High school radio stations are used to operating on shoestring budgets. But new webcasting fees leveled by the Librarian of Congress and the U.S. Copyright Office could force many school-sponsored, online radio programs to take their last requests.

In June, the U.S. Copyright Office announced that radio programs that stream copyrighted recordings over the internet must pay royalty fees to musicians and music labels. Although there is a minimum fee of $500 for smaller broadcasters, the fee system is retroactive to 1998. That means many K-12 stations could be asked to pay upwards of $2,000 to maintain their broadcasting rights this year.

The additional fees come as a jolt to proprietors of K-12 radio stations across the nation. eSchool News found broadcasters from Massachusetts to California were surprised to hear school-sponsored webcasts fell under the scope of the ruling.

WAVM (97.1 FM) has been broadcasting out of Maynard High School in Massachusetts since 1973. Today, that station broadcasts on-air and over the web five days a week during the school year. The station enlists more than 150 students to help produce its programming. But its coordinator, Joe Magno, said he had no idea the new royalty fees would apply to his school.

“This is the first I’ve heard of anything like this,” Magno said. Any additional royalty fees would be a problem for the program, he added.

According to Susan Grimes, a Copyright Arbitration Royalty Panel specialist with the U.S. Copyright Office, school-sponsored radio broadcasts are non-commercial entities, or non-CPBs, and they will be expected to pay.

The new Copyright Office rules say non-commercial radio stations that broadcast over the air and via the web using proper Federal Communications Commission licenses will be charged at the rate of two cents per listener for every 100 songs they play. That doesn’t include an 8.8 percent fee for the use of ephemeral recordings—temporary copies made to stream music over the internet. But webcasters will have to pay above the $500 minimum only if their total fees exceed this initial payment.

Although the rates imposed on non-commercial radio stations pale in comparison to the 7 cents per hundred songs that commercial entities must pay, there also is the problem of unforeseen costs associated with stringent record-keeping requirements, which will place additional strain on K-12 broadcasting budgets and human resources.

To comply with the fee structure, stations must provide resources to track each copyrighted song that is played online, including song title, artist, album title, number of times played, and the marketing label of the sound recording.

Under the new fee structure, stations that wish to report accurately also must be able to gauge the number of simultaneous listeners who tune in over the web at any given time. Anthony Reece, broadcast director for MediaTech Productions Inc. and the K-12 Radio Network, said this requirement alone would be enough to bankrupt some stations. In reality, he said, the process will evolve into an inefficient honor system among broadcasters, one that cannot accurately calculate how many online listeners were tuned in to any one song at any given moment.

“I think the whole system is a mess,”Reece said. “It’s going to be a guesstimate.”

Although it’s an honor system, broadcasters won’t find it easy to circumvent the costs, said Gary Greenstein, an attorney for the Recording Industry Association of America and SoundExchange—the company responsible for collecting and distributing royalty checks to major labels.

For any radio station to operate, Greenstein said, it must first file a “constructive notice of intentions,” which registers its existence with copyright officials. Competitors and curious royalty collectors can use these filings to keep tabs on every station that plays copyrighted music across the web.

Some K-12 broadcasters agree the additional fees and record-keeping requirements could lead to disaster. “What robbers,” said Michael Jackson, coordinator of radio media studies at Fremont High School in California. “It would be a dagger in the hearts of our students if we could not continue our broadcast.”

The Media Academy is hooked to the internet via a T1 line, and students broadcast Tiger Radio online daily from a portable classroom located behind the school building. Although Jackson said he wasn’t sure yet what impact the new fees would have on his school’s radio station, he acknowledged that the webcasting fees more than likely would prohibit his school’s station from playing full-length songs.

The new copyright fees are part of an industry-wide effort to increase profits in the face of the digital downloading phenomenon, where songs are copied and shared for free across the web—a practice record companies say is costing them a fortune in music sales.

According to the Copyright Office, the new fee structure officially took effect Sept. 1, with payments expected for all pre-September royalties due by Oct. 20. The agency said all payments for songs broadcast after Sept. 1 will be due 45 days after the start of each month. But, because of the number of appeals pending, Reece said it could be much longer before the new rules are nailed down and enforced.

Links:

U.S. Copyright Office
http://www.loc.gov/copyright

Maynard High School’s WAVM
http://wavm.org/radio

Fremont Media Academy’s Tiger Radio
http://www.media-academy.net/main.html

K-12 Radio Network
http://www.k12radionetwork.com/site/home.asp