Will WRUB be forced to stop its Internet broadcasting?
Many students complain that a school the size of UB should have a radio station that broadcasts over the airwaves, not just on campus cable and over the Internet as WRUB does now. Now, due to regulations passed by Congress, WRUB soon may not even broadcast over the Internet. While the number of WRUB’s Internet listeners is extremely high, the Internet is the only way that the station is able to reach listeners that live outside of UB’s residence halls, and also could, in theory, allow people from all over the world to listen to the station.
In October 1998, Congress passed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which affected many different kinds of digital media. In particular, though, it said that record companies could collect royalties for artists’ songs when their copyrighted works were played via digital media. The US Copyright Office was put in charge of deciding how much the royalty rate was going to be.
At first the Copyright Office allowed the webcasters and the record companies to negotiate the rate amongst themselves. The companies wanted 15 percent, while the webcasters were looking at figure closer to 3 percent, and the two parties could not come to an agreement. The Copyright Office set up a Copyright Arbitration Royalty Panel (CARP) in order to facilitate a resolution. The CARP held hearings for six months in order to determine an appropriate royalty rate and heard testimony from dozens of witnesses on both sides of the issue.
The only witnesses that were brought in front of the panel to represent the webcasters were people from big corporations such as AOL and Clear Channel. These corporations may be able to pay these fees, but smaller independent and student stations that cannot were not given a say in front of the panel.
The CARP announced its decision on February 10, 2002. They decreed that non-commercial radio stations, such as WRUB, would be required to pay a per-hour, per-customer rate for the royalties. The rate they decided on was $.0014 per song, per listener. That figure may not seem like much, but given the average of 15 songs and 100 listeners each hour, this could amount to over $18,000 per year. Even more damaging is that these will most likely be made retroactive back to 1998, when the DMCA was first passed. Internet broadcasters will have to pay the royalties for songs played during the last four years—a figure that would exceed $55,000 based on the same 15 songs per hour for 100 listeners. The Save Internet Radio organization (www.saveinternetradio.org) contends that if broadcast commercial radio stations had to pay the same fees as the ones proposed for Internet stations, the total bill would add up to over $3.3 billion a year.
What does all this mean to UB students and WRUB in particular? To fully understand the consequences, a little history of WRUB is necessary. The Inter-Residence Council (IRC), an organization that ran programs inside the Residence Halls, created a radio station in the late 1970s, known as IRC radio. It was broadcast on an AM carrier wave station that could be heard throughout only the dorms on a very weak signal, which was filed with static even there. In 1979, the Student Association took up responsibility for the station and renamed it WRUB, and finally, in 1982, the station was given a home with Sub-Board I (SBI), where it remains today. SBI is a not-for-profit corporation owned by UB’s students and funded through the student mandatory activates fee.
In January 1991, the SBI Board of Directors shut down WRUB. Mindful that the weak signal did not reach many listeners, the Board decided that without drastic change, the station would be shut down permanently. The station re-emerged in the fall of 1992 after deciding to cease the carrier wave and start broadcasting over the cable channels within the residence halls. In 1997, the station began to broadcast over the Internet, a time when Internet broadcasting was not nearly as prevalent as it is today. Last year SBI filled out the application for an FM license, but because Western New York shares air space with Southern Ontario, there was simply no room for WRUB on the dial. In the past five years WRUB has by no means broken any records for Internet listeners, but Internet broadcasts grant the potential for a greater audience than even an FM station could give them. WRUB’s General Manager Dan Leung said, “We were planning on just reaching the student population, but with the Internet you could reach the whole world.”
The new fees will hurt student-run radio stations like WRUB the most. Because most other stations that offer webcasting are commercial radio stations, they are better able to afford these fees. For a station like WRUB, the result will most likely result in cessation of Internet broadcasting. With a budget of only around $20,000 a year, “If we have to pay a hefty retroactive fee, I don’t know what the corporation would do,” said SBI Executive Director Bill Hooley. Despite everything working against them, WRUB’s problem would be alleviated somewhat by the fact that they only broadcast nine months of the year, giving them a three month grace period.
A major problem that the Copyright Office may have in implementing the fees is determining how many listeners a station actually has. Hooley said, “We contacted the University to see if there is any way to track the number of listeners on the audio server, and they can’t.” That is a problem that may soon be fixed, though. SBI’s Information Systems Manager Larry Piegza said that while right now there is no way, “I am currently working on a way to find out.” This also may help WRUB, because according to Hooley the audio server can only accommodate 100 listeners at a time, and that limit has never been met. So the $18,000, which is based on 100 listeners per-song, per-hour, would be too high an estimate of listeners for WRUB. Even if SBI can figure out a number of listeners, no one knows how the Copyright Office plans on determining it.
One could probably surmise that much of the current fuss about Internet broadcasting stems from the Napster controversy that saturated the media not too long ago. “The biggest threat the record companies see from Internet radio is that you can record a real audio stream,” Leung said. Once a stream is recorded, listeners would then be able to turn the recording into MP3s and distribute them. Leung is quick to point out the fault in this logic though; “The quality of a real audio stream isn’t the best in the world. You could probably get a better quality MP3 on your own.”
So where does all of this leave WRUB and Internet broadcasting as a whole? The Copyright Office does not make its final decision on whether to accept the ruling of the CARP until May 20. If it does decide to take their recommendations, then the future of many Internet radio stations, including WRUB, could be in jeopardy. About the outlook for WRUB, Hooley said, “If the annual fee is exorbitant we wouldn’t be able to have a radio station on the Internet.” WRUB is exploring some other options, such as making deals with local bands to play their songs over the Internet whilst continuing to play their regular programming over the campus cable, which still affords the ability to reach up to 9,500 people. However, as Leung pointed out, a main motivation for many of the stations DJs is that their friends and family back home can access their shows over the Internet.
WRUB and stations like it can only hope that the Copyright Office chooses not to accept the CARP’s recommendations come May 20. In the meantime, if you would like to do something to help, please visit www.subboard.com and sign the online petition that will be sent to Congress, asking them to urge the Copyright Office to reject the CARP’s recommendations. If the worst does happen and the recommendations are accepted, then it is likely to kill off what is now only a fledgling industry.