RIAA vs. Archived Radio: Licenses Mean Abandoning On-Demand

American Top 40/AT40/Premiere Networks
Radio DJ Casey Kasem in the booth during a broadcast of American Top 40.

If you grew up on Top 40 and want to relive those memories by listening to radio as it sounded then, the good news is there are plenty of websites featuring station airchecks from legendary personalities such as Wolfman Jack and Casey Kasem. 

Now the bad news: You might not hear the music those DJs played while they were on the air.

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That's because these sites need permission to use copyrighted music. It's a reminder the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) recently brought to REELRADIO.com, home to over 3,000 airchecks dating back to the early 1950s and the beginning of the format. Sites such as Airchexx.com, also rich with radio history, aren't affected by the RIAA's request to comply with the conditions set for licensed music, as their airchecks are "scoped" (meaning the music has been taken out, leaving just the DJ talk).

As a result of the RIAA's warning on July 11, not only were 1,147 unscoped airchecks (with music) -- over a third of those available on REELRADIO -- temporarily removed from its library, but unscoped radio may no longer be heard on demand, according to REELRADIO, Inc. president Richard Irwin. "For years, [subscribers] could simply find a station, city, year or DJ they liked, click and play that recording. Now I have to create a 'program' of airchecks [that] streams continuously, in a manner that is unfriendly and uncomfortable for subscribers. They can listen, but it may not be something they want to hear. This, however, satisfies the RIAA."

In response, unhappy subscribers contacted the RIAA, interpreting the organization's action, as communicated by Irwin on the website's welcome page, as a legal threat. According to an RIAA spokesperson, "We aren't trying to stop REELRADIO from offering unscoped airchecks. Based on their functionality, some services must get licenses directly from labels [while] some, like REELRADIO, get a statutory license [where] Congress determines the rules. We let REELRADIO know the way it has offered its program doesn't fit within Congress' rules."

For now, the hits will keep on coming at REELRADIO, even if not the way Irwin intended. "I look at the RIAA like a traffic cop who pulls you over for speeding, tells you to slow down and lets you go without writing a ticket. However, if you start driving too fast again, you're still subject to being pulled over, and maybe the next time you'll get one." 


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