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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"One of the first things you will learn when you finally become adults is how to act in a mature manner when you have a problem or question with something. That being said, rather than be immature and trying to show off to all of your buddies what 'big people' you are and that you have the ability to call people/organizations names (wow that will look real good on a résumé some day), why not call CMJ and inquire about the situation before showing your true maturity level in a mass e-mail? Did it ever occur to you that you may not have all the facts before slinging your mud? Obviously not.

"Bottom line, we'd welcome the opportunity to explain the situation to you, but how would you know if you never tried asking, like the professionals you're supposed to be in the first place? You may not like the answer/explanation, but at least you will know you acted like professionals and not a bunch of half-cocked three-year-olds."

Boyle, who has a reputation in the industry for relishing his role as "the bad guy," refused to offer an explanation until KALX issued an apology. Paul Koehler, a Cal student and KALX's co-music director, responded to Boyle's message, noting that in fact KALX had alerted CMJ before about other inaccuracies in its charts. "We have brought this problem up with several reps from CMJ over the past couple of years, and never received a satisfactory explanation for why a record that has never gotten a spin on KALX would still be listed on our charts."

Boyle, nonplussed, shot back: "You obviously have made your mind up that we're what's wrong with the world and CMJ; sorry you feel that way. If you'd like to cancel your reporting status, say the word and we'll turn yours off and big, bad CMJ will no longer be a thorn in your side."

The responses that flooded in to KALX following Hetzner's initial e-mail confirmed that this had been happening to other stations, and led to debates among the stations about CMJ's performance in general. WFMU program director Brian Turner was among those quick to take KALX's side, especially since his station had also experienced the Certain Damage problem.

According to Turner, he complained to Mike Boyle about the discrepancy and was told CMJ was listing the sampler in place of records its staff couldn't verify. "I said, 'Well, if that's the case, then I don't want you to report our chart, because I don't want records on our chart that we don't report,'" Turner says. "And he responded by saying, 'Oh, you should be glad that it got printed the way it did, when we often wipe the entire chart when we don't identify a record.' ... I was furious."

Boyle declined to comment for this story, but to Turner, CMJ's behavior was antithetical to the ethos of independent broadcasting. "It seems to me to be a very conscious way on their part to define the parameters of what's playable on the radio," he says.

None of the other stations got satisfactory answers to their inquiries with CMJ either. "I don't think any of us would be so upset if when we first brought it up, they had said, 'Oh God, you're right, this is a serious problem, let's fix it,'" says KALX's Koehler. "Their response has been exactly the opposite."

Bobby Haber admits that his company knowingly replaced records submitted by radio stations with Certain Damage, but insists he had no prior personal knowledge of the replacements. The company's computer system, Haber claims, was discarding entire charts if the computer didn't recognize an artist, and Boyle thought it would be better to replace the unrecognized artists than to simply have the chart not run at all. "We tried to come up with the least problematic solution, which was not, of course, putting any artist in there, which would be incredibly irresponsible, but to come up with something that would allow the playlist not to be rejected," Haber says. "And that was to put, as a placeholder, our compilation."

But why not just put "Not Available" in the space, instead of something by which the company profits, and from which it benefits when the comp appears on the charts of influential stations like KALX and WFMU? "I will go on the record," Haber replies, "and say that from a nontechie point of view, it does not seem like the best way to handle it. But I'm not the chief technical officer, and what you are dealing with literally depends upon hundreds of thousands of pieces of data -- it is impossible to manually override it. So I think it was a clever fix, but one that we probably could have done a lot better."

Indeed, some observers might question why a company whose job it is to document nonmainstream music depends on a system that punishes stations for playing little-known artists.

Haber's explanation is that his company has gone through rapid changes over the last decade: The technology it acquired when it was owned by the dot-com, and subsequently inherited after buying itself out of that situation, has left CMJ with a "jury-rigged" computer system. "It's been Band-Aid upon Band-Aid upon Band-Aid," Haber says. "If there was ever any intent to falsify or to defraud, here we are putting something out in black and white, in print, for the entire world to see. Thinking logically, even with the most sinister motives involved, if there was any attempt to do so, why would we go so far as to put Certain Damage in on KALX to have them see and for the whole world to see?"

Regardless of the company's intent, its actions have rocked the college radio world. "The thing that strikes me about this," says KALX general manager Sandra Wasson, "is I can't imagine that Billboard or R&R would do something like this. If they did, it would be seen as a really big problem."


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