When Viacom Attacks

My “day job,” so to speak, is an anchor/producer gig with WINS – the Workers Independent News Service. WINS is a syndicated radio news program that features stories of, by and for working people: we like to think of ourselves as an antidote for what passes as “business news” on the radio today. Where the corporate media tells you which stocks are up or down, we tell you who got screwed behind the stock moves.
Five days a week we produce one ‘headline-style’ newscast (three minutes in length), with a 30-second economic report (a little factoid capsule called the “Dow Bob”), and longer-form feature stories, many of which we get from independent stringer-reporters around the globe.
WINS programming is distributed via the internet in MP3 format through our web site, and in the 14 months or so that we’ve been in production we’ve built up an affiliate list of about 80 radio stations around the United States. We charge between $20-$40 a month for stations to subscribe, which gives them access to everything we do, to use as they see fit.
Most of our affiliates to-date are non-commercial community-type stations, and many are in large markets (we’re on the Pacifica stations in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, for example). A handful of commercial stations in smaller markets around the country have subscribed so far – but we knew cracking the commercial radio nut would be slow going. It is, however, the primary reason for our format and style. Some existing radio networks, like the i.e. America talk network and Free Speech Radio News, also regularly use WINS material.
It’s very tough to build a radio news network from scratch. Typical sources of “seed money” for a project like ours don’t seem to grasp what it is we’re trying to do. For the obvious reasons, my boss (the coolest Executive Director a staff of four could ever have) has been trying to get the labor movement behind the Workers Independent News Service. There are plenty of working people in unions; unions are pretty much impotent and invisible when it comes to media coverage nowadays; which means those working folks are pretty much silenced in the media. It’s one of the reasons why union membership rates are hemorrhaging.
That support has slowly trickled forth, which helps keep WINS alive. As more radio stations subscribe to our news service, we get closer to fiscal sustainability – and our under-the-radar attempt to inject a smidgen of balance into the media would take root for the long term.
Based on feedback both from within and outside the labor movement (in the larger ‘progressive community’), we’re finally seeing some momentum. Some day we’d like to start a Spanish-language version of WINS and branch out into media education projects, like teaching digital audio production skills through union locals (and any other interested groups) around the country.
“Business news for the rest of us” is a start, but actually helping people become the media would be even better.
This is where Viacom comes in.
Two weeks ago, we got a cease-and-desist letter from one of the hundreds of lawyers in Viacom’s legal army. Viacom claims that the Workers Independent News Service’s acronym – WINS – infringes on the trademark Viacom holds to “1010 WINS” – the slogan/logo for a news/talk radio station Viacom owns in New York City through its subsidiary, Infinity Radio.
Viacom is a media giant, ranked among the four largest media corporations in the world. It owns the CBS television and radio networks, several cable channels (including MTV, BET, TNN, Showtime, and Comedy Central), Infinity Radio, Paramount Studios, Blockbuster Video, and the publishing company Simon and Schuster, just to mention a few of its many tentacles. Viacom had revenues of $24 billion last year.
Infinity owns more than 180 stations nationwide and is also the corporate parent of Howard Stern and Don Imus. I think the difference between the Workers Independent News Service and Viacom’s radio empire is pretty stark, if not self-explanatory, to any conscious person. But Viacom is concerned enough to threaten litigation.
Yes, Viacom is preparing to sue the Workers Independent News Service because the acronym of our name happens to be the call letters assigned to one of its radio stations.
My boss initially put the letter aside so as to think long and hard on a response. Viacom’s attorney followed up this week with a phone call. She stressed that Viacom is “on the litigation track” with this dispute. Since the call my boss has pulled some strings and contacted folks within the AFL-CIO – the national union federation representing some 13 million people, which is certainly nothing to sneeze at. They have assigned an attorney to our case.
When I found out about Viacom’s lawsuit threat my first thought was, “publicity on a stick.” Here is a classic example of how media conglomerates stifle smaller voices – in this case using fiscal muscle to litigate a small, non-corporate grassroots “competitor” out of existence. Heaven forbid we share the use of four letters of the alphabet – that might put Dan Rather out of work, so Viacom must crush us like a bug.
If Viacom follows through and sues, the Workers Independent News Service is dead. With nothing to lose except everything, why not try to turn danger into opportunity?
The timing certainly couldn’t be better: the FCC stands poised to eviscerate media ownership regulations in about five weeks’ time, which will allow Viacom to get even bigger. The FCC’s plan has attracted the attention and opposition of a powerful coalition: consumer groups, corageous journalists, academia, activists, and, yes, even unions.
The conundrum of WINS(™?) illuminates the harsh marketplace that is today’s America’s media environment. It’s also a living example of the need for media reform. What a great opportunity for the newly-emerging “media reform movement” to flex its new-found muscle.
That, it would seem, is a fool’s dream. The initial inclination of those working our case is to capitulate. Somehow I doubt Viacom will accept surrender without at least forcing us to change our name – which, after 14 months, is just now starting to get some (for lack of a better phrase) “brand identity.” That, too, might do us in. We should find out in a couple of weeks, when Ms. Viacom calls back.
The optimist might say that, regardless of what happens to the Workers Independent News Service, at least Viacom cared enough to notice. But this is the second run-in I’ve had with Viacom on my journey through life so far – the first one helped sour me on a career in the corporate media. I’d rather not leave this one without a fight.