Radio Stations Are Singing the Blues

Conyers’ Bill Would Make Stations Play and Pay

Posted May 12, 2009 at 6:17pm

House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.) is a stalwart of the civil rights agenda. But on an issue that would appear to be colorblind, he has raised the ire of many of his longtime supporters who insist he’s on the wrong side.

Conyers’ committee is scheduled this morning to mark up a bill that would compel broadcasters to pay performance royalties to artists and record labels when radio stations play their music. The bill has sparked a star-studded lobbying campaign with the likes of Sheryl Crow and Tony Bennett urging Congress to pass the bill, known as the Performance Rights Act.

But on the other side, broadcasters, especially minority-owned radio stations, have turned to the civil rights community — including Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton — to put the pressure on Conyers and other lawmakers to stop the bill.

David Honig, a civil rights lawyer who serves as executive director of the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council, says the stakes couldn’t be higher. And, in a twist, his side is drawing on the Conyers’ playbook of perseverance to block the legislation, he said.

“I’ve known him for almost 40 years,— Honig said of Conyers. “I love him like a brother, and I’m baffled. This is the only time in all the years I’ve known him that he’s just wrong. If you’re going to be wrong, be wrong on something little, not something this big.—

Honig said that minority-owned ra-

dio stations will be particularly hurt if the bill passes because they are starting from a disadvantage and can’t afford to add a new expense.

“It’ll give all radio stations a headache and put minority stations in intensive care,— Honig said.

Some minority stations are integral to get-out-the-vote efforts, particularly among African- Americans and Hispanics, he added.

But a broad coalition of artists and recording industry groups argues that it’s simply a matter of fairness to artists, many of whom are minorities. Already, satellite radio and Internet radio companies pay performance royalties to artists and labels.

“It’s clear that everybody from the big names to working musicians is behind this, and we think it’s time for the loophole to be closed,— said Daryl Friedman, top lobbyist for the Recording Academy and a member of the musicFIRST Coalition. “Certainly Mr. Conyers is going to be someone who is going to have a great concern about these issues and won’t do anything to harm minority-owned stations. We’re confident Mr. Conyers will come up with a solution that will be fair to all sides.—

Indeed, Conyers is expected to introduce a manager’s amendment today that would allow any radio station that makes less than $100,000 a year to pay a flat fee of $500 for unlimited use of music.

And two Democratic minority Members, Reps. Hank Johnson (Ga.) and Linda Sánchez (Calif.), wrote in a “Dear Colleague— letter: “We have an obligation to protect both the ability of minority broadcasters to conduct their business and to compensate the minority artists whose work they use at the same time.—

On Tuesday, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights came out in support of Conyers’ chairman’s mark, which includes the amendment. The group noted that while it is committed to “media diversity, we also believe that artists must be fairly compensated for their work.—

But such comity has not resonated among broadcasters.

Radio One founder and Chairwoman Cathy Hughes, an African-American, on Tuesday issued a call to action. “The John Conyers Performance Tax Bill is the brain child of the foreign-owned record industry who would receive at least 50% of the revenue that would be charged to radio stations in order for them to play music,— she said, according to a statement released by the National Association of Broadcasters. “The music that you now receive free from us —we would have to pay millions of dollars for.—

Marty Machowsky, a spokesman for the musicFIRST Coalition, said the gloomy rhetoric coming from all broadcasters, including the NAB and minority stations, is over the edge. “We’ve extended our hand time and again, and Members have asked radio representatives time and again to sit down,— he said.

But the broadcasters have not been willing to negotiate, he added.

The head of NAB, David Rehr, last week resigned his post, in part, sources said, because his side was not scoring victories on this and other important issues to the broadcasting associations.

The NAB’s spokesman, Dennis Wharton, called musicFIRST simply a front group for the big multinational record labels and said NAB is lining up supporters of its own, thanks in part to the help of the civil rights activists.

“It’s pretty shameless for the record labels who have historically abused artists — and artists have sued them for cheating them out of royalties — to now profess to be so concerned about fairness to artists,— Wharton said.

While most industry sources on both sides of the issue said they expect the bill to pass Conyers’ committee today, the fight will not end there.

Machowsky said artists and musicians will flock to the Capitol “in greater numbers— to make the case that radio companies, many of them billion-dollar enterprises, should compensate artists and musicians for the use of their work.

Honig’s side won’t back down, either.

“We’ll fight it on the [House] floor,— he said. “If we lose it in the House, we’ll fight it in the Senate. If we lose in the Senate, we’ll fight it at the White House. This is a survival issue.

“It’s something I learned from Conyers when we were working on the King holiday,— Honig said, referring to the multiyear fight to create a federal holiday recognizing civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. Conyers introduced the first bill to start the MLK holiday and continued pushing the legislation until it passed some 15 years later.

If the radio bill passes, Honig added, “What we will have done is lost about a generation of work in meticulously building up minorities in radio ownership.—