CMJ’s Downfall and the State of College Radio

Vinyl Bay 777, Long Island’s top music outlet, takes a look at CMJ’s failing publication and the significance of college radio in 2017

College Music Journal (CMJ) has been having a rough few years. The music publication has been embroiled in financial issues and lawsuits for nearly 10 years. For the first time in 35 years, the publication’s CMJ Music Marathon festival was not produced. Now, after not updating their website since December, Pitchfork is reporting that CMJ has not published or sent out their music charts in two weeks.

According to Pitchfork, CMJ has cited the departure of sole full-time employee Lisa Hresko and the scramble to restructure as the reason for the missing charts. But after two emails that were sent out to college radio promoters (which Pitchfork obtained), there are still no charts.

Over the course of its 40+ year history, CMJ became a highly useful resource to the burgeoning college radio scene. After all, in the 1980s and 1990s, there weren’t many other ways underground artists could get heard by a wider audience. Originally a physical magazine, CMJ went completely online in 2009, but still collected statistics from stations to compile their weekly charts of the top songs being played on college radio. In 1980, CMJ launched the Music Marathon, which brought new artists to New York while providing insightful lectures and panels on changing trends in the music industry.

This discussion of CMJ’s downfall has also been bringing up discussions of the role of college radio in our current age of technological advancement. While CMJ was getting feedback from more than 500 stations just a few years ago, it was down to less than half that in 2016. Even more troubling, some colleges are selling their stations to bigger entities, like NPR, because a) they aren’t getting enough listeners and b) they cost too much money to run. Just this week, Northern Kentucky University’s WNKU became the latest casualty, reporting that they were in talks to sell the station to a religious broadcasting company.

It’s easy to see why college radio could be suffering on the music discovery front. Why turn on a crackly radio with people telling you what to listen to when you could just go on your phone and connect to the internet where you can find and listen to pretty much anything you want, whenever you want it? Streaming services, as well as sites like Soundcloud and Bandcamp, which allow unsigned artists to stream and sell their music themselves, are more popular and readily available than ever (just look at Chance the Rapper). It doesn’t seem like college radio as a discovery engine would be as relevant.

But many beg to differ. In a long-form piece written and published on Pitchfork earlier this month, Kevin Lozano mentions how radio is still a major player in what people hear and can still break new bands. More than half of people who drive listen to terrestrial radio in their cars. That’s why small labels still focus on college radio as one of their main avenues of promotion; it is a way to get new music out and “rise to the top organically.” New lower power FM frequencies are also giving stations that once had to give up their air space a chance to go back on the airwaves.

Lozano goes even further. Quoting former president Barak Obama’s 2013 South by Southwest speech, he mentions how college radio gives students an outlet to voice their opinions and foster a sense of creativity and community. Because of this, college radio will continue to stay relevant.

While college radio may no longer be the top place to discover new music, it still holds an important spot in breaking artists and getting them to a larger audience, as well as fostering creativity and intellectual communities. It has been hard to quantify the impact of radio lately with one of its biggest proponents, CMJ, struggling to stay afloat. But know that even without the charts and music festival that have become a yardstick for testing the impact of up-and-coming artists and discovering others still too underground to discuss yet, the world of college radio will be just fine.

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