Community Broadcaster: Against the Stream

A Yale case reminds us copyright is crucial
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A Yale case reminds us copyright is crucial

Streaming is the way of the present for radio, but it remains an area of intense regulation and specificity when it comes to how you do it.

Yale University’s online radio station made news this month when it suspended operations after finding out it had long been streaming its music without the proper licensure. Agreements between broadcasters and webcasters and performance rights organizations like ASCAP, BMI and SESAC to establish remuneration of copyright holders have long been in place through the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 and other measures.


The Yale free-form outlet, WBYCx, has reportedly been streaming without paying the fees expected for such since about 2008.

Right now, the organization must tackle ensuring it is in compliance as well as address costs associated with past copyright violations. The Yale News says that Harvard University’s radio station paid over $9,000 in licensing fees in 2015 alone.

What this issue costs WBYCx remains to be seen — Yale’s radio is solely online, while Harvard airs online and terrestrial — what has happened is a cautionary tale for all community and college radio.

What should your community radio station know about streaming, royalties and your obligations?

There is significant complexity in navigating this area of legal compliance for stations leaders at community radio stations. Briefly, the rules delineate between interactive and non-interactive digital transmissions. Interactive transmissions allow you to control the timing of audio, such as rewinding, pausing and so on. Non-interactive concerns are essentially, but not limited to, your streams of broadcast content. The math for determining your audience is another layer.

SoundExchange collects and distributes royalties on behalf of copyright owners and artists for non-interactive digital transmissions. Stations that are streaming music online must report their playlists in order to comply with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). The Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) and National Public Radio (NPR) negotiated an agreement with SoundExchange to facilitate compliance and meet the requirements of the law. With that agreement, CPB pays the rights fees to SoundExchange and NPR does the reporting for the public radio system. NFCB members CAN be eligible to participate in this agreement and save a significant amount of money in doing so, but they must adhere to the reporting requirements and meet CPB's eligibility requirements.

There are a variety of misconceptions about streaming and copyright worth explaining. Prior to 2012, community radio stations that were eligible for Community Service Grants through CPB were covered for reporting fees by CPB. After 2012, stations that are not full NPR members must handle the reporting fees on their own. Stations also have the option to report directly to SoundExchange if they so choose.

If you are not sure where your station fits into this picture it is critical that you sort it out. NFCB members are encouraged to contact NFCB to learn more about eligibility for participation and how the reporting and fee structure works. To learn more about the CPB/SoundExchange agreement you can check out CPB's website for a comprehensive explanation.

At the end of the day SoundExchange reporting is what helps artists get paid for their work and online streaming is a valuable service that listeners rely on. Online playlists only make that listening experience better.

One of the more perplexing questions out there is, “Can I just stream and fly under the radar?” While I am not a lawyer, my common-sense answer to any community radio station considering that sneak stream is simply do not do it. Is there potential your station could get away with streaming for a little bit? Possibly. However, once you are caught, you are looking at the possibility of fines, back payments and much more.

As any bar owner who has played a radio station or sports broadcast can tell you, licensing agents troll virtually everywhere and will catch up to you eventually. For these individuals pursuing royalty payments, violating copyright law is deadly serious. I have talked to a few station managers who attempted to stream music and hoped not to get caught. They were nabbed at some juncture, then assessed penalties that turned out to be quite costly.

Beyond the likelihood of capture, there is something to be said for peace of mind. Why do it if you will just end up looking over your shoulder every day, wondering when you will get that fateful email, call or visit? The minuses far outweigh the pluses.

Although nothing beats remarkable content, streaming is among community radio’s great opportunities to connect with listeners. In our connected world today, people expect a station to be available online. However, not abiding by copyright law can effectively prevent a station from fostering new listener relationships and being in the places where fans want you. When all is said and done, fees to keep your stream legal are a small price to pay.