The Digital Beat: Radio Stations Get Jammed Online

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Radio industry workers convened at the annual National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas recently, and guess what the main topic was -- yep, broadcasting online. Seems the old guarders are grappling with just how they are going to find their place (and their bucks) in what seems to them like a bit of a Wild West. And don't expect any answers from them any time soon.

The plight of offline radio is another one of those fairly major issues that's flown under the radar due to the Napster hype. In fact, leading stations have been engaged in some of their biggest battles in years. First there was a rush of stations that decided to do the obvious thing with the Net: simulcast broadcasts online. Easier said. In recent months, though, literally hundreds of major stations have had "Webcasts" cancelled by management.

Clear Channel Communications yanked over 300 stations from the Net. ABC radio pulled its twenty-five stations offline. Emmis Communications Corporation took all its thirteen stations from the net. The reason? People were demanding to get paid for this new airtime. The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists is seeking additional fees on behalf of artists and actors who are used in radio commercials. The talent, AFTRA insists, must be paid for ads that appear offline, as well as online. But rather than pay them, ad agencies are demanding that radio stations remove the commercials from online broadcasts entirely. So stations just opted, instead, to shut down their Webcasts entirely.

If that's not enough complication, the Recording Industry Association of America has been chiming in as well, seeking royalties on behalf of artists whose songs are played online. The Copyright Office ruled in the RIAA's favor last year, but now radio stations are appealing that ruling.

What's amazing is how far and fast these things have come. Less than five years ago, Net radio was a novelty: choppy, audio-only simulcasts of offline radio that sounded, at best, like a crappy AM receiver in the back of an old Chevy. Today, with fatter bandwidth and phatter audiovisual power, Webcasters have created a full-fledged culture and industry. DIY radio sites like Shoutcast, which lets users stream their own songs, or even MTV Radio, which features a mix of MTV-style bands, in many ways even have a leg up over radio broadcasts: with tricks like on-demand, customizable playlists and, just as sweet, commercial-free listening.

There's beginning to be less and less reason to suffer through an offline stations ad-laden, random mix. Gone are the days when you have to sit by the radio hoping to hear a new song by your favorite band. Now, when, say, the new R.E.M. hits, it's just as easy to head online and boot it up right away -- via the record site, the band site, or, of course, Napster -- without having to sit and wait and yawn through the offline waves.

If offline stations want to go online, they've got to do more than iron out the legalities of the leap; they must figure out how they're going to stay relevant enough to remain there. Otherwise, they might get lost in the static.