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One radio station, two communities

Cape Verdeans, Haitians broadcast concerns and hot sounds

Email|Print| Text size + By Milton J. Valencia
Globe Staff / January 6, 2008

BROCKTON - The dance-hall rhythm of steel drums and bass that pounds the radio airwaves these days in Brockton emanates from a dimly-lit office building in the city's Montello section. The studio's computers are secondhand, and the only sound proofing is an old door. But the makeshift accommodations don't matter, because the music is good, and it seems everyone is listening.

Haitians call the sound "compas," and Cape Verdeans know it as "zouk." Whatever the label, the small radio station seems to have channeled a sense of camaraderie between two of the largest immigrant groups in the Brockton area.

"This is why, through music, we understand each other," said Djovany Pierre, the owner of Brockton Heat, on 96.5 FM.

The unlikely collaboration between Haitians and Cape Verdeans has created the hottest radio in the city. Brockton Heat is a low-powered radio station that began broadcasting about a year ago and is still seeking an operating license from the Federal Communications Commission; an application was filed in October. And yet its popularity has already catapulted it from an Internet stream to a recognized voice of authority in this melting pot of a city.

Young DJs play hip music that keeps people listening. Interjected among the songs are announcements on health issues, job opportunities, religion, and community programs. The programs are what you'd see on a community cable chan nel, but the sounds of compas and zouk offer a special draw.

Pierre, who emigrated from Haiti 25 years ago, said he saw the need for a community radio station for both his people and Cape Verdeans. They share the same issues of immigration, deportation, jobs, and health issues, he said.

"We just get together to be heard and to communicate," he said. "Basically, the story is the Cape Verdean community and the Haitian community finally got a whole voice."

Last summer, when the station first started broadcasting, hosts started speaking against the violence that rocked Brockton. In one week, a Cape Verdean and a Haitian man were shot in separate incidents. The radio station sent a message of unity and peace to both communities, Pierre said.

"It's immigrant groups coming together to do things one immigrant group couldn't do by itself," said Moises Rodrigues, an aide to Mayor James Harrington and a leader in the Cape Verdean community.

The use of low-powered radio stations, known as pirate stations, has been popular for decades. It began as a tool that allowed the urban disenfranchised to speak out and grew popular during wartime as a medium for dissent.

Over time, community groups have come to use the airwaves to broadcast their own public education programs, said Michael C. Keith, a Boston College professor and author on the history of American radio.

"Many of these stations go on because they feel their interests are not being served by the major radio stations," he said. "They can't hear music they want to hear; they can't hear programs they want to hear."

Major radio stations have long criticized their low-powered, unlicensed competitors for unlawfully infringing on their radio bands. In Brockton last year, a pirate radio broadcast out of a three-decker house was cited by federal authorities for interfering with traffic control airwaves at Logan Airport in Boston. The equipment was seized.

Keith said the FCC has loosened licensing guidelines so that low-powered stations can serve a community purpose with local programming. But still the application procedure is strict and too expensive for many community groups. In the meantime, stations continue to sprout, unlicensed, throughout the country, particularly in the Boston area. They call themselves "Free Radio," or "People's radio."

"It's local coverage on community issues," Keith said. "In this case, local Cape Verdeans and Haitians probably find no other place they can find any information or cultural information."

Indeed, the station has been trying to cater specifically to the Haitian and Cape Verdean communities, citing their African roots and their love for the music as the common thread that draws them to 96.5 FM.

A pastor speaks on the air daily from 7 to 8 a.m. And, in the afternoon, an outreach worker from Brockton Neighborhood Health Center discusses health issues of the day, in Cape Verdean Creole.

"There are lots of things that bring these people together, and the radio station is one of them," said Adriano Cabral, an outreach worker at the health center and a producer at Brockton Heat. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, he has a radio program from 4 to 5 p.m. that discusses healthcare reform, illnesses, and insurance policies.

Cabral's program is in Cape Verdean Creole, but producers hope to have someone speaking Haitian Creole during a different segment. The health center does have a Haitian outreach worker.

"This is the radio the community listens to," Cabral said. "The radio addresses the cultural issues, which is the barrier the minority community has."

The neighborhood health center, along with other agencies in Brockton, offers programs in Asian languages and in Spanish. But it's the unity between the Cape Verdeans and Haitians that is drawing the most attention. Their love for the music, observers say, has united them.

"We don't really fit in the Brockton system," said Pierre, the station owner.

"Regular mainstream broadcasts don't understand us. Our music is not even recognized in the mainstream media."

Milton J. Valencia can be reached at valencia@globe.com.

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