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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Don’t Silence the Sounds of Freedom on Internet Radio

Last year, I discovered that I didn’t have to listen to the mindless corporate radio stations. On the Internet, there were thousands of radio stations that didn’t endlessly broadcast Creed and Britney Spears, but offered an infinite variety of genres and artists from all over the world.

I hear live broadcasts from discotheques in London, jazz artists in Seattle and folk musicians in Kentucky. It is as if a whole new world of music is suddenly open, waiting to be explored.

But all this might end soon because the recording industry’s greed threatens to overshadow the shining the promise of digital freedom. Unfortunately, it may be back to Creed – my own prison of greedy corporate schlock.

On May 1, all of my favorite Internet radio stations went silent in protest of a proposed new royalty rate that would kill thousands of Internet radio stations. If accepted, the rate would be seven times higher than royalty rates that land-based radio stations pay songwriters for the same performances of the same works.

The radio controversy began on Feb. 20, when the U.S. Copyright Arbitration Royalty Panel recommended that Internet-only Webcasters pay the recording industry $1.40 for every 1,000 listeners who hear a particular song (retroactively through October 1998).

Terrestrial radio stations that simultaneously stream their broadcasts would pay half as much – 70 cents per 1,000 listeners per song. Who’s behind all of this? Why, it’s our Napster-hating friends at the Recording Industry Association of America!

In the late 1990s, Congress bought the association’s argument that Internet radio stations should pay to record companies fees that traditional radio stations pay. The reasoning for the additional fees was the only recording you’ll get from a substandard broadcast is a substandard recording.

The effect of additional royalties to record companies will be that thousands of radio stations will be forced off the air. The ones that stick around will be forced to become much more commercial, broadcasting music that record companies want them to play (as traditional radio stations already do), thus killing the esoteric beauty of Internet broadcasting – the ability to hear unknown artists, many of whom have not been signed to record labels.

The Internet radio industry is still very young, and its audience is as yet too small to interest advertisers, so Webcasters have seen very little revenue. Even with the small amount of revenue Internet radio stations amass, these fees will bankrupt the vast majority of them.

While there are tremendous startup costs associated with starting a traditional radio station, almost anyone with a computer can start an Internet radio station. But that freedom could be undermined by outrageous royalty fees to record companies.

For example, a mid-size, independent Webcaster (imagine two or three people working out of an apartment or a dorm room) that has had an average audience of 1,000 listeners for the past three years would receive a bill for retroactive royalties (which will come due 45 days after the royalty rate is approved) that would be in the neighborhood of $525,600.

Even Arthur Andersen couldn’t hide that kind of debt. Even so, it seems that the Enron-size greed of the recording industry just may silence the freedom now enjoyed on the Internet.

In a recent joint letter, 20 members of the House of Representatives wrote the librarian of Congress attempting to clarify that the legislative intent of the statutory royalty rate was to encourage diversity and growth of Internet radio, not to shut it down. The librarian of Congress has until May 21 to accept, modify or set aside the arbitration panel’s recommended royalty rate.

Let’s hope that greed does not silence the sound of freedom.

By Mike Pope

Knight Ridder Newspapers


Mike Pope is the letters editor of the Tallahassee Democrat. Readers may write to him at the Tallahassee Democrat, 277 North Magnolia Drive, Tallahassee, Fla. 32301-2695, or via e-mail at mpope(AT)taldem.com.