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.
"There are ties--and at that point, since we are a rank-based chart system, it's up to [radio stations] to figure out how to break those ties and do things that they see fair," Moose said. "We're a data source in that function."
With this leeway, some radio promoters use their close relationships with music directors to influence not just airplay, but the chart position of particular records, peddling "access" similar to that of political lobbyists. When music directors are deciding how to chart records with equal play, promoters are there to give input, often emphasizing records for important clients and high-profile releases. It's definitely part of the job, but the amount of influence promoters have over student music directors is debatable.
According to Wheatley, extreme cases can occur: "[Promoters say] 'I need you to say you're playing it even if you're not... It's not really lying. You're just helping me out. I'll get the job, you'll still get record service. Everybody wins.'
"So then you open up the new issue of CMJ," continues Wheatley. "And you think: How many times did this happen over the last week, that somebody made a deal?"
Wheatley describes one technique radio promoters can use on student music directors: "[They'll say] 'I'm going to send you 25 copies of the Arctic Monkeys. Give 'em to your friends, give 'em away on the air, whatever. You're really helping me out.'"
Record promoters are usually independent contractors hired by record labels, so promoters can have a strong incentive to boost a record's chart performance, even if actual radio airplay for that record may be faltering. But, as Moose pointed out, though charts are important for promoters their job is--or should be--focused on getting records radio play. "Getting a record on a chart is not called promoting," says Moose. "Getting a record on the air is called promoting. Getting a record on a chart is called charting, and there is a difference in the two. Whether or not the people doing the job acknowledge the difference, or even are aware of the difference, are two different things."
The CMJ Airplay Reporter Agreement explicitly forbids "airplay reports that do not correlate with actual airplay," which are known as "paper ads." The CMJ charts have a built-in safeguard against the most egregious cases of fraud. "The promoters and the labels--they sort of police the charts for us," Moose said. "Every single one of them has an ulterior motive, and if that ulterior motive is working against them, they'll be the first to call us and say, 'Hey, this station is faking their charts.'
"Our chart is as accurate as the information we're given, and obviously we want the information we're given to be as accurate as it can be," Moose continued. "I'm reminded of the time when I asked someone, point-blank, 'What the benefits are there to fake chart numbers?' And their answer to me was that they can go to a booking agent and they can go to a publishing company or a commercial radio station, and [they can] say, 'Well, we're number five on the chart, we're number one on the chart, we're top 50, whatever it is.' And they don't give a shit about the rest of the picture. They don't care if that means that the whole thing is fake or that there's 3,000 supporters of the record. They can sit there and say in a very analytical way that this means that I should pay attention to it. Of course the downside to that is, if you build your career on a hollow body, it's going to come crashing down when it doesn't stick."
Even when numbers are honestly reported, it's obvious that even the best album requires a massive, highly organized promotional push to climb the charts. The album with the most money behind it can afford the most promotion.
The latest album by the rock group The Shins, "Wincing the Night Away," ranked in the chart's top three spots for weeks after its release.
"[When it first came out] we had that at number five, and [the promoter] was like, 'You think you can move that to number one?'" said WICB music director Nate Hodge, Ithaca College '09.
Promotional budget aside, the new Shins CD is good and fits within the playlists of a wide variety of stations. "I think that's a fair record to have at the top of the [national] chart, because it's probably getting spun more than anything else," said Hodge in February.
Some bands, though--bands maybe as good as The Shins--may never get a fair shot in college radio because they don't have the same money behind them.
"With some records, [promoters] will ask you about them one week, and the next week they won't even be on their list of priorities," said Hodge.
For promoters and record labels, college radio is a business. College stations must constantly struggle to stay current and competitive, and if they're lucky, Fergalicious-free.