Getting Radio Airplay

By David A. Barber
Author of Gigging, Everything You Need to Know About Playing Gigs (Except How to Play Your Axe)

Every band that has recorded music would like to have their music played on the radio.  Even with the listenership of traditional radio falling off dramatically as people listen to iPods, there are still enough people listening to radio stations to make it worth the effort to try to get some airplay.  Even if there are only a few hundred listeners, that’s a few hundred that might otherwise never hear your music.

How do you get your music played?  Just send it in.  Mail in a CD, email an MP3, whatever you have.  But first, do a little research.  Make sure your songs are the best possible quality that you can produce. Take a little time and figure out what makes a song “radio ready.” Check out the various radio stations in your area (to start with) and determine if any of them are likely to play your kind of music, who makes the decisions on what music gets played and what format they prefer to get that music in.

Get your song Radio Ready: A good producer can help you out here, and even a half-assed one should know more than nothing.  It’s not rocket science.  Just Google “Radio Ready Song” and you will get more info than you can handle.  The bottom line is that you need a radio-ready mix for your song which will sometimes be different than the version you play live or sell on your album.

A few pointers:

  • Make sure the lyrics are clean.  No four-letter words that are not allowed on TV or Radio (even if you are sending it to cable TV or internet radio, this rule is commonly enforced to make sure grandmothers don’t call in to complain about the material their grandchildren are listening to.)
  • Keep your intro short.  Live you can noodle on for 5 minutes before the lyrics start, but radio prefers that you go 4 bars and then start the singing.
  • Master the song.  Mastering is a step that comes after mixing.  This involves keeping the volume and levels within the desired range. Without mastering, your song will sound “local.” (that means “amateur” or sometimes even “bad”)  You need someone who really understands mastering to have this done well.  It’s worth the extra cost. You may want to create a version that is specifically mastered for radio.

Once your song is ready:

  • Make sure the station you will submit to plays your genre of music. No matter what the station, they have a specific genre or genres that they will play.  This is more true for traditional radio than Internet, but even many Internet stations have a specific kind of music they want to play.  Make sure your music will fit that format before you even inquire.  If it doesn’t fit, you’re just wasting your time… and theirs.
  • When sending in an MP3: Don’t send an email that says “Hi there, Music Director, We’re a cool band Please check out our music here <link>”  First, you want to address the Program Director by name.  If you can’t be bothered to figure out the name of the person you are sending this to and address them specifically, they will likely not bother to listen to your music.  Second, they will never visit your website, fan page, profile or whatever, no matter where it is.  This is because they have all been spammed into submission by bad guys who send them links to viruses, trojans, robots, scams, etc.  Send them a polite inquiry asking if they would be interested in hearing your music, what genre it is, and what format they would prefer to receive it in. (unless this info is already clearly spelled out on their website) Then you can send them an MP3 file, or whatever they prefer.
  • Send only 1 song at a time. (Unless they tell you it’s OK to send more) They don’t want to plow through listening to an entire albums worth of songs to find the good one.  Just send them the one song you think is the best.  If they play it, wait a few weeks (or months) and then send them another one. Never send them a zip file with 80 songs in it. (Yes, we’ve seen this before.)
  • Make sure your MP3 file has all the appropriate tags embedded: The title, artist name, genres, etc. Some stations also have a preferred format for the file name.  “Artist Name – Song Name” Because their files are all sitting on a hard drive, alphabetical order by artist is the easiest way they have to find a particular song.  Name your file wrong and they may never find it.
  • Don’t be surprised if they ask for a small payment in order to listen to your song and consider it for playing on their show.  This is because they get so many submissions that listening to them all becomes a full-time job.  Just like anyone else, they’d like to get paid for all that work. A couple bucks insure your song at least gets a listen.
  • Don’t bother them after fact with questions like “When will my song be on the air?” or “How many people were listening?”  They aren’t likely to answer.  They have better things to do, like listening to new songs and putting a show together.
  • Most Program Directors, as well as booking agents/talent buyers, do not want to get CDs in the mail anymore.  They take up a ton of space and mostly end up in the trash.  Radio stations of all kinds generally play MP3 files now.  They can store thousands of songs on one hard drive which takes up a lot less space than thousands of CDs would.
  • If you do send in a CD:
    • Please remove the shrink wrap first.  PDs hate having to tear that stuff off.
    • Make sure your contact info, and all the other info, (artist name, song name, album name and track lengths are noted the CD itself as well as the packaging)  Imagine it’s only on the CD, you put that into the drive and then have to announce the name of the song.  You can’t see it while it’s spinning the drive.
    • Put a note on the CD that indicates which one track you want them to listen to.  They have better things to do than listen to your entire album and try to decide which one is best.  Without that note, they will probably listen to 30 seconds of the 1st song and then, if they aren’t interested, they will take out the CD and listen to the next submission.

Where to send your music: Many radio stations, even those owned by huge corporations that program all their music from a single office in the midwest have a locals program.  It might run at midnight on Sunday, when the ratings are lowest, but they commonly have one.  You can find out by checking their websites.  Find out what stations are in your area here:
Many of the big corporate owned stations hardly even have DJs, much less Program directors or Music directors (the people who decide what gets played), so if you can’t find a local or independent show, don’t bother sending anything in. There’s likely nobody there to get it.

A better bet is to seek out College radio stations, independent radio stations, Internet radio stations, Podcasts and Digital stations. Send them your music.  This is a much bigger market than you may think.

College Radio: Every college with a communications department will usually have a radio station as well.  They use it to teach their students how to become DJs and
Program Directors.  College Stations have for decades been responsible for breaking the hottest new bands and new trends in new music.  The staff are college kids who are interested in finding the next big thing, usually music that doesn’t yet fit on the big corporate stations. They will be much more open to playing something edgy or avant-garde.  Get in good with enough college kids and your band could be the next big thing.

Independent radio stations (sometimes called: Public or Community Radio Stations) are commonly found in small or isolated communities. These stations will have lower power and may only broadcast to listeners within a few miles.  Many of them are also non-profits   Mostly, these are run by a small group of people who just love the music and they play whatever they want. Because of that, they are much more likely to listen to whatever you send them and play it, if they like it.  There are hundreds of these kind of stations all over the continent.  If you are getting airplay all over the rural parts of the country, it will be that much easier to put together a successful tour, as well.

Internet Radio stations are multiplying like rabbits.  They’re everywhere. These stations can play literally whatever they want and are not tied down by as many FCC rules and regulations.  According to Wikipedia, there are an estimated 52 million actual Internet radio listeners.  The number has been growing steadily and will likely continue with people switching from broadcast over-the-air radio to Internet radio more and more. There are hundreds of thousands of people listening at any given time and some of these stations have more listeners than their traditional counterparts. Additionally, they can, and often do, keep a copy of their shows online for people who want to listen later.  Sometimes they even play these shows over again when they don’t have time to put together a new show.  Another cool thing, is that they can tell in real time, exactly how many people are listening in.

Podcasts are sometimes indistinguishable from Internet radio, in that they are available only online and are archived, replayed, etc.  Some of them are never really “aired” at a given time, but they are available all the time. There are thousands of podcasts being produced every day. Just use Google to find them.

Digital Radio: Many big traditional stations now have digital sub-stations.  These are only listenable on a digital radio or online.  But with new stations and programs, digital offers new opportunities for new music.  While researching the biog stations, check out their digital offerings and see if they have a local or unsigned band program there.

Syndicated Radio Shows: A quick way to get on a lot of stations all at once is to get your music on syndicated radio shows – E-Town, Acoustic Storm, Acoustic Cafe, World Cafe, The Colorado Wave. These shows generally have a big audience because they are on hundreds of stations.

Radio Promoters:
Radio promoters are people who are paid to take a recording of a song and put it in front of the people who decide what gets played on the radio. The best of them have good relationships with Music/Programming Directors at many stations big and small all around the country.  Many of them will even promote to the bigger Internet stations.  Major record labels have a staff of radio promoters who do this full time for their roster of artists.  There are also a large number of independent radio promoters/companies.  Some of them do an excellent job. All of the good ones are really expensive.  We’re talking $100,000 or more to get one song into regular rotation on appropriate stations across the country.  Most of these promoters will only take on an artist or song that they feel is of high enough quality to fit well onto a given genre of stations.  That means, good songs, well produced, and mastered correctly.

Beware the promoters who guarantee airplay.  Like most facets of the music business, there are sharks, cheats, and rip-off artists in radio promotion.  A legitimate company will not guarantee any airplay, but will guarantee that they will put it in front of Music Directors and make them listen to it.  If the MDs don’t like it, they won’t play it.  Any guarantees of airplay should be scrutinized with a fine tooth comb. What stations will play your song? What shows?  What is the promoter’s relationship with the Music director there?  How can this guarantee possibly work?  Could you probably get your music on that station without the promoter?  If so, do it.  The true value of any radio promoter is their ability to get you onto stations you could probably never get on without a promoter.

Follow these guidelines and spend a lot of time on it and your band could get enough air play to make a huge difference in touring, album and merch sales, and take a big step towards the ultimate goal of being a rich and famous rock star!  Good hunting!

Getting Radio Airplay