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The Voice of the Black Community


Static for black radio
Bill would require payments for right to play records
Published Thursday, June 4, 2009 11:30 am
by Herbert L. White

Black radio’s survival may depend on stations’ ability to pay for music content.

A bill before Congress would require broadcasters to pay royalties to artists for using their recordings, as satellite and Internet radio do. H.R. 848 and its Senate companion, S. 379, has drawn the wrath of black and Spanish-speaking broadcasters who say the bill would force them out of business. The most vocal of critics has been Cathy Hughes, founder of Lanham, Md.-based Radio One, which owns WQNC (92.7 FM) and WPZS (100.9 FM) in Charlotte. The Minority Media and Telecommunications Council estimates that if the bill becomes law, at least a third of minority-owned radio stations in the U.S. would be forced into bankruptcy or sold.

Debbie Kwei-Cook, vice president of Radio One Charlotte, and Frank Neely, owner of WGIV, (1370 AM) did not return phone messages seeking comment.

“I know times are tough, and it is not the intention or goal of this legislation to drive broadcasters into bankruptcy or to bring about a widespread consolidation of the industry,” U.S. Rep. John Conyers, (D-Mich.) chairman of the House Judiciary Committee that approved H.R. 848 last month in a 21-9. “That is why I have been, and remain, committed to finding a middle ground on this issue. I believe a number of steps we can initiate today will help us achieve this result.”

The amended bill would cap payments by stations according gross income, ranging from $500 a year for broadcasters earning less than $100,000 to  $5,000 for those earning between $500,000 and $1.25 million annually. Larger stations could negotiate directly with artists and record labels.

Black-owned radio has been hit hard by the recession as advertising revenue dries up and competition from satellite and personal music devices like iPod cut into audience share. Last month, WAMO-AM, WAMO FM and WPGR AM in Pittsburgh were sold to the St. Joseph Missions for $8.9 million. The stations, which are programmed for hip-hop, R&B, gospel and talk, will switch to Catholic programming. Radio One, which owns 53 stations in 16 urban markets, recorded a net loss of $59.4 million or 84 cents per share in the first quarter of 2009, an increase in net loss of $18.9 million, or 19 cents a share over the same period in 2008.

The bill’s goal, contends Judiciary Committee member Mel Watt (D-N.C.) is to ensure artists are compensated for their work. Internet and satellite media have to pay royalties, and broadcast radio shouldn’t be excluded, he says. The Recording Industry Association of America, a trade group that represents record labels, also backs the bills.

“I strongly believe that it is unfair to performers for radio stations to continue to make commercial use of music recorded by performers without work out a fair method of compensating performers for the use of their property,” Watt wrote on his House website.  Watt was one of five African Americans on the Judiciary Committee  to vote for the bill. A sixth, Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), voted against the measure.

 “This legislation is about fairness and a level playing field, plain and simple,” said Mitch Bainwol, chairman and CEO of RIAA, which claims AM and FM radio stations earn $16 billion a year in advertising revenue. “The arguments for this legislation have never been more compelling, the time never more ripe, and the level of support within the music community never more strong. Every one of the competitors of FM and AM radio pays artists and labels for the use of their music. Moreover, in these economically challenging times, we cannot ignore the millions of dollars that’s left on the table when American music is played overseas (without compensation).”

Conyers and his House colleagues are offering amendments to the bill, including delaying its effective date, reducing royalty payments and taking the needs of small, minority-owned, religious and non-music broadcasters into account.

“I understand this is an important and emotional issue for many,” Conyers said. “Creative rights go to the core of our cultural and intellectual health as a society. Broadcasters are a vital cog in our communities and our political debates. I believe we can encourage creativity, while at the same time protecting the economic viability of local broadcasters, and I believe (last month’s) markup represents a good first step toward protecting both.”


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