GUEST COMMENTARY: Webcasting Fees Hurt College Radio

The copyright royalty rate determination released on June 20 by the Librarian of Congress provides virtually no relief for threatened college radio Webcasters.
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The copyright royalty rate determination released on June 20 by the Librarian of Congress provides virtually no relief for threatened college radio Webcasters.

The ruling leaves unchanged the principle fees previously recommended by a Copyright Arbitration Royalty Panel, or CARP, to be paid by noncommercial educational broadcasters. These new fees, which will go to owners of sound recordings, were created as required by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998.

This most recent outcome is disappointing, but not surprising to the CBI board.

"While we realize that students and educational opportunities are not exempt from the copyright laws, the U.S. Congress has traditionally worked to craft legislation that allowed students a chance to learn new skills. The result of the DMCA does not meet with the historical legislative precedent," said Warren Kozireski of the State University of New York-Brockport.

Kozireski is chairman of Collegiate Broadcasters Inc., a national organization representing college radio and television stations that has been representing its members in the controversy over the new Webcasting fees.

Some college radio stations use Internet Webcasts to extend their reach to new audiences. Other educational institutions have used Webcast-only stations as the solution to scarce broadcast frequencies or extremely limited budgets. All college stations will suffer immensely under this ruling.

Radio stations receiving federal taxpayer funding funneled through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, many of them affiliated with National Public Radio, will have this new fee paid for them by that agency. CBI member college radio stations, unlike CPB-funded stations, will have to find a way to pay the fees from their students' pockets or from traditionally under-funded academic budgets, or shut off the streaming audio, thus causing the college students to lose a valuable learning tool in the process.

The real irony here is that these students are trying to reach an educational goal; yet the better they attain that goal of reaching an audience with diverse and educational programming, the more it will cost them in real dollars. There is no motive to succeed in an educational setting; what could be more counterproductive?

I created the "Save Our Streams" Web site to track the issue of these new regulations and fees and the resulting impact on college radio stations. You can see it at www.rice.edu/cb/sos.

A quick look at the SOS Web site reveals that the "death toll" already is alarmingly high. The site as of late July listed more than 30 stations that had ceased Webcasting due to the new regulations. Among the casualties are Internet-only stations. This means that entire stations and educational programs will be lost. Educational opportunities for future broadcasters will be lost in the process.

Still other stations that decided from the start to not stream their over-the-air signals are not pleased with the outcome thus far. This conservative stance taken early on does not mean their stations, student staffs or listening audience haven't suffered a loss.

The faculty manager at Marshall University's WMUL(FM) in Huntington, W.Va., decided not to stream his student station's highly acclaimed programming due to the uncertainty of royalty rates and accompanying regulatory requirements.

Said Dr. Charles Bailey of WMUL(FM) at Marshall University, "There is no telling how many stations such as WMUL have opted to not stream their audio on the Internet due to the uncertainty of rates, retroactive fees, reporting requirements and content restrictions. It is a shame that the students were not allowed to reach a larger audience with their award-winning programming." WMUL has won 473 awards since 1985.

John R. Bennett, director of student media at the Savannah College of Art and Design, works with the students at SCAD radio, an Internet-only station.

"If the fees remain outrageously expensive and the reporting requirements impossibly complex, we'll be forced to shut down the station. Unlike other college stations that will simply pull their streams and go on broadcasting as usual, this will mean the complete elimination of our station.

"Web streaming is not an enhancement to our station. It is our station."

Ironically, stations like this will pay a rate three times higher than other college stations, because they don't have an FCC license. According to Bennett, obtaining a broadcast license is out of the question due to a lack of available frequencies. He adds, "We have no central campus. Our 40 or so college buildings are arrayed throughout downtown Savannah. Therefore, carrier current or Part 15 broadcasting is an expensive and difficult proposition."

Most ironic is that recording artists also will be injured. College radio has long been the venue where new artists have found their first broadcast audiences. Artists flocked to the friendly programmers of college radio in order to receive airplay, while commercial radio outlets always have been apprehensive to chance playing new music.

Many of the same artists that owe their success to college radio now are effectively pushing those stations off the Internet with these new fees and oppressive regulations. As a result, the next generation of artists will have fewer opportunities to be discovered.

Unknown costs

Even more troublesome is the future.

Internet use doubles every 10 months. A station that can afford to Webcast today might find itself with a bill that it can't afford to pay 10 months from now.

At KTRU we will have to consider the implications of this decision carefully and make a decision. It would seem not to make sense to encourage students to succeed if the outcome of their success, reaching a larger audience, causes them to be penalized with higher fees.

The problem does not stop with fees going forward. Stations that have already been streaming audio on the Internet owe fees retroactive to 1998, when the DMCA was passed, with the bill coming due on Oct. 20.

I have been following this issue for some time; as a result, KTRU has set aside money in order to pay the retroactive fees. But this is troubling. Even though we have set aside enough money to cover the retroactive fees, we did so because we were aware of the issue. Stations had no effective formal notice of the fact that they might be liable for new fees.

Even if the government or the copyright holders had informed stations, no one could tell us what the final cost would be. Stations that knew about the fee assumed it would be equal to what we must pay to composers for broadcasting.

Now it turns out the recording rights fee is much more, and the composer fees for Webcasting also exceed those for broadcasting! The audiences are smaller, the audio quality is poorer - and they want more money?

Sandra Wasson of KALX(FM) at the University of California-Berkeley adds, "KALX might be able to handle the retroactive fees and pay the current fees due; but what about those smaller stations that can't handle the retroactive fees? Are they to be required to shut down because the process did not provide them notification that they would be liable for fees at an undetermined rate?"

Concerning the future, Wasson said, "While we are struggling with how to pay the retroactive fees, we are also threatened by the cost of reporting what we play."

Wasson refers to yet-to-be-defined requirements for stations to report data concerning the songs they play and how many people listen on the Web.

"If the expense of record-keeping exceeds the costs of the royalty, we will need to examine our ability to provide this service to the public."

So what is it that college broadcasters are seeking? According to Joel Willer, a professor of mass communications at the University of Louisiana at Monroe, "All we are seeking is a means to continue to provide an education to our students in this emerging technology." He is the faculty supervisor for KXUL(FM). That station's Web site has been honored with a first-place award and other commendations from the Broadcast Education Association.

"In short," Willer said, "what we need is a parallel to the copyright legislation covering our broadcast operations. This includes a flat fee, reasonable reporting requirements and freedom to develop programming that is not restricted by content restrictions. With such a solution, we could compensate the copyright holders and proceed with our mission, which is to educate students and deliver diverse programming."

Speaking for CBI member radio stations, Kozireski said, "We need emergency legislation from Congress to stop this process until legislators have a chance to fully examine the issue and enact an appropriate solution. We need to encourage the continuing development of the Internet at the very institutions where it began, at colleges and universities. We need to protect the education of our students."

For more information, please contact me at (713) 348-2935 or willr@ktru.org

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What Webcasters Must Do Now

The long-awaited determination of Internet radio copyright royalty rates and procedures from the Librarian of Congress in June started the clock ticking for compliance.