Internet Interruption

Web-radio legislation gets tangled in politics.

North Carolina Republican Senator Jesse Helms is best known as a supporter of hot-button issues like tobacco subsidies and the Confederate flag, and not as a computer visionary. But reports indicate that Helms, who will retire from the Senate at the end of this term after thirty years in office, is the primary reason compromise legislation regarding Web radio is presently in congressional limbo -- and observers are divided over whether his stance makes him a hero or a villain.

The measure in question, called the Small Webcasters Amendment Act, relates to the amount of performance royalties that will have to be paid by stations broadcasting music over the Internet. Earlier this year, Librarian of Congress James Billington set rates for such outlets after receiving recommendations from a Copyright Arbitration Royalty Panel, or CARP. But while Billington lowered some of the CARP's numbers, many small Webcasters, including a slew in Colorado, feared that paying royalties of the size he approved would still force them out of business ("Digital Dilemma," May 2). Eventually, a group of Webcasters and envoys from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), which has long pushed for performance royalties, came up with a compromise pact that was turned into a bill passed with great dispatch by the U.S. House of Representatives. The measure's momentum seemed sure to carry it through the Senate just as quickly, but last month, mere hours before Congress adjourned so officials could focus on election campaigning, Helms put a hold on the bill.

Why? An October 29 Associated Press article said Helms applied the brakes because he felt the revised rates were still too high. Michael Roe, a Florida Webcaster who helped negotiate with the RIAA, feels Helms is actually doing the bidding of religious broadcasters, whose wallets might be thinned by the act. But even if that's true, his move pleased plenty of secular Webcasters as well, including those who've joined Webcaster Alliance, a new organization that opposes the Small Webcasters Amendment Act. On the group's Web site, www. webcasteralliance.com, its president, Ann Gabriel, declares, "The RIAA never had any intention of dealing fairly, honestly and respectfully with the webcasting industry."

Matthew Strauss

Paul Maloney, editor of Radio and Internet Newsletter, or RAIN, concedes that a considerable percentage of Web-radio entrepreneurs are against royalties, period. "A lot of people in these camps have unrealistic expectations," he maintains. "They say they want a deal where they don't have to pay anything at all, but we don't think that's going to happen."

RAIN, whose Web address is www. kurthanson.com in homage to its founder, Kurt Hanson, was initially the most prominent forum for criticism of the Billington ruling. Now, though, Maloney and company are boosters of the Small Webcasters Amendment Act. "It's not by any stretch of the imagination a perfect piece of legislation," Maloney grants. "It is flawed. But that being said, it does seem to offer a significant number of people, and not just the small commercial Webcasters, some way to survive for the next couple of years, when hopefully the issue can be addressed again."

Whether anyone will get a chance to find out is unclear. The Senate can revisit the act during the lame-duck session that begins November 12 and continues on and off through year's end. But Maloney worries that higher-profile concerns, like appropriations bills that must be passed in order to keep the government solvent, will prevent that from happening. Inaction would leave things in the hands of the next Congress, where the accord could fall apart. "Then we'd be back to square one," Maloney says.

In the meantime, SoundExchange, an affiliate of the RIAA that's charged with collecting Internet-radio performance royalties, has announced that Webcasters should make a minimum payment of $500 per annum for the years 1998-2002 in order to stay in its good graces until a final resolution is reached. But Maloney doesn't expect a rush to comply.

"People don't want to go public and say, 'We didn't pay,'" he points out. "But with all the confusion, a lot of Webcasters are taking the position of, 'Let them come and get me.'"

Down on the farm: No one can accuse Denver Post editor Greg Moore of sitting on his hands. Since June 10, his first day on the job, he's given the paper plenty of jolts -- something many readers and staff members agree was long overdue. He's also added new faces in a variety of capacities. Arrivals include Judith Howard, a business-side operative at the Dallas Morning News who's been named the Post's assistant features editor, and reporter Karen Crummy, who'll work the City Hall beat.

The pace at which Moore's going is attracting attention far beyond Colorado. For instance, he's the subject of an upcoming cover story in the journalism trade journal Editor & Publisher, which recently recognized three Post shutterbugs -- Hyoung Chang, Craig F. Walker and Shaun Stanley -- in its highly competitive Photos of the Year contest. Still, Moore's methods have generated scattered criticism that's increased in volume following an October 28 staff meeting that caused morale among some employees to head for the earth's core.

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