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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Last week, perhaps partly in response to snooping by the press, CMJ went into damage-control mode. Haber told employees that any media calls should be directed to him. He also announced a new policy for unverifiable chart entries: They will henceforth be listed as "Unverified" instead of Certain Damage.

"The reason this whole thing started," Haber says, "was that we didn't want to have happen what had been happening for quite some time, which was people submitting erroneous material that was either inaccurate or even falsified information, a 'joke' to see if they could pull one over on CMJ."

Therefore, whenever something was charted that the CMJ didn't recognize, staffers were supposed to verify its existence. Whether they actually tried is questionable: East Bay band Loretta Lynch can verified in twenty seconds by typing it into Google, as can many of the other titles Certain Damage had replaced. "When you're dealing with 1,900 reports a week -- literally tens of thousands of entries -- there would be no way to interject some sort of manual override," Haber explains. In short, the company claims printing inaccurate charts was the best it could manage.

Yet Haber hopes this incident, which he views as an unfortunate mistake, won't hurt his company. "The minute we have sold our credibility down the river, than we have signed our own death certificate," he says. "And we intend on staying around for a little while."

From the viewpoint of some in the nonmainstream music industry, the recent controversy only highlights the declining value of CMJ's college-radio charts. "If they are just going to throw in anything to substitute what a station's playing, then how can those charts mean anything at all? How can we have any faith in them?" says Bob Weyersberg from Triage Music, a company that does radio promotion for independent record companies. "It just shows how meaningless the charts are."

Weyersberg isn't referring only to CMJ's inaccuracies. College radio playlists, he notes, even those that are correctly published, aren't always a good example of what's being played on the radio. In many cases, they are a list of thirty records that program directors are asking their DJs to include in their sets -- many other albums could be played just as often, but are never reported.

"I've been doing this for thirteen years," Weyersberg says, "and in the past five years especially we've really considered CMJ less and less important to us. Because the college charts, the way they are created and how they are manipulated, and how they are so inaccurate, it doesn't really do us any good. There are a lot of record labels and other promotion companies that live by those charts. It's like a fantasy world; it doesn't have a firm rooting in reality."

Koehler says he hopes CMJ will embrace the scandal as an opportunity to put its house in order. "Hopefully," he says, "what can come out of this is some hard thinking over there in New York. 'Are we becoming irrelevant? Are we threatened with being seen as totally irrelevant because we have a policy of falsifying our charts?'"

The main question on the minds of indie-radio types these days is why there is no viable alternative to CMJ. Someone, they say, could be doing a better job. At this point, dropping out would be unlikely to hurt well-known stations like KALX or WFMU, which will continue to be serviced with promotional CDs no matter what -- and anyone who wants to view the playlists can receive them via a weekly e-mail or on the station Web sites.

But smaller stations feel beholden to the system, and that means dutifully paying their fees and reporting their lists to CMJ. Even the larger stations feel that giving their charts to CMJ helps the smaller labels they champion get their names out there. In short, it's a vicious circle, and while many in the industry take CMJ with a grain of salt, nearly everyone continues to participate. From the perspective of CMJ critics, that's precisely why the media journal has done such a piss-poor job -- it is built on a backbone of tiny, nonprofit stations with little clout, in a market with little competition.

A few start-up competitors exist, the most promising being the online magazine Dusted (www.dustedmagazine.com), first conceived in Berkeley about a year ago by Otis Hart, a sportswriter, ex-DJ, and music geek; and Sam Hunt, a former employee of Chicago indie label Thrill Jockey, where he did college-radio promotions.

As of now, the Dusted site only contains playlists from about forty stations; it's also nonprofit and dedicated to remaining that way. "We make our charts up sort of the same way that CMJ does," Hunt says, "in that we assign point values to positions on radio station charts and assemble what is basically a 'top forty.' But we try to take them only from stations whose music directors or charts reflect a certain degree of sincere interest in what they are playing."

Dusted has been on more and more people's lips since the semipublic pissing match broke out between KALX and CMJ, but more importantly, the incident has created a new level of dialogue among underground program directors across the nation. Though the music industry around college radio has grown fat and mutated, the stations themselves haven't changed so much. Perhaps due to a steady influx of righteous young DJs, underground radio has managed to maintain much its old utopian ideal, the same ideal that gave CMJ its start in the first place. Cool things, it seems, will always exist under the radar.

"There are so many people producing really creative and interesting music on their own without a publicity firm's help, so many homemade things out there that end up in our mailbox that I feel like it's a really good time for music," says WFMU's Turner. "If someone wants to put a lasso around that for some kind of report, it's just kind of fruitless. It'll still happen anyway."


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