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No Dead Air sign at college radio station KJUC at UC Santa Barbara (photo: J. Waits)

College Radio Watch: What’s up with CMJ Charts and More News

For at least the past year there have been more regular grumblings about the status of CMJ and this week Pitchfork is reporting that, “For the second week in a row, CMJ has not published its weekly college radio charts, calling into question the fate of an institution that has tracked the music played by college stations around the country since 1978.” A college radio stalwart, the company has served as a conduit between radio programmers and the music industry through its website, weekly charts and annual conference. Over the years, CMJ has modified its delivery methods, moving from production of a weekly print magazine (full of music reviews, charts, and even radio-themed editorial) to online-only content.

Despite those changes, its annual fall CMJ Music Marathon remained largely the same, with daytime keynotes and panel discussions and night-time music showcases all over New York City. When the 2016 edition never materialized, more people became aware of the simmering troubles at CMJ. By the end of the year, a lawsuit was filed by at least two staffers over unpaid wages. According to the complaint, “On or about October 15, 2015, Defendants stopped paying wages to its employees.” Throughout the year, a number of CMJ employees left the company and various plans for CMJ events were scrapped. Editorial on the CMJ website and social media activity slowed to a trickle. The last public feature on the CMJ website is dated May 4, 2016 and the most recent public charts are from December, 2016. CMJ’s last Facebook post, on June 29, 2016 reads, “We love all our dedicated fans. Please bear with us. ” A very similar sentiment was posted on Twitter the same day and is also the last tweet by CMJ.

Pitchfork writes, “The chart hiatus is just the latest in a series of setbacks for CMJ. The last-known remaining employee, Lisa Hresko, recently took a new job with indie-label trade group A2IM. And last year’s lack of a CMJ Music Marathon, for the first time in the event’s 35-year history, came despite [CMJ owner Adam] Klein’s assurance it ‘absolutely’ would happen in 2016. ”

Within college radio circles, the troubles at CMJ have been evident in a number of ways. Some stations have reported having difficulty renewing their CMJ subscriptions and say that it has been challenging reaching people at the company. Despite that, Pitchfork writes that CMJ emailed radio promoters with assurances that updates will be coming soon regarding charts.

Other Charting Services Appear on the Scene

Although some stations eschew charts entirely, for many, reporting weekly lists of a station’s most played and newly added albums is an essential way to communicate with musicians and labels, often helping stations acquire new music. It remains to be seen if CMJ’s charts will resume, but now it has a few competitors, including Muzooka (which launched charts in spring 2016), Spinitron, and NACC.

Spinitron, an online playlist tool used by many college radio stations, automatically tracks airplay and has been publishing charts based on the activity of the stations that use its service. Back in October, the blog Medium Rotation started publishing weekly Top 100 radio charts using Spinitron data. College radio old-timers might remember that Medium Rotation started out as a message board for college radio participants. After a hiatus, it has been reborn as a “…trade organization founded by a group of past and present campus/community radio broadcasters and promoters that want to see the format continue to flourish,” according to its website. Still evolving, the new Medium Rotation is publishing a blog, posting charts and promises that it will be adding message boards in the future.

Additionally, upstart service NACC (North American College and Community Radio Chart), had a soft launch last summer and a more official launch in January. NACC has been collecting charts from radio stations for at least six months. Founder Gary McDonald is a music promoter and founding partner of Canadian music promotion firm Frontside Group. Regarding the launch of NACC, McDonald writes, “It is my great hope that the NACC will be a beacon of new music discovery for the next generation of college and non-commercial radio lovers. We will do everything in our power to ensure the results of our efforts are the transparent, welcoming chart that duly reflects the efforts and airplay of our contributing stations.”

As of February 14, NACC has more than 200 radio stations reporting charts to the service. Its website includes charts for the past month, going back to January 17, 2017. NACC is also starting to do some additional editorial, including a Music Director of the Month feature (CFUR was featured in January and KSDB’s MD is the focus for February). They have also collaborated with the Verge on Sirius XM for a weekly chart countdown show, “The NACC 200 Countdown,” which highlights new music reflected in their weekly charts.

Beyond the charts, I’m pleased to see that both Medium Rotation and NACC are starting to publish editorial content about the culture of college radio. I was saddened when CMJ stopped writing about college radio, as there are fewer and fewer outlets that report on the scene. Often I feel like the lone voice, so it’s nice to have some company.

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