With homogenous corporate playlists taking over most commercial radio stations, college radio continues to be a refuge for new independent music. But even college playlists can be influenced by corporate pressures.
College radio stations constantly receive records from bands, labels, and radio promotion companies. The station’s music director, in most cases a student, must sort through these new releases to construct the station’s record rotation, all while weighing listener demand against personal taste, critical opinion, and the pleas of radio promoters, with whom the music director is required to keep in frequent contact.
Radio promoters act as intermediaries between record companies and stations. They send stations new records from the artists they represent and seek publicity for album releases by setting up radio interviews and on-air giveaways, features that many college radio stations depend on to increase their audience.
In return, music directors report back to promoters what records are being played and how often. Every week, college radio stations report to the College Music Journal their airplay in at least two basic categories: their top 30 most played albums and their top five new, or “add,” records. CMJ publishes nationwide play charts in its weekly magazine, the New Music Report.
“It’s almost universal in college radio that if you want service from record companies, you have to report to CMJ,” said Chris Wheatley, manager of radio operations at Ithaca College’s WICB.
In theory, the CMJ charts provide proof to record labels and artists that the money they’re spending on radio promotion is paying off in terms of on-air play. But that’s not all. CMJ influences everything from press buzz to future radio play to record contracts.
“[The chart’s audience] is two-fold,” Rev. Moose, vice president of content for the CMJ Network and editor in chief of the CMJ New Music Report, told Campus Progress. “Obviously the charts are trade services, so the industry people that want them are going to be comparing information against information –On the radio station side of things, they’re used to see where that radio station may be able to either differentiate itself or find other like-minded broadcasters that they can grab ideas from.”
The overall chart should give an industry-wide picture as to which artists are doing well in the college radio market and which are struggling. But that’s not always the case.
“That’s the naïve, ‘in a perfect world’ [situation],” said Wheatley. “The problem with CMJ is the way the record industry works.”
Even on the most basic level, the criteria for setting chart rankings are vague; radio stations have huge discretion in numerically ranking their top 30 records, a large portion of which may be getting an equal amount of radio play. Ideally each spin from a particular record should be totaled and ranked against a station’s other records, but increasingly stations use computers to generate their playlists, giving records identical airplay by design. And even if a station is free-form, differentiating between heavily played records is difficult.