NPR will issue licensing rules for Internet audio cybercasting

Originally published in Current, Oct. 28, 1996
By Jacqueline Conciatore

NPR this week will release guidelines governing stations' one-year experiment distributing National Program Service news and information over the Internet.

The licensing regulations, developed with an eight-member Internet Advisory Committee (IAC) comprised mostly of stations' general managers, set out fees, restrictions on program use, and underwriting and technological standards.

They will allow stations to pump streams of NPR news-and-information audio into the Internet during a one-year experiment. Users will be able to call up the programming from stations' World Wide Web pages using RealAudio or similar software. The web pages will be standardized to some degree, because NPR is issuing page templates that position such things as station and NPR logos and sponsorship banners.

Although a number of stations--such as WKSU in Kent, Ohio--are aggressively moving forward in the Internet field, no one knows how many will seek the netcasting licenses, says Bill Davis, general manager of WUNC-FM in Chapel Hill, N.C., and chair of IAC. "This is real stick-and-rudder flying," he says.

Task force member and WKSU General Manager John Perry, who first asked NPR for the Internet distribution rights in 1995, thinks most stations have little interest in the new distribution mode right now. "It's not something that's on the radar screen in many managers' minds. It's such a struggle just trying to do radio, that new technologies, streaming audio--until they see greater merit in it, and what other people have done--it's not going to get a lot of attention."

About 220 NPR stations now have web sites, according to Don Lockett, NPR's v.p. for audio engineering. Most of those sites offer mainly text; NPR doesn't know how many member stations are currently equipped with RealAudio software that allows them to feed audio. NPR itself was one of the first suppliers of RealAudio programming.

At least some stations will be streaming the national audio feeds off their sites "within days" of the licensing agreement's release, Davis guesses. WKSU, which is already streaming classical music and other programming to computer users, will surely be one of those. Perry says he is negotiating with NPR what kind of underwriting credits he can place on NPR-related areas of his web site.

Fees and rules

The new guidelines set two fees for NPR netcasting rights: a licensing fee based on the number of simultaneous streams a station has the capacity to transmit over its web site; and another fee for stations that want to netcast programs they aren't already buying for broadcast. If a station isn't buying Talk of the Nation for broadcast, but wants to feed it over the Net, it would pay 25 percent of its hypothetical TOTN broadcast fee. (NPR's broadcast charges to each member are based in part on that member's total station revenue.)

Some IAC members think the 25 percent surcharge is too high, says Davis, while others outside of the committee have complained it's too low. "They view it as a threat." Ultimately, Davis says, the surcharge is a "rough political compromise" that won't deter managers committed to Internet distribution but won't amount to an unfair programming giveaway.

NPR is not looking to make money on Internet licensing, and there's a chance it won't break even, IAC members say. Davis relates a joke: "How do you make a small fortune working off the Internet? Start with large one." The station licensing means NPR has to clear rights "on everything from the people interviewed to the button music." The company has set up an Internet "SWAT team" to work on the clearances.

Programs they're working on--the only ones covered in the licensing agreement--are all NPR-produced: Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition Saturday and Sunday, TOTN, Weekly Edition and Weekend ATC. Car Talk may be just around the corner, Davis says.

Because NPR hasn't cleared rights to all material in all shows, the Internet feeds to users won't be live, but delayed a few hours. Real-time distribution will begin "fairly soon"--perhaps even in coming months, Davis says.

Other rules set out by the guidelines:

  • Broadcast underwriting regs apply to Netcasting: The IAC decided against making Internet underwriting regulations more liberal than existing ones that govern broadcasts. Some stations that want to aggressively sell advertising on the web may consider the rules too restrictive. "But I think a great majority of stations will be comfortable with this," says Davis, "because they're basically looking to translate the noncommercial public-service nature of what we do with our broadcasts, onto the Internet."

    The Internet is already steeped in commercialism, Davis says. "But there isn't much public service. We may have an opportunity to establish ourselves as strong public service providers on the Internet."

  • No national inserts: Internet users will be able to download discrete segments of any given program--a Nina Totenberg story, for example--or the first hour in an uninterrupted stream. Within the uninterrupted portions, stations can insert local material, as they do now on the air, with weather forecasts, PSAs, etc. But inserts from competing national producers--such as PRI's Marketplace's morning report--will be prohibited. On-line distribution involves both visual messages and audio streams, so NPR has a "legitimate concern about maintaining the brand integrity," says Davis.
  • Stations can negotiate leeways on matters including site design. IAC members wanted to avoid regulating pages into a "boring sameness," Davis says. It would be disappointing if stations cloned one anothers' "looks," but more likely stations will want to create their own identities with the national product, just as they do on the air, Davis says. "I think we'll be positively hairy with customization."

Besides Davis and Perry, members of the IAC include: Cephas Bowles, g.m., WBGO, Newark; Jim Paluzzi, g.m., KBSU, Boise; John Pearson, manager of on-line services, Minnesota Public Radio; Steve Robinson, network manager, Nebraska Public Radio; Wayne Roth, g.m. of KUOW, Seattle; and Laura Walker, president, WNYC, New York.

An enhancement for radio

The Internet's immediate rewards at this point are, for most broadcasters, abstract and for the soul--the excitement of pioneering, the kick of playing with new tekkie toys and being creative at the same time. In this spirit, some managers have big plans related to the Internet. Perry wants to eventually offer as many as six streams of programming: state legislative coverage a la C-SPAN; his station's broadcast day; all-classical; news and information; folk/traditional music; and a "university channel" which would take advantage of Kent State University's visiting artists, lecturers and ongoing events. He can also envision producing more outreach materials related to programming, the kind PBS regularly puts out for special series and childrens' shows. WKSU could do a special ecology series, for example, that would be accompanied by curriculum and suggested classroom activities for teachers. All Things Considered features and series might warrant a chat line devoted to their topics.

WKSU might also offer premiums and other products via the Web in a virtual catalogue, he says.

Steve Robinson, an IAC member, and head of Nebraska Public Radio, has a cyber-dream as well. He would like the Internet Advisory Group to stay whole, and begin work on "exciting and earth-shaking creative joint projects." He has in mind a public radio magazine, with the equivalent of local, or station, and national, or NPR, editions. It would be highly visual, but also "laden with audio," embracing the arts as well as news and information.

Robinson would also like to offer courses about classical and jazz music, exploiting near-at-hand improvements in sound quality of Internet transmissions. Within 18 months or so, music capabilities on the web should be "very sophisticated"--not yet CD-quality, but "LP-quality," he believes. "RealAudio 3.0 moves in that direction."

There are other more service-oriented motivations. "We're a provider of different services on the Net," says Wayne Roth, general manager of KUOW, Seattle. "It raises the question, why should we download NPR programming and put it on our own server, at considerable expense" when a hyperlink to NPR's site does the job almost as quickly? "It allows us to more closely associate ourself with NPR," he says. "If you make the product available, get NPR programming, PRI programming, and independent programming out as far and wide as possible at low or no cost ... you'll create a demand for the original. ... It doesn't diminish your main business, it enhances it."

Roth and Perry also point out that Internet distribution offers a way around stations' increasingly strict formats. "As stations change, consolidate, or eliminate programs that aren't economically viable on the air, it doesn't mean we have to give up on that service," says Perry. "I think [the Internet] is almost the electronic equivalent of the printing press. It will offer, in almost an explosion capacity, access for independent producers and so on."

And of course there is the biggest motivation of all: self-preservation. If a manager weighs the staffing and equipment costs of Internet distribution against the 100 listeners added by Internet distribution, "it just doesn't make sense right now," Davis says. "What it does do is enable stations to work down the experience curve and be well-positioned to distribute programming once Internet use is more ubiquitous and less expensive."

In light of stations' longstanding fears that NPR would bypass them via satellite or the Internet and go directly to listeners, stations have closely watched the NPR/station interaction on Internet licensing. Working out the licensing agreement with NPR was "gratifying," says Davis, because "there were certainly opportunities for both stations and NPR to stake out essentially hostile positions that may have made getting to this agreement virtually impossible. . . .There are going to be some significant issues for the system up ahead, but I think we've taken a good first step. Now we keep our fingers crossed, take a deep breath, and analyze what we're doing."


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