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Outgoing Federal Communi-cations Commission chair Michael Powell once told an audience at the International Consumer Electronics Show that TiVo was “God’s machine.” He’s right. Once you’ve had one, you can never go back to dumb TV, where you’re stuck watching whatever is actually on at that moment.

Today you can buy similar devices for radio–sometimes called RiVos–including Griffin’s Radio Shark and Neuros’s MP3 Computer, that connect to your computer and record programs to your hard drive. The next generation of these gadgets will go those one better, recording all of the radio stations in a frequency band simultaneously, then picking out individual songs and arranging them into playlists. Goodbye channels, chatter, idiot DJs and throwaway music. Who needs live radio when you’ve got a RiVo?

The problem is that tomorrow RiVo may be illegal. A new generation of radio called Digital Audio Broadcast (DAB, a.k.a. digital radio) is coming, and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) is dedicated to making sure no RiVo-like device for digital radio ever reaches the marketplace. DAB is just beginning to show up in the U.S., but it will eventually replace analog FM and AM broadcasts. What worries the RIAA is that a DAB signal sounds better than analog, and it can carry information such as names of tracks and artists and be easily recorded to a hard drive. RiVo functionality could be in every DAB tuner.

Last April, the RIAA’s president, Cary Sherman, wrote a ridiculous memo to Gary Shapiro, the president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), in which he upbraided CEA companies for having the temerity to produce devices for “transforming a passive listening experience into a personal music library.” Sherman warned of his intention to have the FCC impose regulations on DAB receivers that would mirror the Broadcast Flag, the government-imposed restrictions on digital TV devices.

Shapiro’s reply stopped just shy of telling Sherman and the RIAA to get bent, saying, “You apparently want to force [the public] to buy what they have received for free since Fleming and Marconi first made it possible to hear news and music over the public airwaves. . . . [W]e have long been concerned about content owners seeking to change the ‘play’ on our devices to a ‘pay’ button.”But the RIAA isn’t giving up. In a February filing to the FCC, the RIAA argued that the improved sound quality of DAB over FM necessitated new rules for DAB receivers–echoing the case AM-pioneer RCA made 60 years ago in trying to stamp out FM. The RIAA went on to outline how RiVo would be an “immediate and substantial threat to the recording industry,” recalling 1982, when the president of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) told Congress that the VCR’s “primary mission is to copy . . . material that belongs to other people.”

The RIAA and the MPAA have fought every disruptive technology, but these innovations have only made them
richer. They claimed that they couldn’t make a living when the radio “destroyed” vaudeville, but they were wrong. They claimed that TV would kill the movie theaters, but they were wrong. They claimed that the jukebox would kill record sales, but they were wrong.

And if they’re not wrong this time? Well, tough. Records and radio exist today only because the government ignored the entrenched interests of the day when they sang their doom-songs. In a free market, you are also free to fail.

Entertainment companies have always sought to put locks on the material they broadcast, and the answer has always been the same: The public owns the airwaves, and we won’t let you restrict the devices we use to tune them in. Visit www.fcc.gov and send the commissioners a note reminding them that they work for you–and that you want your RiVo.

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