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THE FALL OF THE GE BOSTON DEAL, PART II

EDITORIAL: SAVE COMMUNITY MEDIA

Cute kids love community media. Photo courtesy of Somerville Media Center.
Cute kids love community media. Photo courtesy of Somerville Media Center.

Tell the FCC That You Support Your Local Cable Access Station by Dec 14

 

December 12, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

At DigBoston, my colleagues and I put a lot of effort into working with local community media stations around Greater Boston. Because they are the heart and soul of grassroots democratic public broadcasting in the United States. And because we get so much out of hanging out with their staff and members that we just love them to pieces.

 

Somerville Media Center, Cambridge Community Television, Brookline Interactive Group, Malden Access Television, Boston Neighborhood Network, roughly 300 other stations around Massachusetts, and over 1500 nationwide provide a multitude of useful services to the cities and towns they’re based in. Perhaps better known by the older appellations “cable access stations” or “PEG (public, education, and government) access stations,” they broadcast city government meetings, public school events, and neighborhood happenings of all kinds. Something no other media institution does anywhere near as consistently.

 

In addition, many community stations allow literally anyone in their locales to walk in off the street and get trained to make media of their own—on increasingly sophisticated equipment, for cheap or even free—amounting to tens of thousands of homegrown productions of every conceivable description every year. Effectively creating the only US broadcast alternative where free speech, hard won in running legal battles all the way up to the Supreme Court, is taken very seriously. They are generally member-driven and run by small staffs of extremely committed experts. A fair number of whom were originally trained at community media stations when they were kids. As were many staffers at major media outlets to this day.

 

For all that great work, such stations require very little money to run. Federal regulation and laws enacted since the early 1970s have created a system in which cable companies like Comcast have to negotiate franchise fees with cities and towns for the privilege of laying their cables on public streets. The maximum annual franchise fee was codified in the federal Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984, 47 U.S. Code § 542 (b): “For any twelve-month period, the franchise fees paid by a cable operator with respect to any cable system shall not exceed 5 percent of such cable operator’s gross revenues derived in such period from the operation of the cable system to provide cable services.”  

 

Some of the resulting funds can then be used to run community media stations. Local governments can also negotiate for other things, too—including what are called “cable-related, in-kind contributions” like capital expenses for studio facilities and broadcasting equipment. Another important concession the cable companies have to provide local governments is the channels that the stations broadcast on. This helps the stations’ bottom line by relieving them of the cost of leasing those channels. Which does mean that cable companies lose whatever profits they might have otherwise made on those channels.

 

Together the franchise fee and the in-kind contributions provide most of each station’s annual operating budget and physical plant—and the free cable channels help keep costs low.   Though many community media stations still have to raise extra money to make ends meet every year by charging dues to members who can afford to pay, crowdfunding, and applying for grants. Like PBS or NPR on a smaller scale.

 

Unfortunately, since the original Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules mandating the establishment of such stations in many municipalities, the cable industry has been trying to eliminate them. In the interest of making even vaster profits than they already gouge from consumers. First by legal challenges culminating in the 1979 Supreme Court decision FCC v. Midwest Video Corp. that struck down the earlier cable access rules and directly resulted in the 1984 cable act as a “compromise” between community media stations and the cable industry. And later by successful lobbying campaigns to give states the sole power to negotiate franchise fees for all their cities and towns in the interest of “efficiency” (read: worse deals than many of those municipalities had been negotiating on their own). Which is how the system currently works in many states—though not, happily, in Massachusetts.

 

Further, as new monopoly telecom companies like Verizon arose (both ironically and predictably) after the government breakup of the old AT&T telephone monopoly in the 1980s, they began expanding well beyond their core telephone businesses. Seeing cable television as a growing market, they successfully lobbied for provisions in the federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 that allowed them to provide cable service as well. This caused the cable companies to bring even more political pressure to bear to end the franchise fee system as “unfair”—since the telecoms aren’t covered by the 1984 cable act and don’t have to pay the fees that support community media stations.

 

Also, the landmark global communications advance represented by the internet has further eroded the position of community media stations in some respects over that same period by providing other ways for Americans and immigrants alike to create their own media programming and reach audiences all over the world. Though usually not local audiences of the size and quality that community media stations can provide.

 

Meanwhile, the cable industry has continued to do its level best to shrink the number of community media stations with all kinds of crafty business and policy tricks. For example, Comcast’s practice of refusing to list the schedule of community media stations in its program guide—which drastically reduces the local audience for each station—makes it easier for the cable giant to make the case to get rid of the legal mandate to fund those stations through the franchise fee.

 

Now, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai—a former Verizon lobbyist who is the living embodiment of “regulatory capture” (the control of a government regulatory agency by the very industry it’s supposed to regulate) and who, it must be said, is an Obama appointee—is moving in for the kill. Fresh off his successful assault on net neutrality. Another anti-democratic communications move that virtually no one supported… except the cable and telecom industries.

 

On Sept 25, under Pai’s watch, the four FCC commissioners (three of whom are Republicans, with one seat on the five member commission remaining empty thanks to Trump administration politicking) released an official document snappily entitled the “Second Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in Implementation of Section 621(a)(1) of the Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984 as Amended by the Cable Television Consumer Protection and Competition Act of 1992, MB Docket 05-311.” Also known as the “Second FNPRM.” Or, for the purposes of this editorial, the “FNPRM.”

 

If the FCC enacts the FNPRM, cities, towns, and states (where applicable) will no longer be able to negotiate up to a 5 percent franchise fee plus the aforementioned cable-related, in-kind contributions like studios and other necessary infrastructure for community media stations. Instead those governments will be forced to allow cable companies to assign a “fair market value” to the channels it provides community stations and deduct that amount from the franchise fees that keep them going. The companies will also be allowed to catalog a wide variety of cable-related, in-kind contributions to cities and towns and deduct those from the fees, too. Including some contributions related to the stations, according to analysis by the Community Media Center of Marin in California. And it turns out that typical capital costs for community stations are only a fraction of the total in-kind contributions that cable companies historically agreed to provide to municipalities in exchange for using public rights of way for their cables. Cities and towns often have important civic buildings like schools and fire stations connected with cables and equipment provided by the companies that have been used for a variety of important purposes—including emergency services—for decades. Taking those costs off the top of the franchise fees will be significant indeed.

 

Gaithersburg, Maryland Mayor Jud Ashman gets to the crux of the problem with the possible FCC action in his recent testimony against it:

As proposed, the FNPRM’s broad definition of all “cable-related, in-kind contributions” other than PEG capital costs and build-out requirements could be interpreted as “franchise fees,” which could result in:
• Cable companies no longer paying the typical five percent franchise fees permitted by
federal law.
• Cable companies using local rights-of-way for any purpose, regardless of the terms of the franchise agreement, and avoiding paying their fair compensation to the local government for the use of funded assets in the rights-of-way.
• Significant reductions in cable franchise fees, depending on how the “fair market” value for PEG capacity and transmission is calculated within a given jurisdiction. This proposed change would result in PEG programming being drastically reduced, if not eliminated altogether in most jurisdictions.

 

In practice, community media station advocates are saying that the FNPRM will quickly result in a loss of a significant portion of annual revenue for their entire sector. Which will cause many stations to drastically reduce their services… or cease operations entirely.

 

But local government officials like Mayor Ashman are saying that the effect on cities and towns overall will be even worse than the effect on the stations. Because as my longtime colleague Fred Johnson—noted community media policy maven and documentary filmmaker—said to me in a short interview for this editorial, “This is about seizing power and treasure from the cities.”  If the FNPRM is enacted by the FCC, it will be allowing the cable companies to fundamentally devalue the use of public rights of way that have allowed them to make massive profits—by cutting into franchise fee revenue that is already far lower than it should be.

 

Incidentally, the FNPRM also doubles down on the part of the FCC rule trashing net neutrality that claims lower levels of government can’t reintroduce that reform by “prohibiting [cities, towns, and states] from using their video franchising authority to regulate the provision of most non-cable services, such as broadband Internet access service, offered over a cable system by an incumbent cable operator.” But, brevity being the soul of wit, I’ll have to address that issue another day.

 

In any case, to stop all that bad stuff from happening, DigBoston calls on our loyal audience to contact the FCC by this Friday, Dec 14, and join with thousands of other people around the country in demanding that the powerful agency do what’s best for American democracy and leave cable access franchise fees alone.

Readers can find a letter template and simple instructions for how to file your “reply comments” with the FCC on the Somerville Media Center website: somervillemedia.org/federaassaultonlocalmedia/.

 

It’s going to be an uphill fight in the current political climate. But with all of your help, community media stations can survive and thrive for decades to come. And municipalities will be much better off, too.

 

Jason Pramas is executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston.

AFTER PITTSBURGH: HOW WE DEFEAT THE HARD RIGHT

Photo by Brad Fagan (IMG_0119) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo by Brad Fagan (IMG_0119) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

 

October 31, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

In August 2017, over 40,000 Bostonians marched on Boston Common to tell a small gaggle of nearly incoherent hard-right louts that they were not welcome in our city. Especially in the wake of a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that resulted in the murder of a left-wing counterdemonstrator by a young Nazi. At the time, I was concerned that by drawing too much attention to the tiny affair, protestors risked giving the local hard right more power than they deserved—and helping them grow their numbers in the process. But I understood why so many people reacted so viscerally to it, and supported their decision to call what turned out to be one of the largest political actions of any kind in Hub history against it.

 

With Saturday’s slaughter of 11 older parishioners at a Jewish house of worship in Pittsburgh by a heavily armed, raving anti-Semite—literally screaming for the death of all Jews—we’re not precisely entering a new era. After all, we’ve seen a number of mass shootings by the same kind of white guy in the brief period since Boston’s big protest against hate. Including the killing of two African-Americans in a Louisville, Kentucky Kroger supermarket just three days before the Steel City incident. But events are starting to look increasingly similar to the dawn of an earlier era. The Nazi era. And any moderately well-educated adult that failed to hear the shattering glass of Kristallnacht in the bullet casings that hit the floor of the Tree of Life synagogue as the killer pumped lead into the bodies of innocents has learned precisely nothing from history.

 

So, I think it would have been appropriate for Bostonians from all walks of life to call an even larger rally this week than last year’s to take up an old slogan, “Never Again,” in memory of the honored dead of Pittsburgh. And to put all latter-day Nazis, fascists, and white supremacists on warning that we will not allow them to take control of Boston, or Massachusetts, or the United States.

 

However, the Red Sox won the World Series the day after the attack. Making it less likely that the kind of rally we need—a show of force that would inspire people around the nation—will happen here in this critical moment.

 

Which is a pity. Since this is one killing spree that we can absolutely blame President Donald Trump for instigating with his disgusting and completely fallacious attacks on the caravan of asylum-seeking refugees fleeing government persecution in countries like Honduras and poverty in general.

 

As Adam Serwer put it in an excellent Atlantic piece (“Trump’s Caravan Hysteria Led to This”), “The Tree of Life shooter criticized Trump for not being racist or anti-Semitic enough. But with respect to the caravan, the shooter merely followed the logic of the president and his allies: He was willing to do whatever was necessary to prevent an ‘invasion’ of Latinos planned by perfidious Jews, a treasonous attempt to seek ‘the destruction of American society and culture.’


“The apparent spark for the worst anti-Semitic massacre in American history was a racist hoax inflamed by a U.S. president seeking to help his party win a midterm election.”

 

So Trump needs to pay a political price for his propagandizing in the service of increasing the right-wing turnout on the sixth of November. And a lot of big protest rallies—perhaps galvanized by a successful Boston action—right before one of the most important elections in decades would have gone a long way toward exacting that price where it hurts him the most.

 

But it was not to be this time around. Which is OK. As there is a lot more that people of good conscience can do to deflect the rise of the hard right before they become strong enough to take more direct and long-term control of significant American political institutions… and start legally murdering their opponents in great numbers. Because if there’s one attribute that Nazis and fascists and white supremacists have in common, it’s a thirst for the blood of their many enemies. As such, they must be defeated politically—and defeated definitively—by people from across the compassionate political spectrum to forestall that possibility from ever becoming a reality. While they are still a small force relative to the population.

 

Before I continue, though, let me just lay out a couple of ideas that are important to any discussion of defeating the hard right.

 

First, the perpetrators of the recent wave of deadly attacks on African-Americans and now Jews (and other targeted groups) aren’t crazy. Sure, they have psychiatric issues. Lots of people do. But they’re generally quite clear about what they’re doing and why. And they are not lone nuts. They are soldiers. Even if they’re not members of a hard-right organization.

 

Second, the attacks these killers are carrying out are not random. Even if, as with the recent massacre, some of them seem to be done on the spur of the moment. They are part of a strategy. The killers are not generally the authors of that strategy. Hard-right leaders are. The strategy and the tactics that comprise it are laid out every day across thousands of channels of communication—most obviously social media discussions. The basic directive of the strategy is to attack “soft targets”—unarmed people who are members of groups deemed enemies by Nazis, fascists, and white supremacists. To kill as many of those people as possible. To spread fear in those enemy communities and beyond. And, most importantly, to encourage an armed response from those communities and/or their allies.

 

Allies like young left-wing activists who sometimes put on on masks and try to defend vulnerable communities. Often called “antifa” rightly or wrongly. And demonized by right-wing pundits up to and including Trump as some kind of massive army ready to undermine the very foundations of our republic. Which is purest fantasy. But absolutely a truism in current right-wing circles… be they hard or soft.

 

The goal of the strategy is to trigger a civil war. Which the hard right—being armed and trained and having infiltrated the military and many police forces for decades—fully expects to win. Once it’s won, democracy can be replaced with dictatorship. And the bloodbath they so desire can begin.

 

To stop that strategy from succeeding, the overwhelming majority of Americans and immigrant residents that are not on the hard right must out-organize them politically. And here we arrive at the work that everyone can do. Whatever walk of life you come from. Whatever your background is. Whatever age you are.

 

Study. If you don’t have a basic grounding in history and politics relevant to the fight at hand, get one. If you’re rusty, brush up. We have lots of great public libraries and bookstores in the Boston area. Use them. Look for works by academics and researchers recognized as experts in their fields. If you need suggestions, ask librarians and bookstore clerks. If you need formal instruction, and you’re not a student, enroll in courses at adult education centers and community colleges. If that’s too expensive—or as an adjunct to coursework—form study groups with friends, read key texts together, and discuss them.

 

Organize. Either start or join political groups that are committed to democracy, human rights, the rule of law, and tolerance for the broad array of political, economic, religious, social, and cultural views that don’t involve slaughtering other people. If you’re launching one in your community, and you already started a study group, you can build your organization out of that. It’s also great to start chapters of existing organizations. Definitely don’t “reinvent the wheel” unless you have to. Whether you decide to work with an existing political party or start your own is purely up to you. Political groups can do a lot of useful work outside of political parties. You can also both join or start a political party and join or start extraparliamentary political organizations. Just don’t spread yourself too thin.

 

Educate. You’ve got some knowledge. You’re doing political organizing. Now get out there and talk to as many people as you can. Hold public educational events on important issues of the day. In election years, hold candidate forums and panel discussions on referendum questions. The important thing is that you don’t just do this in neighborhoods already friendly to your core ideas. Go to places that the harder edge of the right wing is known to dominate. Talk up your positions. Spread the word that there is more than one way to think about the world. Also, work with democracy-friendly media outlets (like BINJ and DigBoston). Write opinion pieces for publication. Get on talk shows. Start your own news outlets if necessary. At least a blog and a podcast can be a great start. Use social media judiciously. Build an audience carefully, and encourage its members to join your organization.

 

Debate. This is key. Constantly engage in debate with the broad right wing. You may not exactly win hearts and minds every time. But you may very well stop run-of-the-mill conservatives from turning into hard-right fanatics. You will also learn more about their ideas in conversation than most anything you could glean from your readings. And you will learn to better express your own ideas through practice under some duress.

 

Mobilize. Defend and expand democracy through direct political action. Hold rallies, marches, and pickets against the hard right. Don’t let vulnerable communities struggle alone. Join with them. Work with them. Meet the threat of violence with determined nonviolence. Then beat politicians that support the hard right at the ballot box.

 

Build. Establish small- and large-scale institutions that enshrine democratic values and make them part of everyday life. Social clubs. Sports facilities. Cultural centers. Institutes. For the long haul.

 

In short, create the more democratic society that you want to live in. Run the hard right to ground with the force of your ideas and the people you mobilize politically. Not with guns. Make it impossible for Nazis, fascists, and white supremacists to find significant audiences for their rhetoric of hate for the foreseeable future. And you will have won.

 

We will all have won.

 

NOTE: Since this article went to press, a rally has been called for tomorrow (Thursday, November 1) at 6pm at the New England Holocaust Memorial next to Faneuil Hall. Boston Shiva: Rally Against Antisemitism and White Supremacy. Full info here: https://www.facebook.com/events/330051917546731/. Check it out!

 

Apparent Horizon—winner of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2018 Best Political Column award—is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

BOSTON FIDDLES WHILE THE WORLD BURNS

City government continues issuing reports while UN calls for immediate action

 

October 24, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

When writing about human-induced global warming on a regular basis, it’s a good idea to pace oneself. Because it’s such a relentlessly depressing topic that highlighting it too often can backfire. Faced with an existential threat of such magnitude that human civilization—and perhaps the human race itself—may well be doomed, people have a tendency to just tune out. Figuring that “we may indeed be doomed, but not just yet.” Which reflects a serious misunderstanding of how doom works. And more importantly, neglects to factor in how the avoidance of thinking about approaching doom makes its swift arrival all the more certain. By cultivating inaction, when immediate and militant action is called for.

 

Be that as it may, there are times when journalists like myself cannot just let a notable happening pass without comment. And Mayor Marty Walsh’s global warming-related press conference of last week was certainly such a one.

 

In keeping with previous junkets on the same theme, Walsh rehearsed yet another version of the same report he’s been trotting out for the last couple of years. This time entitled “Resilient Boston Harbor.” Where the fashionable foundation buzzword “resilient” stands in for “doing the cheapest, least effective thing possible.” Since like previous versions the report:

1) doesn’t propose binding regulation to force the corporations responsible for the lion’s share of carbon emissions in Boston to do what is necessary to make the city carbon neutral by its target date of 2050

2) continues to use lower estimates for threats like sea level rise and ever-increasing air temperature rather than higher credible estimates when planning city responses, and

3) doesn’t set hard timetables for actually building the limited defensive measures it does call for… measures that basically assume that efforts to make Boston—and every significant polity on the planet—carbon-neutral will fail.

 

Most everything the city might do to achieve carbon neutrality and adapt to the negative effects of global warming—beyond generating more reports—is conveniently pushed off to a time well after the Walsh administration is likely to be out of office.

 

Worse still, the new Boston paper got released just days after a devastating new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report was published by the United Nations—which says if governments worldwide haven’t made their nations carbon-neutral by 2040, then humanity has no hope of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees celsius. Meaning that we’re on track for the far worse scenarios of 2 degrees celsius of warming and above… that IPCC report authors say will be much more destructive to multiple planetary systems than previously anticipated. Making Boston’s current plans even more inadequate than they already are.

 

In fact, the only mention of completed (or nearly completed) climate remediation efforts in the press release for the “Resilient Boston Harbor” report is a brief passage indicating that “a deployable floodwall system has been installed across the East Boston Greenway, and a section of Main Street in Charlestown is being elevated.” And most every proposed initiative in the report itself is still in the planning stages. Lots of nice drawings of all the stuff that hasn’t been built yet, though.

 

However, according to the Boston Herald, there was one bright spot the day of the mayor’s presser when “a group of East Boston residents stormed City Hall Plaza, demanding that he hear their concerns about Eversource’s proposal to put a substation near Chelsea Creek.”

 

It seems that the local environmental justice group GreenRoots has been trying to meet with Walsh for about a year to attempt to stop regional power utility Eversource Energy from building the structure. To no avail.

 

A petition to Walsh being circulated by the group on Change.org on the matter makes it clear why: The high-voltage substation is slated to be built in an area around Chelsea Creek (a.k.a. Chelsea River) that’s flooding more and more frequently because of global warming-induced sea level rise. When Hurricane Sandy hit New York City in 2012, a similar station was flooded—causing it to explode and burn. A bad enough outcome in the best of circumstances.

 

But the Chelsea Creek substation will be located very close to storage tanks holding over eight million gallons of jet fuel for nearby Logan Airport. Should those be ignited by such an explosion, the effect on surrounding neighborhoods would be catastrophic. In both human and environmental terms.

 

The GreenRoots petition concludes: “We find it odd that your office has pushed for many sustainability initiatives concerning the Creek when this project isn’t compatible with this vision.” The initiatives include measures meant to reduce flooding from sea level rise on Chelsea Creek by “connecting high points near Boardman Street and Eagle Street,” according to the city’s 2016 Climate Ready Boston report. Although that is not mentioned in the latest report.

 

The Herald reported that Walsh’s office responded with a brief statement: “‘The substation in East Boston will better support East Boston’s growing population and facilities, including the city’s investments in a new police station, ambulance bay and a public works facility,’ adding that the city worked with Eversource to choose the site.”

 

The mayor has not yet agreed to meet with GreenRoots. Yet he really should. Because how is the public supposed to take any of his administration’s global warming remediation initiatives seriously when he’s still playing politics as usual with a major energy distribution corporation for a project that could have profound negative environmental effects?

 

“The city worked with Eversource to choose the site,” the city statement says. Lovely. But how much did it work with the East Boston community? And the grassroots environmental advocacy group working there and in neighboring Chelsea? Beyond the dog-and-pony shows necessary to put the barest sheen of democracy on the “Climate Ready Boston” process of which the “Resilient Boston Harbor” report is part? Not much at all, apparently. Basically Eversource wants the substation at Chelsea Creek. And it’s going to get what it wants in the current corporate-dominated political moment.

 

If Walsh is willing to kowtow to that big company on an issue of such serious environmental import, then why should anyone expect him to put the kind of political pressure necessary on other major Boston-area corporations that will be needed to make the city carbon-neutral and better prepared for global warming-induced disaster by 2050? Let alone 2040.

 

This is the guy who never saw a huge city government giveaway to major companies like General Electric during his tenure in office that he wouldn’t support. What could possibly make him change his modus operandi for conducting business as usual? Which is “give the corporations whatever they ask for—big tax breaks, free services, and public funds—and try to get a few crumbs for working families around the edges of any ‘deals’ thus cut.”

 

The obvious answer is that concerted grassroots political action will be required to pressure Walsh and politicians like him the world over to do the right thing consistently on the global warming front. Which is a herculean task, if attempted in one go.

 

But rather than take on the world’s global warming emergency all at once, Boston-area readers can send a message to Walsh that the old politics will not stand if he wants to remain in the mayor’s office—by signing the GreenRoots petition and getting involved in the fight to stop the Eversource substation from being built in environmentally sensitive Chelsea Creek.

 

Then folks can plug into the growing number of local battles to bring environmentally destructive natural gas utilities like National Grid and Columbia Gas to heel.

 

And along the way, a political movement may coalesce that can force Boston city government to take stronger long-term action to stop all activities that add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere—while saving the city from global warming-induced sea level rise and the many other deleterious effects of climate change that have already begun at our current 1 degree celsius average air temperature increase planetwide since the dawn of the industrial era.

 

But human society had best not take too long with such activist baby steps. Because the IPCC report is quite clear: If we have not taken giant leaps toward global carbon neutrality by 2030—only 12 years from now—then there will be no hope of stopping warming at the Paris Climate Agreement’s “aspirational target” of 1.5 degrees celsius by 2040.

 

If we can’t do that, then cities like Boston will have bigger crises to worry about than “just” accelerating sea level rise and ever-higher average air temperature. We will have stepped off the ecological precipice… and our doom will be upon us.

 

Apparent Horizon—winner of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2018 Best Political Column award—is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

MAINE EVENT: PAGU MAKES A SUPER FINE LOBSTER ROLL

PAGU black lobster roll. Photo by Jason Pramas.
Photo by Jason Pramas

 

October 18, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

People all over the US labor under many misapprehensions about the Boston area—to the extent they think about us at all. One of the worst of these is the idea that lobster rolls are a local delicacy. Or that Bostonians eat them all the time. Or that we have lots of joints that specialize in their production.

 

This is not, of course, the case. It’s certainly true that lobster rolls are a regional speciality, found all over New England. But they’re really a Maine thing. So, it’s not particularly easy to find a really good lobster roll in or around the Hub. Not to say that there aren’t several places that do a nice job with the old standby and a few spots that even specialize in it.

 

So it was with some surprise that I found a great lobster roll at PAGU—a fairly upscale Cambridge establishment at which I recently chose to celebrate a special occasion.

 

Because, heretofore, I’ve been something of a purist when it comes to the crustacean creation in question. The roll has to be a split-top hot dog roll. White bread, naturally. I allow for either of the two traditional condiments: melted butter or mayonnaise. But nothing else. And the lobster itself has to be as fresh as possible. Having had rolls featuring lobster that had literally just come off a boat, I can’t accept frozen product or meat more than a day out of the ocean. It should be lightly boiled or steamed by an expert hand so it has that all-important snap when you bite into it. If it’s chewy at all, it’s not going to make a good roll.

 

I had already heard about PAGU’s version long since. It, and chef owner Tracy Chang, have hardly lacked for write-ups. Which is why I knew it was notable for its black roll. And figured, “What the heck, I might as well try it.” Very glad I did. It was super fine. The roll was made with squid ink and sake, and just tasted like really light savory bread—which it was. Instead of mayo or butter, the lobster was dressed with pear, avocado, and an unusual soy aioli. Giving it a really bright flavor without adding unnecessary and distracting acidity. And the meat had that perfect snap.

 

Some might consider the portion small for the $23 PAGU was charging the day of my visit. But I think of the eatery’s offering as a more traditional-sized roll. Like the ones I very occasionally got to enjoy on trips to the Pine Tree State in my childhood. Before the fad for “overstuffed” sandwiches took hold. With the house-made chips it’s served with, it’s solid light supper for the average person. I certainly didn’t feel ripped off, or that I was in need of more lobster when I was finished. And its price point is comparable to other rolls around town. So check it out some evening soon. Sit at the bar, as I did—obviating the need for a reservation—order a roll, let friendly and knowledgeable mixologists like Andy and Veronica take care of your libations, and reflect that the old ways of doing things are not forever the best ways.

 

PAGU. 310 MASS. AVE., CAMBRIDGE. GOPAGU.COM.