Mrs. Sido and orally warned them of the unlicensed operation. Mrs. Sido initially denied the radio station was there, but then admitted the station’s antenna and structure were in the Sidos’ backyard. She also acknowledged that the station had been there before, and advised that it belonged to someone named “Paz.”
In the backyard, the agents observed a coaxial cable running from the antenna to the bottom of the antenna structure and then buried in the ground. The agents also observed what appeared to be an AC power line running from the shed to the Sido residence. The shed from which radio station equipment was seized during the 2012 in rem seizure was still located in the backyard.
An agent heard what sounded like electrical equipment hum coming from inside the shed. The agents mentioned this fact to Mr. Sido and Mrs. Sido. About two minutes later, the sound ceased and the agents used a portable FM radio to determine that the carrier signal on 90.1 MHz was no longer transmitting.
This was certainly suspicious. So FCC agents did a bit of snooping in a Super-Top Secret Government Research Database called "Facebook."
One Radio Touche Douce Facebook page identifies Mr. Polynice as the owner of Radio Touche Douce. Another Radio Touche Douce Facebook page includes Mr. Polynice’s picture and encourages people to tune in to “RadioToucheDouce 90.1 FM” in Miami.
Moreover, in September 2014, Mr. Sido posted a video on his Facebook page showing him with Mr. Polynice at the station’s studio as Mr. Polynice is talking into a microphone in the background. Mr. Sido reposted that video to his Facebook page in December 2016, which provides further evidence that Mr. Sido is aware of Mr. Polynice’s radio programming, that Mr. Sido was present during the course of such use and operation, and that he has a personal and/or professional relationship with Mr. Polynice.
In late 2016, the agents returned to the Sido house and again identified the radio signal.
Within ten minutes after taking the measurements, the agents knocked on the Sidos’ door to interview them. About ten minutes after the agents began knocking on the door, the Sidos answered the door. In response to the agents’ questions, both denied that a radio station was operating from their residence. The Sidos brought the agents to the backyard where the agents observed the shed, antenna mast, and antenna coaxial cable that ran down towards the ground.
When asked about the lock that the agents observed on the shed, the Sidos informed the agents that only they possess keys to the lock. Mr. Sido unlocked the shed and allowed the agents inside. The agents observed that the shed was dark, and so they could not determine whether it contained the transmitter or other radio transmitting equipment that they heard before they started the site inspection. Mr. Sido told the agents that no lights were available in the shed, claiming that there were none because of a problem with the breaker that controls power to the shed…
When the agents inquired about the nature of Sidos’ relationship with Mr. Polynice, they asserted that they had not seen him in two years. When the agents asked about the unlicensed transmitter, the Sidos alternately refused to respond or claimed that no radio transmitter had been operated on their property since the 2012 in rem seizure…
As had occurred during the August 2015 site visit, the station had been taken off the air when the agents took further field strength measurements immediately after the Sido interview ended.
A pair of document footnotes suggest that FCC agents didn't buy this explanation.
However, the video provides evidence that while the Sidos’ shed contains the equipment needed to broadcast the unauthorized station’s signal, the studio where Mr. Polynice originates its content is at another location…
The agents concluded that Mr. or Mrs. Sido turned off the equipment during the ten minutes from the time the agents first knocked on their door and when the Sidos answered it, or that Mr. Sido turned off or moved the equipment during the five or so minutes that Mrs. Sido talked to the agents before Mr. Sido presented himself at the door.
(The Miami Herald confirmed the agents' understanding of the broadcast setup, writing in its piece that the actual Radio Touche Douce studio is "located in a North Miami storefront, where the on-air programs are sometimes live-streamed over the internet.")
FCC staff at this point concluded that the Sidos were actively working with Polynice, due in part to the fact that the Sidos pay the bills.
The Sidos supply the Internet connection to the unauthorized transmitter on their property. This Internet service is necessary to carry the programming for this unauthorized station from where it originates to the radio transmitter. The bill for Internet service is in the Sidos’ name, and the Sidos pay for the Internet connection to the antenna and the transmitter.
Moreover, Mr. Sido and Mrs. Sido arranged and pay for the electrical power necessary for the station and transmitter and other equipment to operate. The bill for electrical services is in the Sidos’ name. In addition, the Sidos have an electrical breaker on the electrical circuit to the shed that allows them to halt the supply of electricity to the shed at will.
Similarly, Mr. Sido and Mrs. Sido continued to provide access to the site on which the antenna, transmitter, and coaxial cable used by the unauthorized station are located. As noted above, the agents determined on twelve occasions from 2012 to 2016, that the Sidos were providing the space for this unauthorized station.
In September 2017, the FCC hit all three individuals with a joint fine of $144,344—the highest possible amount under current law.
The targets of the investigation don't seem particularly worried, though; as the FCC noted in a recent document, Harold Sido is still hosting the allegedly incriminating video on his Facebook page. And Radio Touche Douce still has its own webpage, where it provides contact info for its DJs, sells advertising space, and tells listeners that they can hear the station on "90.1 FM."
In September, FCC Chair Ajit Pai issued a statement about the $144,344 fine and made clear his support for a continued crackdown on pirate radio.
"One week ago today was International Talk Like a Pirate Day," he said in a statement, "which is probably the only holiday that can trace its origin to a racquetball game. When the two co-founders were playing, one of them suffered an injury and screamed out 'Aaarrr!' One thing then led to another, and a day of light-hearted commemoration was born. By contrast, there’s nothing funny about pirate radio."
Commissioner Michael O'Rielly, for whom pirate radio crackdowns are a key issue, wrote, "If you believe that radio is actually a critical medium for sharing vital information, especially in times of crisis as has been noted during the recent hurricanes of Harvey, Irma and Maria, then allowing rogue individuals to potentially cause interference, effectively steal listeners and put legitimate broadcasters at risk of failing is antithetical to the Commission’s purpose."
Not that he thinks the Commission's actions will have much effect: "Instead, I suspect the perpetrators will run and hide, failing to respond at all."
Mignon Clyburn, one of the Commission's two Democrats, also supported the fine—but she asked what it was about current policy that led pirate broadcasters to operate outside the law.
"According to US Census data, there are 213,000 foreign-born Haitians living in the Miami/Fort Lauderdale area," she wrote. "This represents nearly 4 percent of the metro area population yet, research by my staff found just a single FM station serving the Haitian community of the almost 60 FM stations in south Florida. If these unlicensed operators were ever afforded the opportunity to transition to a licensed station, would they take it? Unfortunately, in most large media markets, that opportunity may never exist, both because of the lack of an available license and high financial hurdles."
Clyburn's comments were echoed by locals in Miami a few days after the FCC order. According to the Miami Herald:
Some Haitian music fans are wondering if the move, and an ongoing investigation of other South Florida pirate radio stations by the FCC, will compel the Haitian community to purchase its own FM station after years of complaining an FM radio license is too expensive.
“We need it,” said Wilky “Kikko” Saint-Hilaire, a songwriter for several konpa musicians. “This was probably the only station that played our music genre, konpa, exclusively on a daily basis.”
For now, though, the beat goes on.
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