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Royalties could pull plug on Internet radio stations

Music: A plan for payment of rights fees threatens to wipe out many fledgling Web broadcasters.

April 28, 2002|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

But the hardship is real, Web broadcasters say. Even the threat of a royalty has caused hundreds of stations to shut down their Internet broadcasts, says Dennis Wharton of the National Association of Broadcasters.

The University of Akron's WZIP-FM, one of the largest college stations in the country, halted its Internet broadcast last month after calculating that its $50,000 annual budget wouldn't cover the expense. "We pushed that button and it just broke everybody's heart," General Manager Thomas Beck said.

Unable to acquire a traditional broadcast license, Loyola College in Baltimore had planned to reach the world through the Internet when its new radio station goes live this fall. But now, university officials say, its broadcast will be heard only on campus computers.

"The potential for a huge bill is very real," says the Rev. Michael Braden, faculty adviser to WLOY, as the new station is called. "It's going to stifle college radio all over the country."

Money isn't the only thing that concerns Web broadcasters. To calculate royalties, stations would be required to keep track of individual listeners, what they listen to and for how long - a record-keeping burden that many say they cannot afford. And privacy advocates have criticized the requirements as too invasive.

As a result of all the debate, some legislators are starting to question the royalty proposal. Last week more than a dozen congressmen signed a letter urging the Copyright Office to consider alternatives. Democratic Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont is planning a hearing on Internet radio next month. In response to some of the criticism, Simson said he and others are talking about a hobbyist license for those who broadcast on the Internet for fun, not profit.

While they quibble with the specifics, many Web broadcasters stress that they are for paying musicians their due.

"We see their rundown, broken-down cars," Markowitz says of the folk musicians who come through his studio. "They don't need to be superstars. They need to put food on the table. So we're really for the artists getting paid."

But only if it's fair, he says. One alternative proposed by Web broadcasters is a royalty based on its revenue, an idea the recording industry has been cool to because many Internet stations don't have any.

Hober, says Markowitz, has yet to make a dime. But because its audience has been doubling every eight months, he thinks it could someday. To help make up costs, the station sells CDs and items such as hemp mousepads, which Markowitz makes. He's supporting the station with money from the Web design business he also runs.

He plans to keep Hober on the air. But if the royalties prove too much, he says, that may change. "We're hanging on by our fingernails and saying, `Should we risk it?'"

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