Caught in the Web

Internet-only radio stations take a beating

Jul 31, 2002 at 4:00 am
Given the recent Library of Congress ruling on Web-radio fees, a decision that threatens to kill Internet radio as we know it, the time seemed nigh to follow up with Wanda and Jim Atkinson. The Atkinsons, who are based in St. Louis, own and operate, one of the most popular indie-rock radio stations in cyberspace. A few months back, before the infamous Copyright Arbitration Royalty Panel's recommendations went before the LOC, Wanda Atkinson told us she was fairly optimistic ["Radar Station," April 24]. Now the situation looks decidedly less rosy.

Although the Librarian didn't swallow CARP's crap in its entirety, the fees that were eventually determined to be fair -- 0.02 cent per listener for college and nonprofit stations and 0.07 cent per listener for hobbyists and commercial stations that also stream online -- are prohibitive for most existing Webcasters. Originally the Recording Industry Association of America, the brain trust behind CARP, asked that hobbyists (a catch-all term that seems to encompass the small commercial stations such as 3WK and casual aficionados who stream their favorite songs strictly for amusement's sake) pay twice that amount. The Librarian, understandably, didn't get why Web-only stations should have to pay more than terrestrial stations that also stream their programming over the Internet, so he assigned the rate of .07 cent per listener to both.

As is often the case with compromises, nobody's really happy -- except, maybe, the megastations such as Yahoo! and MSN, which lobbied hard on behalf of the CARP recommendations and stand to gain if the market becomes more consolidated. Since the ruling, hundreds of virtual radio stations have signed off the virtual airwaves. Assuming the decision isn't overturned before it goes into effect in October, the retroactive fees alone will bankrupt almost all Web-only radio stations. 3WK, for instance, will owe the RIAA about $60,000 -- just for last year! "It would be three times what our total revenue was last year," Wanda says. Most Webcasters believe that the fees should be based on a percentage of revenue rather than per listener.

However outrageous the fees seem from the Webcasters' perspective, the RIAA continues to snivel that they're too low. Rather than view Internet radio as a promotional tool (these were the folks who killed Napster, remember), the RIAA insists that it's hurting artists. (Apparently the RIAA has dibs on fucking 'em.). "They're losing money," Wanda says with a sigh. "They're grasping at anything they can. They want this copyright fee so they can line their coffers and continue with the business practices they currently have. They want money -- and if they can't get it from terrestrial radio, they'll get it through the Webcasters."

The Atkinsons aren't giving up without a fight, though. As members of the International Webcasters Association, they're educating their listeners and lobbying Congress about the market realities of Webcasting. "Especially in this climate, with Enron and all that, no one wants to be labeled a corporation-lover," Wanda says. "We're using the word 'monopolize' in our position paper."

U.S. Representatives Jay Inslee (D-Washington), George Nethercutt Jr. (R-Washington) and Rick Boucher (D-Virginia) have just introduced a bill, called the Internet Radio Fairness Act, that addresses many of the IWA's concerns. The IWA also sponsored a concert recently to raise money for a legal defense. "If that's the only way we can do it, we'll do it," Wanda says resolutely. "If nothing else, we've got the power of our listeners talking to their congressional reps -- we're not going away."

For more information on this subject, see 3WK's Web site and

Fresh on the heels of a three-week tour of Europe, noise fetishist Andy Ortmann, a former St. Louisan who now lives in Chicago, returns to his hometown on August 2 for a performance at Fort Gondo, 3151 Cherokee Street. The show starts at 8 p.m. and consists of a "solo art show" (we have no idea what this means but hope it includes leather short-shorts, power sanders and pencil sharpeners, à la past performances) and one with his group Panicsville. A devoted weirdo, Ortmann's sure to deliver lots of annoying cacophony, hilarious pretension and theatrical hanky-panky. If your idea of a good time is listening to a guy make vomiting sounds over a cheap drum machine, get thee to Fort Gondo, and quick!