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Radio, Radio 8-8-2001

Radio, Radio!

Today's rant is on the future of Radio. Streaming radio or broadcast. The future, of course, is online streaming, digital satellite, or your own personal jukebox in the sky with every song ever written. Which one you think will happen depends on your outlook. And on how the US government decides on a technical detail about the definition of a word which will affect consumer choice. Please read on, and I'll try to explain the technical detail, and why I think you won't be listeing to very many personal radio stations.
I have an MP3. A bad MP3, that sounds awful and cuts off about 5 seconds before the end. I won't delete it until I find a better copy. (Update: Thanks, Audio Galaxy, I just found one!) It's a recording of Elvis Costello and the Attractions, on Saturday Night Live about 15 years ago. He starts playing one song, and I remember hearing the story that the song was what his label wanted him to play. Then, he stops his band, mid-verse, apologizes to the audience, and kicks the band into "Radio, Radio." This song, of course, laments the control corporate/government (think BBC) interests have over Radio, and the control Radio has over the common folk.

They say you better listen to the voice of reason But they don't give you any choice 'cause they think that it's treason.
Radio Radio is one of the ultimate Fuck-you songs to those that control the industry, from music companies to radio interests. Elvis knew this:

I wanna bite the hand that feeds me. I wanna bite that hand so badly.

So, what's the problem with Radio, Radio, today, today? According to an article on, the US Copyright office is debating the amount of money Streaming Radio stations (both the Broadcast radio stations as well as Net-only properties) will pay in royalties to the various music industry groups that represent artists. This is not unusual. As a disc jockey on WVBR (a commercial college station) in the 80's, we used to log every song we played, by hand, on index cards. When I joined WBLI in 1989, there were computer printouts that gave the DJs playlists, and we had to sign for what we played. These lists would be sampled by lawyers on a few days every few months, and BMI, ASCAP and other agencies would figure out how many times artists' songs were played, and distribute compensation based on fees the radio stations paid. These are called 'compulsory' licenses. I learned a bit about these when I helped start one of the (now bankrupt) first streaming companies on the net. The music agencies must allow the radio stations to play the music, and the stations must pay a certain amount for each song they play.

I won't attempt to explain how BMI, ASCAP, Harry Fox/Music Publishers Association, the RIAA and others fit into this chain. I'll oversimplify by saying magic happens, and artists find a few dollars in their paychecks because their songs are played on the radio.

They really think we're getting out of control
Which brings me to today's rant. Webcasters, many of whom have been accounting for what they have estimated they would have to pay under a negotiated compulsory license (and putting aside revenue for years) are about to find out (within 60 days) what it will cost them. Unless, of course, they are an "interactive" station. If you're a standard station under the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, you play music in a certain way. You don't give people much choice about what they hear. Specifically:

the transmitting entity does not cause to be published, or induce or facilitate the publication, by means of an advance program schedule or prior announcement, the titles of the specific sound recordings to be transmitted, the phonorecords embodying such sound recordings, or, other than for illustrative purposes, the names of the featured recording artists, except that this clause does not disqualify a transmitting entity that makes a prior announcement that a particular artist will be featured within an unspecified future time period....`(iii) the transmission...(IV)is not part of an identifiable program in which performances of sound recordings are rendered in a predetermined order.

Ok, disclaimer, I'm not a lawyer. But from what I understand here, you can't tell people what you're going to play. That's why DJs on the radio will say "the new hit from J.Lo, coming up after this" and not give the title. They're not just pre-selling, hoping that you'll stay until after the break. They can't really tell you that title. You might get your tape recorder and record it from the radio. Then the station could be liable for assisting you to do that. (It's in the DCMA. You should read the whole thing sometime.)

Next, the station can't really let you choose the music. I hate to spoil it for those who have this illusion, but us DJ types take only the requests that we were going to play anyway. Mostly this is because of formatting - ie., radio stations play what they think will appeal to the audience. But this is one way the law helps the Radio folks screw consumers.

You either shut up or get cut up
The word the copyright office is noodling over is "Interactive." As in, if you have any choice over what your station is playing, the station may not deserve a compulsory licence. That station may have to negotiate with the various music agencies or record labels individually to reach an agreement on how much they pay. So, if you enjoy listening to SonicNet/MTVi, and like the ability to skip songs you don't like, rate songs you do like and have the station remember your preferences, that's fine. But MTVi will have to pay the record companies extra. Boo-hoo I'm crying for MTV, you're thinking. They have big corporate parents. Well, what about the small streaming stations? The ones that never got started because of the uncertainty of this cost? Launch, a smaller (though public) property was sold to Yahoo, and Yahoo/LaunchCast settled with the record companies, but they did have to take their system down for weeks( bad for the bottom line) before they could settle. To quote from the article,
Operating within the framework of the compulsory license is the key to continuing to do business for many of the webcasters, said Jonathan Potter, executive director of DIMA. "The question is how far can they push the envelope and stay within the bounds of statutory license. That's it ó thatís your cost of doing business. But if you cross the line your cost of doing business is whatever the record labels dictate and you need permissions from each copyright holder through a standard licensing agreement," he explained.

In other words, you have to negotitate your cost of doing business with 5 monopolies and thousands on indie labels. If you give consumers choice, if they don't listen to the pre-programmed crap that the music business counts on for income, you better pay up!

So you had better do as you are told. You better listen to the radio.

The bottom line, as I often like to say (it seems to be in all my articles) is "So much for me getting a 'personal' radio station that streams what I want." Or one that streams mostly what I want, with some choices thrown in that make sense based on other artists I like. We have the technology to do this now. When I worked on the Windows Media team at Microsoft, I covered streaming broadcasters. There were any number of companies with unique solutions on how to get you radio that you want. Yes with ads. They have to make money. Don't begrudge them the ads. Just enjoy your radio. Hey, you can download MP3s till your hard disk is full, and there will still be a reason -- whether it's time, location, serendipity factor, or just boredom -- why you'll eventually want to tune into radio.

That's why I'll be listening for news on how this debate goes. I'm sure I'll hear the results on my news radio...

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Last update: 8/23/2002; 9:19:19 PM.