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Net radio raises a pirate flag

Technological pieces are falling into place for a pirate radio scene that flies in the face of industry's enforcement efforts, much as file swappers have done for years.

Inspired by Britain's iconoclastic history of pirate radio broadcasting, Iain McLeod wants to save Internet radio.

The 39-year-old McLeod, a game designer who works out of his home in England, is the author of Streamer, a new software program designed to let people create online radio stations that are difficult for the authorities to trace.

Like many a Net rebel before him, McLeod says he's fighting what he sees as the big record labels' desire to control online music. Industry pressure, combined with new rules that will make it much more expensive to play music online in the United States, threatens to force independent DJs into extinction, he says.

"I've always been a fan of pirate radio and dislike badly used authority," McLeod said. "How many U.S. citizens would actually vote for the wholesale closure of U.S. Internet radio if they were actually consulted? Approximately none of them, I think."

McLeod's Streamer technology is just one sign that a large portion of the Net's Webcasting culture may be going underground or gearing up for a fight with copyright police.

Three weeks ago, the U.S. Librarian of Congress set rules for the amounts online radio stations must pay for the rights to play music online. Nearly five years in coming, the fees fell substantially below what the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) had sought. But many small stations say they still can't afford the rates.

Webcasting always has had a tinge of pirate radio in its genes. For every big business such as America Online's or, scores of tiny stations with only a few daily listeners have defiantly broadcast their own all-Gregorian chant or bluegrass banjo stations into the digital void.

A few of these have grown large enough to turn their efforts into small businesses. Most have remained labors of love or of the obsession that has always driven music fans.

Under the new rules, this kind of passion will carry a price: $500 minimum to play music online plus .07 cents per listener, per song. According to a note posted on the AOL Time Warner-owned Shoutcast site, this would average out to about $7 per month, per listener for a hobbyist station.

Already a handful of stations have shut down or are planning to pull their own plugs in the next few weeks. More are likely to follow, industry insiders say.

San Francisco's popular SomaFM, which drew more than a thousand listeners a day at its peak, went offline just days after the Webcasting decision. At the top of its Web site, which now gives news but no music, a short message reads: "Killed by the RIAA. June 20, 2002."

Tag's Trance Trip, operated by one of AOL's Nullsoft employees, went off the air just hours after the rates' release. Florida-based Good Time Oldies signed off June 30.

Some efforts to combat the new fees are already under way. Reps. Rick Boucher, D-Va., and Jay Inslee, D-Wash., say they're considering legislation that would allow small Webcasters to continue. The rates can also be appealed to federal court in Washington, D.C.

High-tech pirate tools
Then there's the underground path. The technological pieces are falling into place for a pirate radio scene that flies in the face of industry's enforcement efforts, much as file swappers have done for years.

What is far from certain is whether many people will follow would-be pirate broadcasters into the underground. As technology develops to hide Webcasters from royalty-hunters, it also will make it more difficult for them to find an audience.

The technology to turn ordinary PCs into Web radio stations has existed for years. Shoutcast was one of the first simple packages to do this. According to statistics kept on the site, more than 2,800 people were broadcasting using Shoutcast technology Tuesday, with more than 47,000 listeners.

Open-source technology dubbed Icecast allows people to do the same thing.

Many of the hobbyist broadcasters who use these services are vowing to continue streaming in spite of the ruling.

"It's been my dream to be a DJ," said Pat Cook, a 27-year-old Webcaster from Harrisburg, Pa. "I'm not letting something stupid like this stop it. If they want money, they'll have to come to my door to get it."

Label representatives say they will come after Webcasting scofflaws. SoundExchange, a group created by the RIAA to collect and distribute the royalties to labels and artists, has an enforcement committee. It's not yet clear whether the group itself or member labels will do the enforcement activities, however.

"If people are not following the statutory license and paying royalties, it will be copyright infringement, with potentially severe penalties," said John Simson, executive director of SoundExchange, which is made up of label and artist representatives. "If they're flying under the radar, who knows how long they can stay there."

On their own, the older streaming technologies make it simple to track down the broadcasters and ask for royalties. However, peer-to-peer technologies such as Streamer are aimed at shielding the Webcasters from prying authority eyes.

Streamer itself is new--and buggy. McLeod is the first to admit this. He released it early, before finishing its development, after hearing news that the Webcasting fees had been put in place and that popular file-swapping company Audiogalaxy effectively had been shut down by a record industry lawsuit.

The Streamer technology works a little like Gnutella or other file-swapping services that don't rely on central servers. A stream of music would be relayed through a daisy-chain of listeners and PC relay points across the Net, so that the original broadcast point would be difficult--though not impossible--to track down.

Although Streamer may have technological issues to work out, this model is already up and working in other places. Technologists note that the idea is a more efficient way of distributing streaming media than traditional Webcasting servers.

Indeed, ChainCast Networks, a company that offers an industrial-strength version of the same idea, already has large customers including Cox Radio and Entercom Communications.

Analysts aren't bullish on the notion of many people switching to this type of underground broadcasting. It's complicated and would make it difficult to bring in money, they say.

"Certainly the technology is there, so it's possible," said Ryan Jones, an Internet media analyst with The Yankee Group research firm. "But before there is a drag-and-drop (technology), I can't see who would really want to go through the effort to create a station that doesn't generate revenue."

For McLeod and others like him, it's not about revenue or about large numbers of listeners. He's inspired by Radio Caroline and the other ship-based stations that broadcast off the coast of Britain in defiance of that country's radio monopoly in the 1960s and 1970s, he says.

"I'm not going undercover to hide from the RIAA," McLeod said. "If people don't oppose their paid-for legislation, then democracy is in serious trouble. Your U.S. democracy doesn't look too healthy from here anyway."