by Chris Brizzard
For small non-commercial radio stations across the country, the ability to stream programs on the Internet is indispensable. Instead of being limited to the wattage granted to them by the FCC, streaming on-line allows stations to reach listeners all over the world.
“We have about 5,000 unique listeners who tune in to our stream every month,” says Harrison Chastang, news director at KPOO. “[KPOO] is instrumental to the African American community. Having a radio station is key to communicating to people who want to find out what’s happening out there.”
But thanks to a recent ruling by the Copyright Royalty Board (CRB), finding out what’s happening out there may become a lot harder in the very near future. The issue centers around the streaming of music on-line, and the royalty fees that radio stations must pay for the music they play.
In March of 2007, in a decision that caught many stations off guard, the CRB set new rates for streaming, effective July 15, that struck most as unreasonably high. “There was an uproar from just about everyone who streams music on-line, from big players such as AOL and Clear Channel to community stations like KPFA, down to folks streaming music from their bedroom,” said Michael Manoochehri, website director at KPFA.
And an uproar there has been. “Commercial streams to non-commercial folks like us were really just broadsided by it,” said Harrison Chastang of KPOO. “As soon as we found out about this, we hustled off a letter to Nancy Pelosi, Barbara Lee, Dianne Feinstein, Barbara Boxer and members of the Congressional Black Caucus.” Dianne Feinstein, in particular, has a special relationship with KPOO because the station used to broadcast the Board of Supervisors’ meetings live in their entirety before they began airing on cable. No other station can say that.
In fact, this uproar has reached the halls of Congress itself. The Internet Radio Equality Act, recently introduced to the Senate by Ron Wyden, Democrat-Oregon, and Sam Brownback, Republican-Kansas, seeks to nullify the March 2007 decision by the CRB. “I can’t think of anything, from my political perspective, that I would even halfway support if Sen. Brownback is supporting it, but the fact that he and this moderate Democrat are working together on this shows you just how far across the board support is for streaming radio,” Chastang said.
If the Internet Radio Equality Act fails and the CRB decision stands, what will happen to stations like KPOO and KPFA? The first thing that comes to mind is the cost, and the way the new rates are set up, they’re going to hit hard. For example, KPOO currently pays a maximum of $500 per year in royalty fees. But that will seem like a drop in the bucket compared to the new rates. “It’ll be in the six figures,” said Chastang.
Then there is the labor involved in tallying what songs are played. “In terrestrial radio, stations are not asked to identify exactly how many listeners there are and pay accordingly. However, that is what the CRB is asking us to do. At KPFA, we have folks like myself who can provide the know-how to count up these numbers. But the labor involved is substantial. Who in non-profit radio has the extra funds available to hire extra help just to pay the licensing companies?” said Manoochehri of KPFA.
For smaller stations like KPOO, where resources are stretched even thinner, documenting what songs are played becomes an almost impossible task. Part of the reason is stylistic. “Some people just walk in and start playing records. They don’t keep a playlist,” Chastang said. When asked how the station will deal with this new chore, Chastang said, “We won’t. Because it’ll be just too expensive to do it.”
Yet another adverse effect involves the creation of new shows. “We have looked into new on-line stream services, such as an ‘All Jazz’ music stream, or an ‘All World Music’ stream,” said Manoochehri. “But since we are right up against the listener cap, each of those would cost us the commercial rate to provide. So this new ruling will impact our ability to provide new, innovative public services for our listeners, which goes against our mission.”
And of course, there is always the worst-case scenario. “If it goes ahead, we’ll have to shut down our stream,” said Chastang. Multiply this by the number of small streams across the country that will have to shut down, and a dim picture emerges. Gone are the musical niches that currently proliferate on the web. Gone is the diversity that many have come to depend on.
Gone too is another important function of streaming-artist promotion. Contrary to the standard view put forth by the CRB, that Internet radio providers are not paying enough money to the record labels in support of their artists, streaming on the Internet allows independent artists to promote themselves without the need for a middleman, i.e. a big recording label. Since the rise of digital technology, those recording labels have been clamoring for ways to get back in the game, and for some, that is what the issue is all about.
“In the last 10 or 15 years, they have lost a lot of traditional sources of revenue with the new technology,” Chastang said. “This is just a naked power grab by the recording industry.”
Don’t forget though that the voice of the people has been paramount in this struggle. It was through writing and/or calling their elected officials and voicing their concerns that the Internet Radio Equality Act was born. And to ensure that it succeeds, those in Congress need to hear from each one of us expressing our support for the act.
Find out who your Congressional representatives are by looking on the Internet (savenetradio.org is a good place to start) or calling the Capitol Switchboard at (202) 224-3121 and let your voice be heard. (For Californians, contact Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer and, if you’re in San Francisco, Rep. Nancy Pelosi.)
Don’t let inaction result in the loss of the beacons of diversity that on-line streams represent!
Chris Brizzard is a graduate student in journalism at New College and an intern at the Bay View. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.