Popular pirate radio station for Haitian music in Miami hit by hefty FCC fine

Fans of Haitian music come out to celebrate their culture and heritage during Miami's Haitian Compas Festival.
Fans of Haitian music come out to celebrate their culture and heritage during Miami's Haitian Compas Festival. Bryan Cereijo

It’s 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 Radio Touche Douce is a pirate radio station, an underground operation that the federal government is accusing of illegally broadcasting from a shed in a North Miami backyard.

Fed up with the station’s “egregious, intentional and repeated violations,” the Federal Communications Commission has hit Touche Douce — and owner Fabrice Polynice, aka DJ Paz — with a proposed $144,344 fine, the largest amount allowed under FCC regulations. Two commission officials told the Miami Herald they can’t recall the last time a station was hit so hard.

“There’s nothing funny about pirate radio, which interferes with the lawful use of the airwaves and can disrupt public safety communications,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said last week, announcing the decision against Touche Douce, which broadcasts in English and Haitian-Creole.

“The FCC won’t tolerate the unauthorized and illegal use of the radio spectrum,” Pai said. “Towards that end, I’ve made it a commission priority to crack down on pirate radio operations. And with today’s action, we again back up these words with action.”

Polynice, who has owned the station for 24 years, refused to talk about the case. Harold Sido, who own the North Miami property with the shed along with his wife, Veronise, did not respond to the Herald’s request for comment.

Polynice and the Sidos have 30 days to respond to the proposed fine.

Miami, Boston and New York lead the nation in pirate radio transmissions, with stations that boast colorful DJs, live artist interviews and even commercials. But they are illegal because their owners haven’t bought or leased the frequency or been granted a licenses to operate on the public airwaves.

All three cities boast large Caribbean populations who listen for the konpa, soca and dancehall tunes missing from mainstream radio’s play lists.

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Touche Douce, which continued to operate on the 90.1 FM frequency late Friday, features regular DJs and shows in the evenings and on weekends. Its signal comes from a backyard shed with a very “visible antenna,” according to F.C.C. Enforcement Chief Rosemary Harold, but its studio is located in a North Miami storefront, where the on-air programs are sometimes live-streamed over the internet.

Harold said she is surprised that the underground operators didn’t just stick to streaming, a way that many radio operators without licenses can broadcast legally.

In this case, she said, the commission has taken the unusual step of holding liable both Polynice and the Sidos. It is the first time in a pirate radio case that property owners are on the hook, Harold said.

“We’re not likely to go after every property owner who may be housing an antenna, especially if they don’t know about a pirate radio, but we aren’t going to let them off the scot-free, either,” she said. “It will depend on the facts.”

According to the commission’s investigation, which dates back to 2012, the Sidos allowed the station’s operator to promote and broadcast the illegal radio transmissions from their backyard, providing free access to the shed and an internet connection.

“The Sidos in this case were more than passive property owners,” Harold said. “They appear to have controlled access to the transmitter, and had the ability to turn off the transmitter. When our FCC agents came to their door, our signal-finding equipment would show that the signal went away.”

The station has had troubles. In 2013, one of its popular hosts suffered an electrical shock while fixing the antenna. The previous year, Touche Douce’s equipment was seized by the FCC and Polynice was fined $25,000, the commission report said.

Still, the report said, those actions “did not deter Mr. Polynice and the Sidos from their apparent continuing unlawful operations.”

Miami-based agents found unauthorized radio transmissions emanating from the Sido residence on at least seven occasions including as recently as December 2016, the report said. At one point, Polynice, who still hasn’t paid the $25,000 fine, broadcast from three different locations on six days, including the Sidos’ residence, it noted.

Polynice has denied that he operated an illegal radio station, the report said, though agents noted that in 2015 he admitted that he was “DJ Paz” and had developed the Radio Touche Douce brand. The Sidos also denied knowing Polynice and denied knowing that the station was illegally broadcasting its signal from their backyard.

During one visit to the Sidos’ shed, FCC agents, accompanied by U.S. Marshals, observed a laptop computer inside with an audio play list labeled “Radio Touche Douce” and MP3 computer file folders with the name “Paz.” They also observed cables and an antenna and “what appeared to be an AC power line running from the shed to the Sido residence.”

Investigators connected the couple to Polynice by scouring social media. They found a video Harold Sido posted on his Facebook page showing him in the studio during one of the illegal broadcasts. On Touche Douce’s own Facebook page, they saw Polynice was identified as the owner of Radio Touche Douce.

Like many of today’s konpa bands, Touche Douce’s popularity has grown with the expansion of northeast Miami-Dade County’s Haitian-American community. The name translates into “Smooth Touch.”

The news of the crackdown has sent shock waves through the Haitian music industry and Miami, where Paz is described by industry insiders as a penny-pinching promoter whose annual October fetes celebrating Touche Douce’s founding have easily drawn as many as 800 party-goers.

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.”

Saint-Hilaire said the FCC action, while understandable, comes as a huge blow because Touche Douce was “a real backbone in promoting our music.”