The Great Song Registration Meltdown of 2020–2021

Overview

This post is an attempt to uncover and explain why registrations of songs at US performing rights organizations (ASCAP and BMI) were taking an extraordinarily long time to process in 2020 and into 2021. And will these issues continue?

BMI writes that:

Songs registered online (at BMI.com) show up in the BMI.com Repertoire and Online Services Catalog application the next day. Titles that do not auto-register require additional processing and may take between 1–7 business days to become available.

ASCAP writes that:

It may take up to seven days to process a new registration.

Many musicians rely on a third party — known as a publishing administrator — to register their songs with these performance rights organizations. So those BMI and ASCAP timelines wouldn’t apply to those using a publishing administrator. Using a third party could take from a week and should at most take three to five months on average. I will dig into how third party song registrations work a bit more deeper in the post.

Songs I recorded with my music group FSQ were submitted for registration with BMI in July of 2020 via my publishing administrator Songtrust. These didn’t appear in BMI’s repertory until nine months later, late April 2021. And the songs submitted to BMI via Songtrust did not fully appear, only five out of eight songs submitted today in the BMI repertory search.

Also, if there are any errors in filing a song registration, getting those fixed seems impossible. Example here is: another song writer — “Charles Fishman” — was accidentally entered for my writing work on a collaboration with Alex Vans of the group, Bad Business Club. Alex is affiliated with ASCAP. I’m actually “Charles Elliot Fishman” in the world of music publishing, and affiliated with BMI, so we entered the following fix in December of 2020 via ASCAP’s online dashboard.

An update made to the writers of a song on ASCAP.com made in December 2020

In the above screen shot you see that the fix was made in December 2020, and Charles Elliot Fishman was entered at ASCAP.com, as the correct songwriter on this production. However six months later ASCAP still shows the other “Charles Fishman” the mistaken entry, as the writer on this production.

I’m a BMI affiliated songwriter going as “Charles Elliot Fishman” but in the original registration an ASCAP writer “Charles Fishman” was entered instead, by accident.

Even if you don’t know about “song registrations” you would be able to comprehend that a data change made directly with the provider of a database should NOT take months to reflect said change.

Why does the speed of song registrations matter? A musical artist could drop a new song on TikTok coming right out of the recording studio one night, and find that song has billions of listens the next day via TikTok, Instagram, YouTube, Spotify and a myriad of other video and music streaming services. If the song isn’t registered properly, publishing royalties aren’t coming in on that fast moving hit.

The Red Hot Music Publishing Industry

Song registrations are the lifeblood of the music publishing industry. If they are being delayed, that slows down the growth of the industry. I am going to zoom out a bit for a moment and explain why it’s important to take note of what’s going on in the world of music publishing.

My larger network of colleagues and friends in the world of digital media and tech know that I wear hats as both a musician and a music technology strategist. And they like to check in with me about the latest music industry trends, and ask what I think about them. Their incessant questions of late have been:

“Chuck, what do you think about NFT’s and the Music Industry?” I answer, go read Cherie Hu’s Water + Music Music NFT report (via Patreon Subscription)

NFTs is an acronym for “non-fungible tokens”. They can be used to declare ownership over digital artworks, collectables and even music.

Beyond the recent questions about NFT’s, I’m more often asked, “Chuck, what do you think about Twitch and TikTok?” Tiktok, I examined a few posts back here on Music Data Pro and Will Page’s recent report about musicians on Twitch is a must read.

There are also some important and larger digital media trends which include music, like the proliferation and VC funding of companies in the arena known as the creator economy (read MIDiA’s latest report re: music and creator economy) and the explosion of social audio platforms (like Clubhouse, Twitter Spaces).

My non music industry network seems less aware and less interested in the current heat of the world of music publishing. When I say heat — I’m talking about the amount of money being spent on music publishing rights, and the velocity of the industry in terms of the pace of consolidation, and mergers and acquisitions, and new companies entering the space.

For those non music industry types, let’s quickly and briefly explain publishing. A musician can write (compose) a song (for instance sheet music, the musical notes written on paper to be played) and the lyrics, without said song ever being recorded or performed. This is what is called the song’s composition.

It follows that said compositions are turned into audio — recorded by either the composer — or another musical artist. The composition — likely a song, but it could be a symphony, an opera — can also be performed live by any musician. Once a composition has been turned into a recording, let’s say a pop song, it follows then the song can be broadcast on the radio, streamed on a music service like Spotify or Apple Music, and can be reproduced in a physical format such as appearing on a CD, vinyl record. Furthermore, other music artists can perform that same song, or with a license, make their own recording of it.

A music publisher of a song collects revenues (music royalties) from the performance of it, and manages the rights to further license it for recording and reproduction. Songwriters of any song also hold 50% of the ownership stake of published songs.

Furthermore, a songwriter can be an independent publisher so they may completely control the publishing of their music. There are many other components to song ownership, including the copyright holders who can own either the composition or the first recorded version of the song. As much as I am simplifying music publishing and the ownership of music rights here, all of these components are extremely valuable and are being bought and sold at a pace like never before. One such deal had songwriter and musician Bob Dylan selling his publishing catalog of about 600 songs to Universal Music Group for an estimated $300 million.

More recently, Red Hot Chili Peppers sold their publishing catalog to UK publishing rights firm Hipnogosis Song Fund for $140 million. The company is currently on a spending spree and a very fast track to amass the largest catalog of music publishing rights. This Fast Company profile of Hipnogosis and the larger trend of major legacy artists selling their catalogs is a must read to understand where the money is flowing and who’s buying and selling music publishing rights.

There are three major music publishers and they are owned by the three major record labels — these firms are Sony/ATV, Warner Chappell, and Universal Music Publishing Group. These companies make up about 60% of the music publishing industry in the US. The independent publishing companies (e.g. not owned by a major record label) are quickly consolidating, with the latest moves being major independent publisher Concord buying Downtown Music Group’s publishing rights for $400 million. Other notable independent publishing firms include Kobalt, Peer Music, BMG, and Pulse Music Group to name a few. If someone were to ask me about NFTs, or Twitch, or TikTok or some other exciting music industry trend, I would point them first at the music publishing space.

(Well you could have NFTs that relate to the ownership of music publishing rights, so there’s that.)

Independent Artists and Music Publishing

Independent artists without sizable fan bases or large music sales and streaming numbers will find those independent publishing firms will overlook them. These firms operate very much like major record labels do — with A&R reps scouting for songwriting talent to sign to their publishing firm.

Fortunately, musicians can operate their own publishing companies and affiliate with a Performance Rights Organization, or PRO. In the US the two major PROs are ASCAP and BMI. These organizations primarily collect royalties in North America but have agreements with foreign royalty collection societies to collect internationally.

The major publishing companies and strong independent publishing companies go beyond the function of the PRO. Beyond their utilization of technology and partnership agreements to collect the maximum amount of royalties globally for their clients, these firms also seek to find opportunities to license the songs the represent for sync (use in film / TV), on social media platforms. Furthermore they protect songs in their publishing catalog from unauthorized use. These practices collectively are called publishing administration.

Small independent music artists can find these services with a few firms that have stepped into the arena of publishing administration to address their needs. These include publishing administration offerings from some of the major independent digital music distributors including Tunecore, Symphonic, and CD Baby. Songtrust and Sentric Music focus pretty much exclusively on publishing administration for independents.

An issue with using an independent self serve publishing administration firm is these companies have scaled to serve thousands of independent artists, so you’ll find yourself logging an online support ticket if you see a problem with your song publishing.

When I was getting my own music publishing together a few years ago, I asked my friend Oz McGuire if I should be going the self serve route and he suggested I use a music attorney he recommended. His advice to me was as follows. Oz said “it’s so easy to mess up when you attempt to register your own songs or as a publisher, I really recommend you work with the firm, they are the experts.”

Beyond paying the hourly rate for their work and expertise, I quickly realized the firm had the right relationships at the PROs and SoundExchange to get things done quickly, like helping me to attain my publisher affiliation with BMI and my first few songs registered at BMI. You can’t collect royalties on from your songs until they are registered with the PRO you have affiliated with.

I would later understand why Oz was so prescient in recommending this music law firm to handle my music publishing affairs. If there are problems with song registrations, it’s great to have a contact to call on the phone who can investigate issues with the PROs.

Three to Five Months to Register a Song

My music group FSQ released an album in 2020 via Soul Clap Records. Part of the plan for release was to have Soul Clap Records own the publishing on the FSQ release. Given Songtrust’s vast expertise in publishing administration and proven track record of serving independent artists, I asked Soul Clap Records to consider moving their music publishing administration over to Songtrust in advance of the release. Soul Clap Records is an artist run record label, led by the dance music duo Soul Clap (Eli Goldstein and Charles Levine) and has a publishing arm, which today is a catalog of about five hundred songs. Considering the size of the catalog and how well known Soul Clap is, we certainly got the white glove treatment in terms of onboarding the music publishing catalog to Songtrust.

In July 2020, the eight songs from the FSQ album were submitted to Songtrust and were to be registered via Songtrust with our PRO, BMI. In October of 2020, I expected to see these songs registered at BMI via their public facing search portal known as “Repertory Search” but they were missing by that date.

Given my previous experience with my music attorney being able to quickly file and register songs with BMI, the missing songs seem unexpected.

I contacted Songtrust about the missing song registrations. I was told “there is currently a delay in BMI processing our song registrations. We have been told it can take as long as six months for songs to appear on the public repertoire.”

I mentioned earlier that prior to 2020, a week to three to five month timeline for registrations made by third parties into BMI and ASCAP was common place. So why the delays?

PROs, Publishing Administrators — Millions of New Songs to Register, Drowning in Data

To get a better understanding of what’s going on in the world of publishing beyond the mega deals where major artists are selling off their publishing and other music rights for millions, look to Synchtank’s music publishing 2021 research report “Drowning in Data: Royalty Accounting and Systems in the Digital Age”

One graph that stood out to me was the following.

How many more songs to keep track of and how many royalty sources ?? One music publisher records a 4500% growth rate in data processing ??

Another graph I noted from the Synchtank report, was data from the major UK based PRO, PRS for Music. This side by side graph shows the expense of processing all the increased song data is depressing revenue return on their work to collect royalties.

With the music publishing industry facing an explosion of data with increasing data processing costs, you begin to wonder if publishers, and the PROs will be able to build quickly and invest enough resources to keep up.

ASCAP and BMI did make one big investment in data in 2020, they built a joint repertory search database called Songview.

That being said, the explosion of song data isn’t going to just go away. Another 2021 research report on music publishing was also recently released, this one by MIDiA Research is titled “Rebalancing The Song Economy”. Variety reviews the report and summarizes it: “ a new royalty model is necessary if songwriters are to survive, let alone undertake the kind of ‘risk-taking’ and ‘creativity’ that moves music forward.’

The report’s author, Björn Ulvaeus, a member of the legendary Swedish music group, calls the current model “dysfunctional”.

Björn Ulvaeus is also the President of CISAC, the International Confederation of Societies of Authors and Composers, a consortium of sorts that includes all the PROs and other royalty collection societies all across the globe, including BMI and ASCAP. The organization also maintains the common standard technologies for music publishing including a data format known as Common Works Registrations (CWR) that allow song registrations to be properly delivered to PROs all over the world, and thereby registered.

If Ulvaeus feels the current publishing model (which would include song registrations as part of the model) “dysfunctional”, he is certainly currently in the position as president to ask CISAC members to streamline their processes and invest in data processing power so that delays are less common.

Some music technology partners are stepping into the mix to improve data processing related to music royalties, for instance Music Reports is partnering with PROs on this front. And the IFPI, The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, announced in 2021 that is working with music technology company BMAT and several Asia based performance royalty organizations to create SoundSys, a “fully scalable, shared system for the distribution of sound recording performance rights revenue around the world.”

But are recent these efforts enough to keep up with the flow of data and processing requirements?

If 60,000 new songs are appearing at Spotify daily, and even only 1/2 of those songs are being registered with PROs or via publishing companies, it is still a huge volume of song data to process, given each song can have multiple songwriters affiliated with multiple PROs and multiple publishers.

Could the data processing issues be the reason myself and other songwriters experienced song registration delays in 2020 and into 2021?

Hunting Down, Validating Song Registrations

To make matters more complicated, NOT every PRO has a public facing song repertory search like US PRO’s BMI and ASCAP have. So it can be hard to discern if a work you wrote has been properly registered if it is being submitted through a foreign based PRO.

In the following case, a song I co-wrote and produced with a UK artist, was registered with a UK publishing firm affiliated with the UK’s PRS for Music. The writers (me and one other) are affiliated with BMI, and we are not able to log on to PRS for Music to check the song registrations, as we are not members of PRS and that’s the only way you can search their database.

Eventually, our shares of the work should appear in BMI repertory search, but again we are finding the delays to be extended without any insight into what a proper timeframe would be.

A UK publisher who registered a collaboration I made with an artist affiliated with PRS for Music UK validates that our song is in the PRS database, but our BMI affiliated contribution is not yet appearing at BMI’s repertory search (email from April 2020)

Is there a way to track the registration of your songs globally? Maybe. For the past several years, CISAC (the organization I mentioned that is the collective body representing PROs across the globe) has been working on the CIS-Net for Rights Holders Initiative. The idea of CIS-Net is a global look up for song data ; CIS-Net is a global network of databases that share the metadata associated with musical repertoire. So in my case, if I had access to it, I could see where this UK based song collaboration I mentioned, is currently in terms of being registered at PRS for Music and also BMI. I could have skipped reaching out to the UK publisher as I did above.

The CIS-Net “Rights Holder Initiative” is designed empower songwriters, composers, and music publishers to search repertoire and interested party information (IPI) on the CIS-Net worldwide database. Unfortunately, it is not as democratic as they make it sound, you would need to get approval from your home PRO to access CIS-Net. I searched the BMI website and found no FAQ on how to get access to the CIS-Net.

CIS-Net for Rights-Holders besides looking like a Web 1.0 website from 1995, seems practically impossible to access for US songwriters

If you think you can get your PRO to give you a sign up key to access the CIS-Net for Rights Holders, you will find the site here:

https://cisnetrha.cisac.org/

A private French data company called Quansic recently stepped into the world of song registration data search (and beyond to other sources, for instance, Discogs data), but their search engine is a paid service.

A Community of Songwriters Experiencing Registration Delays

Back to tracking down the registrations of my songs that I composed here in the U.S. Remember that in late 2020, I was told by Songtrust, my publishing administrator that it could “take up to six months for songs to appear in BMI repertory”. In January 2021, now more than six months after I initially registered 8 songs with the firm (an album), I filed a support ticket with Songtrust. Given COVID, I was told support tickets were talking longer than usual to respond to at Songtrust. The sub headline of this post is “some independent publishers find their work slowed by technological updates, a rapidly expanding universe of new songs, and a global pandemic.” I get that the pandemic, short staffing etc could also be a cause of song registration delays. Heck, ASCAP even delayed royalty payments earned Q3 2019 that were due in April 2020, blaming the pandemic. It’s hard to fathom how money collected in 2019 would be impacted by the pandemic.

While I waited an answer from Songtrust, I asked music industry colleagues if they were experiencing any issues with their song registrations. By asking around I learned that both other Songtrust users, and non Songtrust users — including major music publishers — were also experiencing delays with their song registrations at BMI and ASCAP.

The more I raised the alarm about delays in terms of getting songs registered with PROs within online music industry forums and communities, the more I heard from other major noted publishers and third party registration companies interested in my own problems. I was told I was not alone with in terms of facing registration delays.

Several interested parties including a strong independent publisher, set up Zoom calls with me to discuss the problems. These conversations were fascinating but off the record. More discussions about the song registration delays with other effected songwriters occurred in Cherie Hu’s Patreon subscriber community, Water & Music, while others happened in an email list I am a member of called Pho, and even some users on Twitter were crowing about their own problems.

My intention with this post is to shine a light on the song registration delays to highlight it as an industry problem and understand what investments are being made to improve the song registration process.

Meanwhile at Songtrust, I asked for answers about the delays with my own song registrations. I was fortunate that I have direct executive contacts and I got a direct answer in February 2021:

There were issues with the delivery system that ASCAP and BMI use, which had delayed registration for some songs beginning last April. Given the length the registration process often takes with these partners, and other contributing factors, we didn’t become aware of it until the tail end of last year.

Meanwhile, I asked my music attorney to investigate what was happening on the BMI side. BMI offered:

The issue is on Songtrust’s end, when they identified that sometime in late-2020 that there were multiple registered titles that experienced rejection issues during their submission to BMI. This minor error resulted in Songtrust redesigning their work registration platform to avoid any future issues, and prevent and problems moving forward.

My major frustration here was what seemed like finger pointing between Songtrust and BMI, and the lack of publicly available information about the problems and their scope in terms of how many songwriters were / are affected.

Let me reiterate that I’m thankful Songtrust exists to serve independent publishers as there are very few publishing administration firms that have that mission. Also what is fascinating is that the registration delays impacted publishing administration companies beyond Songtrust.

I went to Twitter and found several other musicians who were even more upset than me, there certainly was a community of songwriters who were missing their song registrations. Finally, Songtrust publicly communicated about the issues with song registrations in March.

Songtrust finally publicly communicated about the issues with song registrations in March 2021

Further songs I later registered with Songtrust, in December 2020, appeared in BMI’s repertory search by May of 2021, which is within the acceptable time frame for third party registrations. So the fixes Songtrust made to their song registration process seem to have taken hold.

Inconsistencies with song registration data

Five of the songs from the FSQ July 2020 album eventually appeared in BMI’s repertory in late April 2021, nine months after they were registered. Today, as of writing, July 2021, three of the songs from the album remain missing from ASCAP / BMI Songview repertory search and BMI’s own independent repertory search.

Only 5 of 8 FSQ songs registered with Songtrust to BMI are appearing in song repertory search as of July 2021

The Mechanical Licensing Collective, aka The MLC, is a non profit that was created in 2019 as part of the US Music Modernization Act, with the purpose of collecting mechanical royalties from streaming services in the US. The MLC pay these mechanical royalties out to songwriters, composers, lyricists, and music publishers.

When a Songtrust affiliated publisher registers songs via that platform, the songs and the corresponding music metadata will not only be sent to the publisher’s PRO (BMI or ASCAP in the US), but also to The MLC.

The MLC, has a public facing repertory song search like ASCAP and BMI’s Songview search:

While only five FSQ songs are appearing as of July 2021 at BMI’s repertory search, the entire eight songs from the registrations made in July 2020 with Songtrust are appearing at The MLC’s repertory search. This raises the important question — why are the eight songs fully displayed at The MLC, but not at BMI ?

I have 10 titles registered at The MLC — the 8 FSQ songs from the 2020 album “Reprise Tonight” and two more songs from another project I am involved in, called fONKSQUISh.

To make matters even more strange, the BMI.com dashboard for my songwriter data (Charles Elliot Fishman) and publisher account (Funk Style Quality Music), are completely different than what’s reflected Songview repertory search, BMI repertory search, or The MLC’s search!!!

Only three songs from the FSQ album, out of eight songs, appear within my BMI.com dashboard. Maybe I do not understand the logic of the BMI.com dashboard and what is supposed to appear here. Still, it’s very confusing that five songs from the album would appear in BMI’s public facing repertory search but only three in my dashboard?

Only 3 songs out of 8 album songs registered with in 2020 appear in 2021 in my BMI.com

I hope to update this post with news that all 8 songs from our FSQ album “Reprise Tonight” are appearing at BMI and that other foreign collaborations I have participated in recently are in the repertory as well. I’m investigating what the hang up is with the remaining 3 songs from the album appearing in Songview and BMI repertories.

What is causing the song registration delays

I can only speculate on what the issues are that caused the delays in 2020 and beyond with song registrations, specifically at US based PROs.

Since there is no industry standard timeline, expectation of when third party song registrations should appear at a PRO, it can be maddening for a publisher or songwriter to keep track of when their songs actually are fully registered and therefore, published.

Meanwhile, Tuneregistry, a song registration service writes:

When your (song) data actually becomes available in the database(s) of each exchange will differ greatly depending on the exchange. While some exchanges have a quick processing time (a few minutes to a few days), others have longer processing time (a few weeks to several months). Furthermore, these processing times can fluctuate over time.

Earlier in the post, I mentioned volume, and pointed to the Synchtank research report titled “Drowning in Data” which also highlighted the increasing data processing costs in the world of music publishing. And again, when I raised the issues publicly I found many other musicians and publishers were facing song registration delays. I want to hear from more publishers and songwriters who have faced similar problems. If you’re a party who faced song registration delays in 2020 or 2021, you can comment on this Music Data Pro LinkedIn thread or direct message us there.

Songtrust noted “issues with the delivery system that ASCAP and BMI use” as a cause of delays for their clients. Well what is this system? Likely it is Musicmark — a joint venture between ASCAP and BMI, and SOCAN (a Canadian PRO) that allows third parties like Songtrust to deliver song registrations via file / data transfer protocols. One publisher told me that their registrations to ASCAP via Musicmark were failing from summer of 2020 until late into that year, and they even double checked their own technology and file transfer protocols twice to make sure the problem wasn’t on their end.

A publisher can also make a first party registration, directly through ASCAP and BMI’s online platforms. As you saw at the beginning of this post, even correcting a song registration directly at ASCAP has been difficult. Regardless, first party registrations should take hold within a week at ASCAP or BMI.

I mentioned that by publicly sharing the delays with my song registrations at the major PROs, I heard from some representatives at a major publisher. Their belief is that the data delivery protocols for song registrations were being updated in 2020 and that the various parties — Musicmark, BMI, and ASCAP — were using disparate versions of CISAC’s music data format called CWR which caused some issues with the delivery of song registration data.

Meanwhile, Music Metadata Expert Matija Kolarić writes on his site :

For well over a decade, there was a single active version of CWR. For a while, revisions were coming out. Revision 7 came out in 2013. Then, nothing new happened until 2019.

At the beginning of 2020, we have 4 versions of CWR being actively revised! Yes, something is very wrong here!

Was there an industry wide breakdown with the CWR music data format in 2020 that started causing song registration delays?

I’m speculating here based on what I heard, but if that’s the case, it seems like some thing ABBA’s Björn Ulvaeus can solve, as he oversees the music publishing industry body responsible for the CWR data format. Ulvaeus can also lobby the CISAC member royalty collection societies like ASCAP and BMI to continue to invest in data administration technology and streamline processes for member songwriters and publishers.

There is one more potential culprit for the slowdown of song registrations at BMI and ASCAP in 2020. And hopefully it was just a hiccup that is now fixed. CISAC centralized and updated the assignment of ISWCs, International Standard Work Codes. These ISWC’s consist of a unique prefix character, nine digits, and an additional digital. A unique specific ISWC code is assigned to each song by the performance rights organization affiliated with the music publisher registering a song.

This ISWC system technology development work undertaken by CISAC and a tech vendor, Spanish Point Technologies, happened between July and September of 2020. That timeline aligns with when Songtrust and other publishing administrators started experiencing song registration delays.

According to CISAC the upgrades, the first in 15 years, and centralization of the ISWC assignment system will do the following:

The new system dramatically reduces the time it takes to assign ISWCs. Unlike today, when assignment is often delayed by the need to complete work registration, ISWCs will be available almost instantly. The codes will then be ready for use by all partners in the commercial chain (publishers, sub-publishers, digital services) within hours of the work’s release, so that a song used on Spotify, Amazon, Apple Music or others can be monetised without delay.

The ISWC improvements are great news for songwriters who may have the next viral hit via TikTok, that was written yesterday and could a global hit tomorrow.

I still remain skeptical that that the music publishing industry can keep up with it’s data volume and processing issues.

Therefore, while Ulvaeus is calling for a complete overhaul of today’s music publishing industry and “new royalty model” it would be good to first start with something more pressing: understanding what the other underlying issues are with song registrations and what future problems could pop up given the volume of incoming, new songs and songwriter data.

In conclusion, were the 2020 / 2021 song registration delays at ASCAP and BMI in 2020 caused by ? ? ?

  1. The volume of incoming new music in 2020 and the additional data processing power needed to process it ?? (as addressed in the Synchtank research report)
  2. Short staffing at the US PROs due to Covid ??
  3. Problems with the Musicmark delivery system ??
  4. Too many different versions of the Common Works Registration data format in use, causing data delivery and processing problems ??
  5. The update to the ISWC system and it’s centralization switch over in mid summer 2020 ??

One may never know, it could be all 5 factors, or individual factors applicable to individual cases. Furthermore, there is no indication of how wide of a problem the song registration delays are for songwriters and publishers at US PROs.

Regardless, trying to understand the issues facing processing song registrations in the past year was fascinating and thank you for reading!

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musicdatapro

Music Data Pro by Chuck Fishman: in depth about music marketing + data — specifically marketing musical artists on streaming services, streaming + radio.