This past week, I went to the CMJ conference at NYU in NYC. Originally a gathering of college radio people, the CMJ Music Marathon is now a huge agglomeration of performances by new bands hoping to get noticed by record labels, radio music directors, promoters, and so on. Oh, yeah, and a conference with some panels. One of which, “2007: The Year in Tech”, had me as a panelist.

I spent the vast bulk of my college years at the radio station, WPRB in Princeton, NJ. Now I run the alumni board that oversees the station, but I’m not involved on a day-to-day basis. Two weeks ago, WPRB had its first ever on-air fund drive; I went down to help out, take phone calls, and even do my first radio show in over 12 years. That, combined with soaking up the atmosphere of CMJ, gave me a glimpse into the college radio scene nowadays.

CMJ — it originally stood for College Music Journal, now it’s just… CMJ — first appeared during my undergrad years of 1979-1983. For the first time ever, it gave college radio DJs an easy way of finding out what their peers at other college stations were playing. It was a great source of information. Around the same time, and not coincidentally, punk and new wave were emerging — and college stations were virtually the only ones that played that music. CMJ collected college radio playlists and produced charts, which record labels began to notice.

This had a major effect on the rock music industry. In fact, it was probably the biggest source of internal change until 1992, when automated SoundScan retail reports superseded retail managers’ payola-fueled “take our word for it” sales reports — resulting in the “sudden” vault of Grunge (Nirvana) past Urban Contemporary (Lionel Richie) to the top of the charts. With CMJ charts, record labels quickly understood why bands like the Police, Clash, U2, Talking Heads, and REM were selling healthily, and they took action: they signed bands, and the major record companies acquired punk and new wave labels like Stiff and Sire.

Over time, CMJ began to carve up the college radio sound into charts representing narrow — and basically trendoid — micro-segments like “American Stars & Bars.” These were very effective both in sending signals to college DJs about what’s hip and giving A&R people at record labels blueprints for their next signings.

CMJ was the serpent in the college radio Garden of Eden. The good news was that record labels finally began to take college stations seriously enough to provide them with decent record service (plus concert tickets and other bennies). The bad news was that college DJs began to look to their semi-weekly issues of CMJ to find out what they should play; as a result, music played on college radio began to homogenize, and much of the creativity got sucked out of the medium.

Nowadays, many college stations actually pride themselves on playing the CMJ Top 20. XM Satellite Radio even has a station called XMU, which plays it too — though with no blown segues and no announcers saying “ummm” and “uhhh.” Much of the music of the CMJ Top 20 sounds similar to what we played on college radio in the early-mid 80s. First it was called punk, then it was new wave, then it was alternative rock, then more simply alt-rock, and now it’s indie rock.

But it’s largely the same sounds. During a lunch break in the CMJ conference track, a band called La Laque played. They sang in French and had a female lead singer, but otherwise they might as well have been called Les Nouvelles Tetes Parlantes. The guitarist not only looked and jerked around stage like David Byrne, he even played the same vintage Fender Mustang guitar that Byrne played during the Talking Heads’ early days.

All in all, college radio today strikes me as much the same as it was 25 years ago. There are little differences. Some DJs plug their iPods into the studio mixing board instead of bringing a crate of albums in; this increases the chances of musical serendipity but decreases sound quality. The ubiquity of email, IM, and cell phones makes it easier to fit station management duties in with a class schedule, but it reduces station hanging-out time that leads to stronger commitment.

College radio perseveres because it has come to be identified closely with a type of music whose fans know is available there. Just as there was a rite of passage during my high-school days when you moved from Elton John to ELP and from Top 40 to progressive FM radio, today’s rite of passage from Avril Lavigne to Animal Collective often involves a college radio station (as well as various MySpace pages).

Of course, college radio doesn’t just play indie rock. It also perseveres because it offers two things that commercial radio does not. One is what Peter Gabriel has called a curatorial function: as the Internet makes music more ubiquitous and easier to get for free, the value is shifting to those who can help you discover music you don’t know but would like, or who can juxtapose different music in new and exciting ways.

In the 1960s and 70s, FM radio used to be a tastemaker. Now commercial radio is more of a taste reflector. One indie label guy I met at CMJ told me that his most successful artist, a folk-pop singer-songwriter, got her big break doing background music for TV, including the theme song for a prime time network series (I forget which one). Only now is commercial radio starting, slowly, to play her music. This is completely backwards from the way it used to be. College radio is virtually the only tastemaker left on broadcast radio.

The second is the human element. In commercial radio, with its automated music formats and generic, disembodied jocks, the human element has passed to talk radio — which partially explains its staggering rise from the fringes to the top during the last 10-15 years. College DJs are refreshingly, unabashedly, unapologetically human.

Many college radio people today talk about whether or how the Internet threatens the medium. The human element in radio is inherently non-scalable, and it’s what’s missing from net radio a la Live365.com. Many of the most successful college stations simulcast online. WPRB does this and got a significant number of pledges during its recent fund drive from Internet-only listeners.

Tastemaking is also not all that scalable online. The sheer volume of music-geek blogs, and the fact that most of them don’t last long before they are abandoned or discredited (as losers or as record-label shills), makes them a rather unreliable source. Recommendation engines like Pandora can be great but have significant limitations. College radio continues to emerge as a (user-)friendly, often reliable, and self-editing source of tastemaking information.

Back at the CMJ conference, someone from a new Internet-only college station asked a question to panelists: how can we get an FM license? My question to him was: why would you want to? He couldn’t give me an answer other than duh, it’s obvious. His lack of eloquence spoke volumes about the contiuning viability of college radio, even in the Internet age.

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