Web-savvy stations save their streams

After more than a year and a half of playing the waiting game, the student radio station at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg resumed streaming music online.  

WUVT quit webcasting in October 2001 when students heard the station might have to pay royalties as high as $13,000 for music they had webcast in the past, said former general manager Joshua Arritt.

The royalty fees were imposed by the Librarian of Congress, as required under the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act, so that record labels and artists could be compensated for music played on the Web. A recent agreement, however, has insured that college stations can stream music on the Web at a more affordable rate.

The revised webcasting fees were agreed upon between a symposium of noncommercial webcasters and the Recording Industry of Association of American on the brink of a May 31 deadline set by Congress under the Small Webcaster Settlement Act. The agreement reduces the fees and eliminates burdensome record-keeping requirements. 

Under the new terms, good through 2004, college and K-12 webcasters at schools with an enrollment of less than 10,000 students will pay a fixed rate of $250 per year. Schools with enrollment of more than 10,000 will pay $500 per year. In both cases, the stations also may be responsible for paying up to .02 cents per listener per song played, but only if Web users listen to more than a total of 146,000 hours worth of music per month. This is equivalent of 200 people listening 24 hours a day. For stations that go above the limit, they must monitor the number of listeners and the duration each listener visits the site with computer software. 

The monthly limit is one few campus stations will reach, considering most college radio stations average about five to 10 listeners an hour, said Michael Papish. He is the technology and policy adviser for the Intercollegiate Broadcasting System, a nonprofit organization representing more than 800 educationally affiliated stations. For most stations, Papish said the likelihood of going above the 146,000 threshold is slim, and the flat fee gives webcasters room to grow. 

“Right now, these numbers make a lot of sense,” said Papish, who works for Harvard University’s WHRB. “Certainly five or 10 years from now when Internet radio is a lot bigger, 200 simultaneous listeners will not be enough, but these rates will be renegotiated again at the end of 2004, and other factors such as increased listeners will be considered.” 

If a station has webcast in the past, it is responsible for paying the required fees but at a lower rate than the one set in June 2002 by James H. Billington, the Librarian of Congress. Under the previous requirements, all noncommercial stations were to pay .02 cents per listener per song and a minimum annual fee of $500. Commercial radio stations currently pay .07 cents per listener per song and the same annual fee. 

Because payments would have been retroactive to October 1998, larger college stations like University of Texas at Austin’s KVRX were looking at payments upward of $20,000, said station manager Alexis Wolstein. 

“[The settlement] gives a break to college radio stations, which was extremely significant for us,” said  Wolstein of KVRX, which kept webcasting despite the risk of paying high fees. “If we had to pay back taxes, we would have been knocked off the Internet and would not have been able to do webcasting at all.” 

Will Robedee, general manager for Rice University’s KTRU, said that the result of the negotiation ensures that stations interested in pursuing or continuing webcasting can do so without trepidation. He provides the latest news on the webcasting fees at his Web page, Save Our Streams, at www.ruf.rice.edu/~willr/cb/sos.

“For stations that have been streaming, [the new agreement] means a lot less money that must be paid out for streaming that they have done in the past and will do in the future,” said Robedee. “It removes the question of ‘how much are we going to be charged?’ and ‘what kind of record-keeping do we have to do?’ That vagueness has kept a lot of stations from webcasting because they didn’t feel they could webcast not knowing what their liability would be.”

The radio station for the University of Massachusetts at Amherst was forced to stop webcasting due to uncertainty about how much they were going to be charged, said general manager Jennifer Moskal. Although WMUA disc jockeys are not completely satisfied with the settlement, she said they are pleased that they could resume webcasting.

“I think overall we’d rather not have to pay for [webcasting], but I think that all college radio stations are on the same boat –– we are all on tight budgets and we are trying to get our voice across,” Moskal said.

The agreement states that any noncommercial station that currently or previously played music online will pay a fixed rate regardless of enrollment or listeners. From 2000 to 2003, stations will pay $250 for each year of webcasting; a fee of $200 was set for 1998 and 1999, which counts as one year.

The settlement also eliminates the record-keeping requirements through 2004. Papish suggested that disc jockeys could have been required to list the artist, song played and the number of Web listeners each time the song aired. Instead, noncommercial webcasters will pay $50 for 2003 and $25 in 2004 in lieu of record-keeping responsibilities.

The agreement also allows stations that paid royalties under the old rate plan to have their accounts credited toward the newly implemented fees with SoundExchange, an organization of recording companies and artist representatives.

Papish said that in the past neither side really stepped forward to acknowledge that a compromise must be made. During negotiations Papish said both SoundExchange and the noncommercial entities realized, however, that in order to coexist a balance must be achieved. 

“The partnership we created in this agreement, to facilitate the accurate reporting of performances on these services at an affordable cost, illustrates our commitment to compensating artists and copyright owners for their hard work,” said John Simson, executive director of SoundExchange, in a recent statement.

Even for schools such as University of Louisiana at Monroe that did not stop webcasting, the impact of the settlement is still significant, said KXUL general station manager Joel Willer. KXUL has reaped the benefits of reaching a wide geographic area through webcasting with an audience that included Turkey, Portugal and Australia in June, Willer said.

Willer, who also was involved in settlement negotiations, said that the prognosis for webcasting is promising for college stations.

“Somebody today needs to fight to preserve the opportunities for the students of the future,” Willer said. “Today, our Web audiences don’t come anywhere close to approaching our over-the-air audiences, but one day our Web audiences might replace them. It would be very much of a shame, if at this early stage we closed the door on the potential for future students to webcast.”

Challenges still confront college stations despite the settlement. The stations are still limited in the number of songs from a CD or boxed set that they can play consecutively or in a three-hour time period. Willer said he fears that the restrictions placed on the number of listeners and songs will curb college stations’ potential for growth in the future.

“Even with the negotiated settlement we still will have some problems down the road,” said Willer. “I am in the opinion that the ultimate solution can only come from Congress.”

FOR MORE INFORMATION: View settlement on the SPLC Web site at www.splc.org/pdf/Webcasting_agreement.pdf.