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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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At a UC Berkeley that seems to reinvent itself every ten years with new waves of lefties, evangelical Christians, scheming Republicans, and geeks, one thing has always remained constant: The campus radio station, KALX. The station has been documenting the underground since its inception in 1962 when it began in a cigar box -- yes, a cigar box -- in some guy's dorm room. It was the alternative even after the word "alternative" became co-opted, with shows that segue flawlessly from Hungarian bluegrass to Television bootlegs to Hella to Blackalicious. It is widely viewed as one of the leading college radio stations in the country, one that others look to for inspiration. Being music director at KALX is a coveted and important job.

Ian Hetzner shares that job with Paul Koehler. Among their duties is to compile a weekly list of the station's top thirty albums and send it to hundreds of other stations, record labels, music writers, and promoters in a mass e-mail. They also send their list to the only centralized verification center for college radio airplay, CMJ, or the College Music Journal.

Most music aficionados are familiar with the yearly CMJ Music Marathon, where hundreds of bands play showcases all over New York City. But for radio stations, CMJ is the organization that documents their work. Each week its trade magazine, CMJ New Music Report, prints the playlists of more than 1,200 stations across the United States and Canada, which pay a $345 yearly subscription rate for the service. CMJ New Music Report is the Billboard magazine of college radio, and earlier this month, Ian Hetzner made its publishers very, very uncomfortable.

It all started when Hetzner decided to double-check the station's playlist in the back of the magazine. Everything looked fine, except for one thing. Listed in position 19, where KALX had charted East Bay country outfit Loretta Lynch, was a CD called Certain Damage.

Obviously there'd been some mistake; CMJ had somehow replaced a local disc with something that might be mistaken for a mid-'80s hardcore compilation. But Hetzner recognized the interloper immediately, and he was pissed. Certain Damage is a commercial sampler that bands and their labels pay CMJ up to $3,000 to be on. To the majority of college music programmers, the comp is a throwaway. "They are pretty much worthless compilations," Hetzner says. "CMJ doesn't go, 'Oh, I love this record, let's arrange to put their tunes on our compilation!' No, it's record companies approaching and paying to put their songs on the compilations. As long as you have money, you can get your shit on CMJ." Having the record on KALX's published playlist was not only incorrect, it was embarrassing.

Hetzner decided to go back and check CMJ's KALX charts for several weeks, and discovered that similar swaps had been happening over a period of at least two months. Loretta Lynch -- a band so sweet that its members actually gave out pieces of pie at the end of one of its shows -- was replaced twice; an R&B compilation from King Records was replaced twice; and local band the Advantage also lost its position on the playlist. In every case, the chart entry had been usurped by the same album: Certain Damage.

Most disturbing to KALX was that the record replacing the legitimate hits was one produced by CMJ itself, and one in which the company had a sizable financial interest. At $2,000 to $3,000 a song, and a minimum of ten songs -- but usually fourteen or more -- by various artists, the samplers are a cash cow for CMJ.

Last year, the company released at least six volumes of the compilation series, totaling 125 tracks, which, according to CMJ's pricelist would have grossed a minimum of $250,000.

"There are certainly good artists on the comps," Hetzner says. "The thing that sucks about them is that there's nothing new there." All of the songs appear on the artists' records as well. "Besides," he adds, "if I like a band on the compilation, I'm going to just put that band's full-length on our charts, not some comp they appear on."

Though both of KALX's co-music directors say they'd spoken to CMJ representatives on several occasions about other, similar problems with their charts, Hetzner decided to do something a bit more rash this time. He sent out a mass e-mail to everyone on KALX's mailing list, complaining about the Certain Damage snafu. Fellow stations promptly responded, and the music director realized KALX wasn't the only one having the problem; others had been reporting the same discrepancy since last fall.

WXYC in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, reported having a record in its top thirty replaced with Certain Damage at least once. Ditto San Francisco's KUSF, which earlier this month had a compilation called Fourth Annual Portland Old-Time Music Gathering replaced with the CMJ sampler. Stations from around the United States and even Canada were complaining. "We got a whole lot of responses from promotion companies, label folks, and otherwise, saying that this isn't the first time that they've heard of this problem, that it had happened in other states," Hetzner says.

WFMU, of Jersey City, New Jersey, is considered the "biggest" college radio station in the country, if not for its size (300,000-plus listeners a month), then for its innovative programming, a free-form petri dish of arcane music and the best underground rock, jazz, and hip-hop out there. It also doesn't hurt that its signal reaches Manhattan, with Lou Reed and Jim Jarmusch counting themselves among its loyal listeners. Like KALX, WFMU didn't want to be associated with Certain Damage, yet the comp also showed up on its charts in the back of CMJ's trade rag.

Prior to that, the station was having problems with disappearing playlists. "We'd go weeks without our charts even being published," says Brian Turner, program director at WFMU. "I'd follow up and was constantly assured, 'Yeah, there's some glitch,' or 'You aren't hitting the submit button after you finished inputting,' like it was all our fault. This went on for months."

Top CMJ execs indeed blame the charting replacements on a computer glitch. Apparently if their computer database doesn't recognize an artist, it throws the station's entire list out. They say they decided to use Certain Damage as a default place-filler when an artist couldn't be verified. But for a company that prides itself on championing college radio -- a form that revels in the local and the obscure -- why build a system that can't "recognize" underground artists?

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