Michael Costa spoke to The Public’s Radio reporter Alex Nunes about local media and the lack of diverse voices at a time when race is front and center in America.



COSTA: No offense, Alex, but you can't relate to my struggle. There's no way. If we sat here and we talked about what I've went through in my 42 years of being alive, you'd be like, “Holy crap, how are you even alive?” I’ll give you an example. When I'm pulled over, I'm scared to death. I'm literally calling my sister. I used to call my mother when she was alive. But I'll call my sister and say, “Hey, Leah, I'm pulled over.” And you know what she says to me: “Just don't make a sudden move. Are your lights turned on? Is your seatbelt on? Is your engine turned off? Just don't say anything smart.” Have you ever had that problem where you felt like you were going to die just by getting pulled over, and it could be for anything random? 

NUNES: No. I'm kind of embarrassed saying this, but my wife has told me to mouth off less to cops.

COSTA: [Laughs] You know what? Here comes the most respectful DJ Rukiz—Michael Costa—you could ever meet in your entire life when I'm pulled over. There's a lot of “sirs,” there's a lot of like, “Whatever I could do.” My heart is beating out of my chest. And it could be just a traffic stop. My lights could be out. So when someone who reports daily things in life—in real life—if they can't relate to how scared I am when it comes to being pulled over, there's no way I'm going to pay attention to them. They're not actually realistic to me.

NUNES: Police violence is something that you've lived through. It's a lived experience for you.

COSTA: One hundred percent. [In] 2010, I was outside of a club that I I just had gotten done DJing in. What I do after the club [gets out], I talk to all the patrons and get them to get in their car and go home, or go to wherever they're going to go to. And I actually was helping one girl who had gotten into a fight get into the car, because she was a little bit agitated. So I wanted to calm her down, and I'm talking to her. But as I'm talking to her, two officers approached me and they say, “Hey, why don't you get the fuck out of here?” So I'm looking at them. I'm like: Listen, I'm trying to help you out on top of I'm not gonna be talked to like that. There's no way I'm gonna let you talk to me like that. So as I'm walking away, I'm letting them know that I'm going to report them in the morning. But they didn't want to accept that. So, as I'm walking away, they grabbed me, throw me on top of a police enforcement car, then threw me on the ground and handcuff me, then mace me. And then another cop came out of nowhere. She hit me in the mouth with a flashlight and broke three of my teeth. And George Floyd’s situation reminded me of that moment.

NUNES: So you have a radio station right now that's online. Do people talk about this?

COSTA: Yeah. So, we actually have a program on there called “Let's talk.” And what it is, is basically—the community—I let them call in. Our motto here is “The radio station you can see, hear and feel,” because I let you see what's going on in this radio station by having cameras all around the radio station. I let you hear what's going on. And I want you to feel it, because I am going to be in the community. I am going to walk the same streets you walk on, be in the same places that you're at, and I'm gonna make sure that you can speak to me.

NUNES: I called around to see if I could find out how many black media companies there were in Rhode Island. I found one person who runs a news website, TheProvAmNews, and I talked to the publisher there. And he said he wasn't aware of anyone other than him who was out there. Yet, in Rhode Island, there's a significant black population. How do we have a large group of African American people but not have more media than that?

COSTA: I think that has to do with the hiring process of a lot of the other media companies, and I also think it has to do with the fact that the kid that is looking for that role model, and he actually can't find it.

NUNES: You told me previously that you think that a lot of media companies exploit black people. What did you mean by that?

COSTA: They appropriate our culture. And and I say that because they're quick to do a concert and make sure that they grab money for tickets and all these other things that they do with a concert: t-shirts, tickets, merchandise. And they're quick to put on the concert, but not give back to the community that comes to the concert.

NUNES: A radio station will be quick to appropriate black culture, make money off of it, but then not give back to the community.

COSTA: One hundred percent. There’s no pointing any other way. That's the only way it's been. And I'll give you the greatest example is they used to do 95.5 [FM]. Brown University owned 95.5. I don't know if you're familiar with it, but they did indie rock and a lot of alternative rock on that station. They did that six days a week. The seventh day was Sunday. That's when they gave it to black people. The ratings for 95.5 on Sunday were huge. The problem with that is I felt like they’ve given what they felt like giving to us for a timeframe. And to me that just shows the racism in Rhode Island. It just shows how much they don't want our voices heard, but they don't mind playing our music. But they don't want our voices heard.

NUNES: You've had an application before the FCC for over 10 years now?

COSTA: Yes. 

NUNES: For low FM?

COSTA: So, I put an application in 2009. I put in the application because I knew that's where I wanted to go. That was ignored. I think I've probably called 30 to 40 times and there's nothing open, is what they say; there's no stations open. Then we did it again this year, because I feel like there's a ceiling and I want to break the ceiling. So I put in a brand new application and it's been the same thing.

NUNES: Ignored? 

COSTA: Ignored. 

NUNES: What's your ultimate dream in terms of what you think you can accomplish, if you have your own broadcast station?

COSTA: I think I would 100 percent be able to uplift black businesses. I think we'll be able to talk to our youth and speak to them. We'll be able to get some people in here that could actually have employment. I think letting people know where jobs are at. We'd be the right people to have a radio station that would help the community grow and progress and elevate. We need some elevation—and uplift. One big thing in the black community is mental health and we need to speak about it. We don't speak about that.

NUNES: What could people do to help you make that a reality?

COSTA: We need a good engineer to check this radio station out and see what it's missing. Someone who’s got some good advice about the FCC license and/or helping with the financial aspect of it would be great. But I’ll take the other two before I take the financial.

NUNES: Michael Costa, aka DJ Rukiz, thanks very much for speaking with me.

COSTA: Alex, thank you.

Alex Nunes can be reached at anunes@thepublicsradio.org.