I get most artists care less about radio these days, but since radio still reaches a lot of people, it's still a big question. As someone who worked in radio programming before going full-time in music, let me clear up a few things about radio.
Radio is Serious Business
While a lot of people get that radio is a business, I don't think most people fully get this. There is a ton of money on the line. Even in small-to-medium-sized markets. The revenue of your station is directly related to the number of listeners. More listeners = more businesses interested in running spots on your station.
Even non-commercial stations worry about listener numbers. If people don't stay on your station, they're less likely to donate.
Essentially, the worst thing in radio is changing the dial. They may not land on your station again for a loooooong time.
It's not uncommon in big markets to fire the DJ if their timeslot drops in the ratings one quarter. Or even if the station has been stuck at number 6 for that daypart or whatever for too long. That's how seriously management takes the programming. That aggressiveness also extends to the music selection.
Radio Playlists Are Obsessed Over
DJs don't pick the songs at the vast majority of stations. Maybe they do at a freeform college station, but that's not the radio industry, that's community radio. The Program Director and Music Director craft the playlist, clocks, rotation, etc. The DJ is just there to add a personal flavor (in fact most of the time it's pre-tracked and the DJ lives in a totally different market). There's a lot more I could say about how that's done, but that would take an entire book.
Like I said, the worst thing that can happen to a radio station is the listener changes the dial. So you gotta be damn sure the song you're playing isn't going to cause the listener to go to their next preset.
Most stations have active libraries of 300-500 songs. The ones who know what they're doing are closer to 200 songs.
Why are the best-performing stations playing so few songs? Two reasons:
- People don't listen very long and it takes a while for peoeple to gain familiarity with a song
- The song you're playing can hurt you. The song you're NOT playing can't hurt you.
People Don't Listen For Very Long
Most people only listen for a little bit on the way to work and on the way home. In many markets this is only 20-30 mins each way.
Every station has a metric called the OES – Optimal Effective Schedule. In short, it's the number of times a station must play something for the average listener to START recognizing that they've heard it. And that's just recognition… it takes a couple of listens after that for people to develop an opinion on the song.
OES is different for every station, but it's way higher than you might think. It's not uncommon to be around 70, 80 or 90 spins. Even at a heavy rotation, that might be two or 3 weeks for a middle-of-the-road AC station playing their current songs between 30-50 times a week.
The Song You Play Can Hurt You More Than The Song You're Not Playing
This is something people even in the radio industry get wrong all the time. They say “why aren't we playing the cool new [insert cool band] song? We're loosing listeners!!”
Nope. Unless you're a big pop station in LA trying to premiere the Taylor Swift track, it doesn't work like that.
Remember the rule of the dial? If you play a song that turns out to be a dud, you're going to loose listeners to another station. If you're playing a song you KNOW does well with your audience, you know they're less likely to flip to another station. It's way smarter to wait to get some data on how your target audience likes the song (more on that later).
At the same time, people aren't thinking about the song you're NOT playing. They're only thinking about the song you're currently playing. If they really want to hear a specific song or artist, they're gonna pull up Spotify anyway.
Stations Serve Demographics and Test Everything
All good businesses have a target market. If you try to serve everyone, you're serving nobody.
Stations serve demographics (aka a “demo”), not genres. That's why the classic rock station in your town is phasing out The Beatles for Nirvana. They're still targeting 40-to-70-year-old men or whatever… so they can sell ads for testosterone clinics and divorce lawyers.
All the station's programming revolves around the demographic. The music, the DJs, the kinds of content, the ads, EVERYTHING. And as such, everything gets tested to the demo and the demo only!
Songs Are Tested and Tested Again
Every radio station will know exactly how well a song tests with their audience. It gets assigned a number out of 5 based on listener surveys. Songs that test well get played more, songs that test averagely get played less, and songs that test badly get dropped.
Here's the one problem with testing: Remember the OES metric? Well you gotta play a song constantly for WEEKS before people recognize it. And even then the opinions on the song at that point are not reliable. At my station, we played a song for 6-8 weeks before we even bothered to test it. Only at that point was there enough familiarity for people to give a reliable, consistent response.
So if you add a bad song to you're playlist before you know it's a bad song, you're going to be stuck with it for at least a month – probably two or three.
This is why programmers will wait until there are numbers from nationwide testing. It may not be your station/market, but you'll at least know if it's a bad song or not. Let the other stations be your guinea pig before you commit to it. Remember, playing a bad song will hurt you more than not playing it.
Ok I See Why Stations Stick With the Big Artists… Where Does That Leave Me As An Indie Artist?
Great question. I think as a smaller artist, there are a thousand better ways to spend your time. Focus on building your fanbase, putting out music consistently, or whatever else seems to work for you.
However if you're dead-set on getting on radio here are some general tips:
- Use as much hard data as possible in your promotion/PR. Radio is not charity.
- Hire a radio-specific promoter (ALWAYS pick one that has an established relationship with station programmers in your format… they talk on the phone every week)
- Sometimes AAA stations will do a daily/weekly local musician feature and they might interview you. Even then you probably won't get added to the playlist. It's a one-off “hey-we're-local” PR thing.
- College radio stations are the one place that the DJ can YOLO playing a song… and song requests might still work if people actually love your song. Some cool AAA stations pay attention to what gains traction on college radio.
- Hire a promoter (yes I know it's on here twice)
Oh and radio is not pay-to-play. That's very illegal. Don't listen to the people in the Facebook groups that say you need to play off the station. They don't know what they're talking about.
David Ryan Olson
Hey I'm David. I'm a mix engineer and I run Evergreen Records. Thanks for reading this article and feel free to contact us with any questions about persuing music that you have.