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Giant of Internet Radio Nears Its 'Last Stand'

"We're approaching a pull-the-plug kind of decision," says Tim Westergren, founder of Pandora, which builds virtual radio stations for online users. (By Thor Swift For The Washington Post)
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The media company Viacom sued YouTube for running clips. Record companies have sought to punish file-sharers. And in radio, the digital transformation has recharged long-standing disputes over how much performers and their record companies ought to be paid when a song gets played.

By contrast to traditional radio, which broadcast only one song at any given time, Pandora's technology allows listeners to create their own stations, through which hundreds of thousands of song are played simultaneously.

For example, if a Pandora listener expresses a preference for "Debaser" by the Pixies, Pandora will search its catalog for songs that have similar musical qualities and create a station accordingly.

Soon after its launch, Pandora drew raves and listeners. Revenue at the growing company, which is supported by venture capital investors, was slated to rise above costs for the first time in 2009, Westergren said.

Then came the decision by the Copyright Royalty Board.

"I was on the bus when I get this message on my Treo," Westergren said. "I thought, 'We're dead.' "

SoundExchange, the organization that represents performers and record companies, said it supports the higher royalties for Internet radio because musicians deserve a bigger cut of Internet radio profits.

"Our artists and copyright owners deserve to be fairly compensated for the blood and sweat that forms the core product of these businesses," said Mike Huppe, general counsel for SoundExchange.

The Copyright Royalty Board last year decided that the fee to play a music recording on Web radio should step up from 8/100 of a cent per song per listener in 2006 to 19/100 of a cent per song per listener in 2010.

Multiplied by the millions of songs and thousands of listeners Pandora serves, that means the company will have to pay about $17 million this year, Westergren said.

The effect may be even worse for smaller outfits. Many small webcasters have said that the royalties as determined by the copyright board would be 100 percent to 300 percent of annual revenue, said David Oxenford, a lawyer who represents some of them.

"Obviously, that's not going to work," he said.

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