Has CMJ Become the Monster That Ate College Radio? 

Thousands of underground radio stations like KALX rely on indie chartmaker CMJ to publish playlists accurately. So imagine their surprise when it began falsely stacking college charts with its own pay-to-play releases.

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By the mid-'90s, CMJ was the only nonmainstream game in town, dominating the college radio market. In 1999, with dot-coms on the rise, CMJ partnered with the Internet company ChangeMusic, only to abandon ship and return to being an independent a year and a half ago.

These days, following a series of layoffs and disastrous losses from a Music Marathon that had been scheduled in Manhattan for the week of September 11, 2001, rumors about the financial health of the company have been rampant. "I know they almost went down the tubes financially," Freedman says. "They've had terrible, terrible financial problems."

In addition, freelance writers for CMJ report trouble getting paid. "I wrote a cover story for them about a year and a half ago," says one writer, "and have had to resort to threatening them with lawyers."

Haber shrugs off the money rumors. "Since I've been nineteen, there's been suggestions of CMJ being in trouble," he says. "Actually, CMJ is in the best financial situation we've been in for three years."

Of course, even if true, that doesn't mean CMJ is thriving. Indeed, it would be surprising if it wasn't hurting from the same market conditions that folded longtime rival Gavin magazine last March. In an article for Salon last fall, Gavin managing editor Todd Spencer cited the rapid consolidation of radio during the '90s that led to thousands of radio-industry layoffs and put thousands of stations in the hands of giants such as Clear Channel and Infinity Broadcasting, which have subsequently cut back on advertising.

Rumors of CMJ's money problems are fueled by the fact that the company now appears to rely heavily on major-label support. Editorially, it's hard to tell that CMJ stands for "College Music Journal." CMJ's New Music Monthly, a glossy consumer magazine available at newsstands, regularly features a major-label artist on its cover. And CMJ's Web site tends to feature major-label artists -- most recently Ryan Adams, Blur, and Tenacious D. As for the weekly trade publication that goes to radio stations, none of the programming directors interviewed for this story depend on its articles and reviews for inspiration. "There was a certain point a couple of years ago when all you started seeing was industry people on the cover instead of musicians," says WFMU's Freedman.

The change hasn't come overnight. By the early '90s, perhaps partly due to some backlash against the success of college radio, the journal's reputation among the outsiders that helped build it was already slipping. In 1991, Village Voice writer Robert Christgau wrote that CMJ's "promo-friendly, trend-happy charts have less good music on them than Billboard's -- a lot less. ... Unlike his desperate-to-be-hip consumer-press counterpart Bob Guccione Jr., Haber gives off the vibe of someone who has found his virtuous, interesting, and of course profitable niche." Christgau did, however, admit a certain respect for the trade publication. CMJ, he wrote, "remains above all a programming aid for college radio. With its rah-rah reviews, DIY correspondence, agate playlists, and genrefied charts aimed at genrefied ad bases, it's a trade with pretensions. But those pretensions are modest, earned, and far from delusory."

Since then, however, CMJ's respectability in the independent music sphere has eroded, especially among the college stations that have come to view the organization's charts as some necessary, but not necessarily accurate, evil they have to deal with. Stations that used to simply fax in their weekly top thirty now must painstakingly enter the data into CMJ's online database, a time-consuming task. Some stations feel stiffed by the fact that they pay CMJ a yearly subscription fee, then have to do all the footwork themselves. They feel especially stiffed when the listings that get printed are wrong.


The mass e-mail fired off by KALX's Ian Hetzner following his Certain Damage discovery soon had pierced tongues wagging all over the country. This is his message, minus the typos:

"OK people, here it is, part #too damn many in the occasional series known as KALX folk ripping apart CMJ. The particular crime that I am about to divulge is actually one of the most heinous to date. ... Certain Damage is the name of CMJ's very own compilation series featuring all of your least favorite bands that have way more promo money than fans (since labels apparently have to shell out the dough to get a tune on them comps). So why was KALX charting these records? We weren't, it turns out that when CMJ fails to recognize a record that we chart (i.e. local artist, or just a record that very few stations have) they substitute it with their own damn compilation on the charts, killing two birds with one stone (keeping truly independent artists from charting and charting their own filthy corporate bullshit at the same time). ... When is the major CMJ coup going down? 'cause KALX is more than ready to jump the proverbial ship. Fuck CMJ, thank you, and good day."

Hetzner now says he regrets sending the inflammatory message in anger, and in fact apologized to its recipients the following week for "the somewhat obnoxious tone of the e-mail," despite what KALX describes as a "flood of responses" from other stations voicing agreement.

CMJ, on the other hand, was livid. Mike Boyle, vice president and general manager of the company, responded to KALX with this missive:

"Ladies & Gentlemen (and I use the terms VERY lightly),

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