Viacom v. WIN(S): Goliath Just Won't Quit

More than a year ago I vented about how a radio news service I helped found began getting pressure from one of radio’s biggest bullies. The Workers Independent News Service (WINS) found itself potentially facing a lawsuit from Viacom due to the fact that Viacom’s radio subsidiary, Infinity Broadcasting, owns 1010 WINS-AM in New York City. Viacom alleged that “our” WINS was a trademark infringement on “their” WINS…as if listeners might get confused between a full-time full-power AM radio station in a single market that reminds listeners of its call letters at least every 20 minutes and a nationally-syndicated headline news show fed to its affiliates once a day.
We appealed directly to the AFL-CIO for help, since our news was union-friendly. It was completely lukewarm to the idea and initially very hesitant to get involved in our defense (which says a lot about the backbone of the American labor movement, but that’s another rant). After successfully stymieing Viacom’s lawyer-folk for several months the company pressed the issue and threatened to begin the sueage for-real.
Clearly the AFL-CIO was unwilling to fight, although a few of its member unions were. But the federation had the final say and they capitulated this summer, resulting in a settlement agreement between WINS and Viacom.
Viacom successfully pressured WINS to change its acronym usage to WIN: this meant re-doing the intro/outro segments of each newscast, re-vamping the WIN(S) web site, and getting all new letterhead and other promotional materials. Fortunately, it didn’t bankrupt the operation, but it was certainly an onerous task which did eat up some of WIN(S)’ very meager funds. And it wasn’t a complete rout, either: Viacom’s dumb demand that we also change our intro/outro music was dropped as a part of the settlement.
[My initial reaction to all of this was to fight and use the resultant publicity as a way to raise the stature (and funding potential) of WIN(S), but I was alone on that. Lucky for me I left the project and moved before WIN(S) actually had to make these changes – something I patently refused to be a part of from a perspective of principle.]
Now for the irony: since then the Workers Independent News Service has been picked up by a Viacom-owned news/talk station in St. Louis. KMOX is a heritage station with a long history as “the Voice of St. Louis” – and it also happens to be a leader in that market’s ratings. KMOX is very pleased with WIN(S) and folks there have even agreed to approach other Infinity-owned stations in other major markets on its behalf.
It’s funny enough that one of Viacom’s prime radio properties loves the Workers Independent News Service; it’s even funnier that said property is willing to help expand WIN(S)’ reach. However, the borg that is Viacom itself is not pleased: this week it sent another threatening letter to WIN(S) demanding it stop claiming KMOX is an affiliate (even though this is indisputably true). Viacom further demanded that any references to its station in St. Louis be removed from any promotional literature or other communication that WIN(S) puts out.
Whereas the original dispute involved the use of an acronym (four letters only), Viacom seems to believe it has the leverage to deny WIN(S) use of any of its station’s call letters, even those who choose to carry WIN(S) programming. This is far outside the original (trademark-based) dispute and would seemingly set a scary precedent: if WIN(S) can’t talk about KMOX, then wouldn’t everyone (except Viacom) be prohibited from mentioning the station at all, anywhere?
In a positive development for WIN(S), it appears the AFL-CIO may actually have a vertebrae or two: it has refused Viacom’s new demand. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out – from afar, thank heavens.