There Is No Cat

As God as my witness, I thought turkeys could fly

Saturday, October 12, 2002

Webcasters stabbed in the back by their own

Damn, it gets so depressing some time when you realize how stacked the deck is against the little guy and in favor of the big conglomerates. Doc Searls points to this article by Andrew Orlowski in The Register detailing how small webcasters were betrayed by their larger brethren on the bill in the House of Representatives that would place a moratorium on the station-killing royalties imposed by the Library of Congress on Internet radio. The bill, H.R. 5469, was originally two paragraphs that said that the royalties wouldn't be imposed for another six months. But literally minutes before the bill hit the floor of the House, small webcasters who had supported the original bill were amazed to find that it was now thirty pages long, and described a deal worked out with the biggest of the independent webcasters and the RIAA to pay royalties at a level that, as Orlowski's article quotes Congressional correspondence, would "seal the fate of this industry to be dominated by big webcasters". You can read the article and find out who were the Judases who sold out the industry. (Note that Thomas has both versions of the bill available, so you can compare and contrast.)

The saddest thing is that unlike over-air broadcasting, there's nothing inherent about the net that says it has to be this way.

The defining characteristic of mass broadcasting in its first century has been a scarcity of spectrum. There are only about 200 channels in each the AM and FM bands. Stations serve local or at most regional audiences. Stations on the same or even adjacent frequencies have to be a certain distance apart to avoid interfering with each other. In many areas of the country, the bands are full. There isn't room for any more stations, and there hasn't been for decades. The AM band was expanded a few years ago to add ten more channels at the top end of the band, but there's not much more room to add channels there, with maritime communications below and a ham band above the AM band. FM can't be expanded at all, with television channels 2 through 6 taking the band directly below FM and short-distance aviation communications starting directly above FM.

By contrast, there are no boundaries on the net. The analogous thing to the frequencies that radio stations inhabit would maybe be IP addresses, although for the most part, it's not possible for hosts to have the same IP address in different locations (NAT-ed intranets excepted). As opposed to the 400 or so channels available in any given region on the defined broadcasting bands, there are over four billion IP addresses available in the current version of IP, with an ungodly number of addresses available under the next generation of IP. In short, unlike spectrum, there is no shortage of IP addresses. And with the huge amount of fiber placed in the ground in the past few years, there's no bandwidth shortage to speak of, either. In short, there is no reason to limit the number of broadcasters.

That's why tilting the field so dramatically against the little guys makes no sense. The only explanation for it is that the big guys don't want the competition. So since there aren't any natural barriers to the little guys like there are in traditional broadcasting, they have to erect some artificial ones.

It's not enough that Clear Channel and Infinity and the like own broadcasting in this country. Now the big hope for finally giving the little guy a voice is being strangled in the crib. And every time it looks like the small webcasters are on the verge of a victory, the big guys claw enough back to ensure their continuing dominance and suffocate the possibility of grass roots broadcasting. We saw the same thing in spades when the commercial broadcasters and NPR combined to snuff out low-power FM, which was a way to squeeze a few more stations into those limited broadcasting bands I mentioned above.

It's starting to feel like the only way the kind of grass roots explosion of web-based broadcasters we've seen in recent years is going to survive is either offshore or so-called "pirate" radio. In the past, when faced with artificially propped up monopolies, for example the government broadcasters of Europe of the 1960s, dedicated enthusiasts found a way on to the air, either offshore on ships, or on land with low-powered transmitters. In England, the BBC was forced to create a pop music station, and hired many of the best pirate broadcasters. Today, the FM band in London is full of pirate stations that post posters and stickers around their coverage areas to let their constituencies know when and where they'll be on the air. And the BBC is still hiring some of the best of them to reach communities they have a hard time reaching. Here in the US, stations have popped up in most cities without the benefit of licenses, usually on the FM band, to serve ethnic communities and other underserved groups. So if, for example, Beethoven.com can't survive here, maybe they could from servers in Bermuda or the Cayman Islands, or some offshore data haven. Pirate stations could use software like Icecast and Shoutcast to broadcast on erratic schedules, much as the shortwave pirates do today on 6955 kHz, or the community-based micro-power FM stations seeded by the likes of Stephen Dunifer.

That sort of hit-and-run, catch-as-catch-can broadcasting might provide an outlet for frustrated small fry webcasters. But it's not likely to give the kind of explosion of diversity we've experienced in the first years of the webcasting revolution. The sad thing is that it doesn't have to be that way. There's absolutely nothing inherent in webcasting that imposes these kind of limits, only the greed of two industries (music and broadcasting) that have finally woken up to the fact that the gravy train they've been riding for decades is in danger of derailling. I don't think we'll see that diversity, and I think that's a tremendous loss. But I do think there will continue to be alternatives for the nuts who have no choice but to continue to get their voices out there.

Posted at 6:02 PM

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What do you mean there is no cat?

"You see, wire telegraph is a kind of a very, very long cat. You pull his tail in New York and his head is meowing in Los Angeles. Do you understand this? And radio operates exactly the same way: you send signals here, they receive them there. The only difference is that there is no cat."

- Albert Einstein, explaining radio


There used to be a cat

[ photo of Mischief, a black and white cat ]

Mischief, 1988 - December 20, 2003

[ photo of Sylvester, a black and white cat ]

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