When lobbying government, be careful what you wish for
At 8pm on November 23, 1923, the first radio station went on-air in Australia. It was called 2SB, and it broadcast using a “sealed set”. If you wanted to listen, you’d have to buy a special radio receiver from the station; and a licence, which paid for the programming. Your set just picked up 2SB. So, if you wanted to listen to the competing 2FC, you needed to buy another radio, and pay for another licence. This was a resounding failure. In the first six months, less than 1,500 sealed-sets were sold; and in less than a year, the radio industry dropped the idea of sealed-sets entirely.
In 2019, Commercial Radio Australia, the lobbying group for Australian commercial radio stations, wants to bring sealed-sets back — this time, online.
In a submission to government, the organisation asks for, among other things, a legal requirement to remove links to live radio streams and podcasts that are published without the permission of the content owners.
The reason given is that other places might link to live streams or to podcasts, therefore people won’t visit radio station websites any more, and therefore radio companies will lose out on the revenue from ad banners on those websites.
First: there’s no need to get government involved. If you don’t want others linking to your live stream, you can protect it: just ask Netflix, Spotify or even Apple’s Beats 1, who all successfully protect their streams so they’re only available to the right people. If you don’t want others linking to your podcasts, just remove the RSS feed and nobody will be able to link to your podcasts any more. Technology to protect streams and files has been available for at least twenty years.
Second: for an ad-funded platform, it’s absolutely the wrong strategy to limit your potential audience. The best user-experience should be on your own platform ideally, but your content should be everywhere. Your main goal isn’t to earn loose change from some horrid blinking banners on your website which upwards of 30% of people block anyway. Your main goal should be to get more listeners to your ad-funded content. That’s where your opportunities are. Anything that gets in the way is the wrong strategy.
Third: the internet has grown because of links. To put legal protection in place for linking to a live stream is against the very notion of how the internet works. You want people linking to your stuff. (And when you don’t, you put protection in place.)
Fourth: podcasting, in particular, works by a podcaster publishing an RSS feed. This feed is published deliberately to help other websites and apps to find individual episodes — without formal permission being given. The whole point, and success, of podcasting is that it’s open. To bring legal protection against people linking to your podcast is dangerous for the entire medium.
Fifth: “permission from the content owners” — the content owners of much of radio’s output are the record companies, not the radio stations. The record companies are in perpetual fights with broadcast radio, and will be delighted to learn that you’ve handed them a way to switch off your internet streams.
The press release seems a scattergun list of issues — everything from better ad measurement, asking for less regulation, asking for more regulation, and asking for money. But the legal requirements (“Mandatory Standards”) about links to streams and especially to podcasts are dangerously misguided; and display a fundamental misunderstanding of how the medium works.
It’s disappointing that Commercial Radio Australia wants a return to the sealed sets of the 1920s. One can only assume they’ve been taking tips from the only country in the world that still uses them: the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Later… Joan Warner of the CRA responds to this article. She’s accused me of “misunderstanding” the issues involved; but I rather think it’s the CRA that doesn’t understand how the internet works.