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Editorial: Time for a Cease-Fire

Radio’s performance royalty strategy is troubling

When David Rehr announced his resignation from the top staff position at the National Association of Broadcasters, we were in the middle of writing an opinion piece that began: “The current, intensifying debate over a performance ‘right’ or ‘tax’ is evidence of a failure of leadership on both sides of the debate.”

We still feel that way.

Whether Rehr’s departure was influenced by unhappiness on the board about that particular issue we don’t know. More likely his resignation was the result of many factors.

But we do feel that both Rehr and others at NAB have chosen an unwise course by pursuing such a high-profile, even nasty campaign about performance royalties.

We’ve praised Rehr in the past for being feisty but this is one battle we think NAB ultimately must lose based on the merits as well as the politics. Therefore we think the decision to stake out radio’s position in such a provocative way will serve stations poorly. (As if to reinforce the point, the House Judiciary Committee voted in favor of a royalty as we sent this issue to press.)

Broadcasters, performers and record labels can agree that their relationship historically has been beneficial. Indeed the NAB and royalty coalition both have continued to give lip service to the concept that broadcasters and the music business are “partners” even as they count noses on legislation on Capitol Hill and bash each other with ever-increasing ferocity through press releases flung back and forth across the webosphere.

They don’t sound like partners to us, unless maybe in a divorce proceeding.

Further, if the relationship is so important, how can responsible leadership on either side have allowed things to get to this point?

We regret the tone of NAB’s opposition. But the labels, meanwhile, have shown astonishingly little appreciation themselves for the outstanding exposure and decades of symbiotic support that radio has provided, falling into an easy trap of complaining about “corporate radio,” everyone’s favorite bogeyman.

The music industry is far from unsullied; and when NAB uses words like “fat cats” and “brazen money grab” to describe the RIAA-led effort, it’s easy to agree.

This is a marriage that needs counseling, not a divorce decree. Things never should have gotten to this point (which we said a couple of years ago, anticipating just this situation); but that’s history now.

We would like to think that the leaders of the NAB and decision-makers on the Recording Industry Association of America side secretly have been in touch and are working on compromise; some on Capitol Hill have called for them to do just that, but with little obvious effect.

How about some real leadership? Let’s see NAB and RIAA/musicFirst risk the hostility of their members and agree jointly to stop issuing cute press releases about this topic for a six-month period. Ask Congress to put its bills aside for a while. Then appoint a panel, led by a neutral mediator and involving elected officials from both parties, to forge a compromise that will not only address the immediate issue of artist compensation but put a solution in place that can stand up over time and also recognize the special history of this relationship and the precarious financial situation facing broadcasters.

Is compromise by radio the same as caving? Rather, we think it’s realistic.

While NAB might win a given vote on the Hill, over time broadcasters can’t win using the strategy it has staked out. Ultimately, we think, regulators will determine that the music industry, not broadcasters, are the ones who should decide whether and how to charge for their creations — even if, as NAB argues, this amounts to “biting the hand that feeds it,” even if, as broadcasters say, such a change would “decimate” free and local radio. The argument that the creators should control the fate of their content is simply too strong.

Thus we think it would better serve radio station owners and employees to work out a solution that recognizes this reality rather than heighten the confrontation that exists between these “partners.” Because at the end of the day, we still need this marriage.

— Radio World