Columbia’s WKCR Goes Silent Online
Streaming audio is more essential to the music industry than ever before, but last week WKCR-FM (89.9), the radio station of Columbia University, abruptly shut its online simulcast, cutting off the eclectic station from listeners outside the reach of its broadcast signal.
“It’s a devastating setback,” said Phil Schaap, the host and jazz historian who has been a fixture on WKCR for 46 years.
The station said it was working on restoring its online service, but it is unclear why it pulled the plug. A note announcing the suspension of the online feed was posted on the station’s website at the end of December, and over the last week, complaints have poured in from inside and outside of the organization. One sore spot: the lack of a stream for Mr. Schaap’s memorial for the pianist Paul Bley on Jan. 5. (“We have some excellent stations for classical and jazz in NoCal, but nothing as good as ’KCR,” one Facebook commenter wrote.)
A Columbia representative said that the problem was not the cost of royalties but contractual terms with the station’s “provider” and that negotiations were underway.
To use sound recordings online, most radio stations deal with SoundExchange, a nonprofit agency that handles licensing on behalf of record companies and processes payments from the stations. Under federal copyright law, online stations face stricter terms than their broadcast counterparts when it comes to programming. Online stations face limits of how many songs by any particular artist — or even from a single album — can be played in a given period of time.
Mr. Schaap, whose shows often involve lengthy surveys of a particular artist’s work, said he believed this restriction may be part of the problem for WKCR.
“It’s not just a financial burden,” Mr. Schaap said. “It’s the encumberment of the creative process.”
On Wednesday, Philip Masciantonio, WKCR’s director of broadcasting and operations, released a short statement, saying, “We are currently reassessing our approach to streaming audio.”
The suspension of WKCR’s streams appear to be one sign of confusion in the radio and streaming world since a ruling last month by the Copyright Royalty Board, a panel of federal judges who set licensing rates for Internet radio and other types of services. Some online stations have expressed concerns about the effect of the new rates on small stations.
But the decision by the copyright board was for commercial webcasters like Pandora, Live365 and iHeartMedia, said David Oxenford, a lawyer who represents broadcasters and has covered the royalty board hearings extensively on his Broadcast Law Blog.
“There have not been changes in the rules that govern the types of performances for noncommercial webcasters,” Mr. Oxenford said in an email.
Adding to the tumult at WKCR are technical difficulties — Mr. Schaap was unable to broadcast much of his Bley memorial program — and a brand-new student board that took over at the end of December.
Many students and alumni have been outspoken about the university’s apparent lack of support for the station, which was recently in the news over the release of a documentary celebrating Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito, who hosted an influential hip-hop show there for eight years.
“To Columbia, KCR is more a nuisance than the bearer of a great cultural legacy,” said Eric Ingram, a current D.J. and former program director.