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Net radio's treasure mulls CARP crunch

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New Yorkers will need no introduction to WFMU, the most lauded of public stations, and one of the Internet's greatest treasures. Rolling Stone magazine has voted WFMU, which broadcasts from New Jersey, the best radio station for four years running. It isn't just the thirty strong roster of music loving DJs that makes the station so compelling (the interview show Speakeasy eclipses many a BBC segment), but the archives. Most of the station's listeners tune in via the web, via wfmu.org.

Up to three years' worth of 24x7 broadcasting is here which, when combined with the searchable database, makes WFMU a formidable jukebox. This is the web's musical Library of Alexandria, and concerned that RIAA vandals have been seen loitering nearby, we checked in last week with station boss Ken Freedman to see how the CARP rates would affect the station.

WFMU is a non-profit which despite appearing in the "public" section of iTunes, receives no public money, unlike NPR. Nor does it have advertisements:

"We're adamantly non commercial. It costs $800,000 to run the station each year, of which $80,000 goes to the coast of streaming, and this is met entirely by listeners."

WFMU streams to around 800 listeners at peak times, making it one of the larger non-commercial broadcasters.

With such a huge catalog of music, we were anxious that the CARP publishing royalties represented a unique burden for the station. Freedman doesn't think the sky is falling in just yet:-

" Non-commercial broadcasters are not who the RIAA is after anyway," he told us. "We could probably negotiate something affordable: that's what we're hoping for."

Part of the reasons for this is the station's arrangement with independent labels. Freedman says WFMU has negotiated waivers with hundreds of indies. That accounts for half of the ouput now, but it could be as high as 75 per cent in the future.

"The labels are overjoyed, and the artists are overjoyed that people get to hear these records. The RIAA is allowed to collect on all records but it doesn't care about music stations like us: they only care about stuff selling in the millions. If it's less than a million, it doesn't want to know.

But the waivers aren't optimal: Freedman describes them as "a fallback position if things go very badly."

The most ominous part of the webcasting royalty arrangement is what Freedman calls the "insane reporting requirements." Although smaller NPR affiliates have been released from this burden, the bureaucracy would pose an immense problem. Freedman reckons this was a political decision:-

"It's no coincidence that the rates are what they are and that record keeping is insanely difficult. That was just part of an effort to drive everybody out of webcasting. They wanted to know how many hours and minutes individual listeners were spending. It should be possible to sample this information and to extrapolate reporting and fees based on these samples, instead," said Freedman.

The RIAA was determined to close down net radio, he says. Now he thinks, it merely wants to control it.

"My fear is that that the non-commercial goal is to prevent people being anything other than a very, very small operator. The [RIAA] wants to dominate the webcast space itself and use it as a promotional space to sell product."

Anyone looking to turn a hobby into a for-profit faces a huge leap in rates. "Commercial rates are not very good at all. If I was in a college dorm and I wnated to stop being a non-commercial operator, it makes webcasting not a very appealing business proposition."

For now, the Boucher bill is dead, and non-profits think that another CARP round - which the RIAA doesn't want - offers the best hope. Regardless, vows Freedman, WMFU will keep broadcasting:-

"There's no way we're going to stop streaming," he says. ®

Related Link

The wonderful world of wfmu.org

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