Working Towards Radio Airplay

photo by Christopher Nelson

Artists have many questions in regards to how to go about getting airplay on the radio and whether or not it even matters anymore if you’re heard on the radio (the correct answer is yes... at least at KEXP). KEXP is a one of a kind station so the way we do things may differ from the real world, but as far as we’re concerned; our way of doing things feels like the right way to treat music and the right way to treat an artist. You’ve worked hard on your music and the world should have the chance to hear it.

WHAT’S OUT THERE?

First off, what the hell is left out there in the wasteland of radio? Another good question is why is it such a wasteland out there? Well, our dial(s) have been taken from us from money hungry corporate stations that want to narrow down the playlist to cater to their advertisers exact demographic... but that’s a story I’ll save for another day. To be honest, there isn’t necessarily much within the realm of creative music loving stations left, BUT there are a number of different types of stations that do exist such as:

1. Non Commercial Stations - Like KEXP. “Non-Coms” are what we’re called and we like that. We sound like cool robots yet ironically we’re not programmed by them. We don’t have commercials -- so guess what? We don’t have to answer to commercial interests. Why does this matter? It matters because we answer to listeners. Why does THAT matter? For me it matters because it’s the listeners who listen for the love of music, while commercial sponsors are interested in dumbing down the music in order to sell their products. KEXP is not alone. There are other great public stations out there doing amazing work and you want to make sure that they get your music. More than anyone else they are the ones who want to get your music into the ears of their listeners. There a handful of these stations including KCRW, The Current, WXPN, KALX, WXYC, WRAS, WFMU, and KJHK. There are others, but these are the main stations that hold a non-commercial license that aren’t run by students. Student run stations are great, great, great (listen and support them), but a big part of their mission is on air training so you won’t necessarily get consistent programming, but in a lot of cases you will and it’ll be the best radio you’ve ever heard.

2. Non Commercial Stations - Student run stations. More and more of these stations are online and a great place to get your music to. For instance, at the University of Washington you have KUOW and KEXP, but for the students you have the online Rainy Dawg Radio, which is a fantastic student run station. These stations need your music and in a lot of cases will be the nicest people you’ll deal with in this area. Just remember they are under staffed, under-appreciated, under everything so go into it knowing that.

3. Commercial Stations. Don’t bother sending your music to commercial stations blindly. They don’t want to listen to your music let alone play the music on their station. To be honest, it really wouldn’t matter much anymore if they did unless you’ve somehow made it into their tiny list of added music which means you’ll be played like 50 times a week but that’s why it’s hard to listen to commercial stations... they play the same song 50 TIMES A WEEK... BUT there are pockets of good DJs and shows out there in the wasteland. Usually, they put these shows on Sunday nights so check the listings on each station to find out what’s going on that night. Why Sunday night? For commercial radio, that’s one of the least listened to nights. Awesome, right? Well no, but I hosted a local show on one of our commercial stations for a few years on Sunday nights and it was GREAT to expose kids to music they wouldn’t hear on the station. This can sometimes lead to air play as well! You usually have the kid at the station who really DOES care about new and indie music on these shows and they are your best bets to champion your music and JUST like the college DJ’s they are under appreciated and under staffed. There are great programmers out there doing their best at these times to get music on the air. There will usually be two different shows, a local show and a new music show. Find out which show is which and send to the appropriate one. Some also have specialty shows like singer-songwriter, metal, hip-hop etc. If you fall into one of their categories, by all means give it a shot.

Another way to go about your research is to simply go to iTunes and check out the different stations featured there. ITunes does a great job of compiling the better stations that are both terrestrial and online streaming. You can also find music programs on NPR news and information stations. NPR music shows will showcase different genres and/ or dedicate shows to spotlighting new music.

While there are different places where airplay is possible, it will require a lot of work and research on the part of the artist.

WHY SEND YOUR MUSIC?

The big question has to be asked. Why send your music to radio? Do you just want to hear your band on the air? Do you want to know someone heard your band on the air? Are you going to make a tour stop in the cities that are playing your band? Is this “just what you do” when you release music? These are all good questions to ask yourself and I’m not sure I can help you with all the answers.

I had an indie label for years and every time I’d ask the question, “why are we sending this to 500 stations when I’ve only heard about 10 of them?” I’m going to be honest, if you are seeking airplay to significantly increase sales, it won’t. To that end, if you’re looking to make money on the sale of music, you probably won’t. You may increase sales if you submit to stations AND back it up with touring. If you are already a well known band it WILL increase sales to submit to stations, but it’s hard to translate how connecting with a station relates to sales. Think of it as promotion for your brand and your tours and if you feel it will help both, then do it.

KEXP is a different beast, as are the other main Non-Comms I mentioned. I think they do impact sales. One only needs to look at Easy Street Records’ or Sonic Boom Records’ top ten lists to see that. So again, make sure the Non-Comms get your release. If you don’t plan to tour, be sure that your hometown stations get your release. If you’re a band/ artist that can play shows in your own and surrounding areas, then make sure that the different areas that you tour have the record. For example- a lot of Seattle bands are able to tour along the west coast, so they want to make tour stops in Seattle, Portland, Eugene, San Fran, LA etc. and as well provide those areas with their music.

WHAT TO SEND and WHO TO SEND IT TO

Media formats are constantly evolving. I get music files and streams on a daily basis. It works the same way as records for me. For instance, I recently got the new M83 single sent to me and it hasn’t been on the radio yet. Did I go right to the file and listen? Hell yes -- I know M83 is a great band. Was I rewarded by doing this? Hell yes -- it sounded great. Now imagine all the other emails I’m getting as well, which are a lot. That’s the nature of the job but you have to remember that. What most stations have is a “MD”, which isn’t a doctor of airplay but a “Music Director”. If you’re a small band, new band, whatever, it’s going to be hard to get their attention. Send it but make sure you let the MD know why they should listen to you and if possible, send a hard copy as well. With a DJ you should do the same. The worse they can do is ignore you. We still have plenty of stations that use CD players. I use a combo of about 60% CDs, 35% MP3’s, 5% vinyl. On a remote broadcast, it’s more like 90% MP3’s and in the future we will probably only music in a digital format which makes me sad. Then again, I’ll never stop playing vinyl! Vinyl is cool. DJ’s like vinyl at most stations. Its not cheap, but if you have some extra get em in the right hands.

CHECK OUT MY MYSPACE OR FACEBOOK!

I’d love to, really, I would. In a lot of cases, I do. But I can’t all the time and most of the lower quality music I hear comes from people sending me to MySpace. Plus you’re asking the DJ to do the work for you. It is a GREAT tool to put music out there and I highly encourage you to do so. Hell, post a song a day if you can! But for airplay, it’s tough. Try and get the music into a file or burned to a disc for the DJ if you can.

WHAT AM I SENDING

The CD or Record:
Is it alright to send a demo or something with no artwork, etc.? If the station knows who you are and knows your music and you are trying to get them the music really early, then yes. If they don’t know you from jack then you might want to think about cleaning it up a bit. If you ask our DJs, they’ll tell you that they can tell in most cases just by looking at a record what it will sound like and whether it will be any good. Is this a scientific way of figuring out music? Not really, you just do this long enough and you know.

Don’t put your CD in a thin sleeve. It will get lost in the stacks. Put it in a clearly labeled jewel box if possible. Remember to label the actual CD itself. Make sure to include a track listing. Note any songs where there is swearing. We can’t play those, so please make it easier for us to play you.

The One Sheet:
This is exactly what it sounds like. ONE SHEET. This is a quick outline of what you’re sending and why you’re sending it. Think of it as your job resume. Would you get the job with a crappy resume? Avoid TWO sheets. I never get to the second sheet. Here’s what it needs:

A song list:
- Make sure to list songs that are FCC unfriendly, as in any songs with cursing.
- List “Go To” tracks (pick your best 2 or 3 songs)
- Any quotes you have. Chicken and the egg here, how do you get quotes if no one has heard it! Get it to any friends, bookers, managers anyone in the industry who can give you a good (and honest) quote.
- Signposts. Who might you sound like? Most people say “Radiohead” or “The Beatles”. Don’t aim so high; go for cooler indie bands in your genre that have a similar sound. You could also include genre in there as well.
- Avoid too much clutter; get to the point and keep it clean and focused

Unwrap the CD the outer plastic of the CD and fold the one sheet inside the CD case. Don’t ask the MD or DJ to contact YOU. They won’t. You are one of thousands. Whatever you do, and this happens, DO NOT ask for the CD back. Seriously, I’ve seen it, “we only printed a few so please send back if you’re not going to play us”. I won’t even go into detail about how wrong this is.

The address for any mail for KEXP is:

KEXP 90.3FM
113 Dexter Avenue North
Seattle, WA 98109

Our MD is Don Yates. Send one to him and to any of our on-air staff you think will dig it. Good luck, though -- there are 40 of us at last count.

Other Promotional Items:
You look awesome in your photo. AWESOME! Radio doesn’t care though. We have a wall of bad photos at the station. You don’t want to end up there. Use your best judgment here. If you have a cool promo item, then that’s great. If you send too much you end up looking desperate and trying to show how unique you are instead of letting the music do the talking. Now if the station is playing you, by all means follow up with stuff that could be given away to listeners, etc. But don’t try to buy the DJ with trinkets. I’m not sure if trinkets are payola or not but the last 500 key chains I’ve been sent have equaled zero airplay. Don’t try and convince someone to play you, make the best music possible and make sure that does the talking.

Follow Up:
DO NOT assume that just because you’ve sent your package that your CD is being played. Wait at least 2 weeks after you’ve sent it before you follow up with a phone call.

Music Directors have music hours. You can usually find these hours listed on a station’s website or you can call them to find out when they are. They are usually one or two days a week and just a few hours a day so give it a shot during that time. DJs usually don’t have call hours, so email them.

The contact number for KEXP’s Music Director, Don Yates: 206-520-5833

Patience and politeness:
Keep trying and once you get through remain polite and to the point. Ask the following questions. If any of the answers are “No,” stop asking and politely tell them to have a nice day.
1. Did you receive so and so CD on so and so records?
2. Were you able to review so and so?
3. Are you going to add so and so to your rotation?
4. Where are you going to add so and so to your rotation?
5. Is there anything else you need?

Most stations have a “Heavy,” “Medium,” and “Light” rotation system. If you’re put into any of these categories of rotation, then it’s good news because you’re getting airplay. At this point, thank the music director and let them know you’ll be calling back later to see how the record is being received and where it is charting. Continue to follow-up for 6-8 weeks, the life of a new release in rotation. Or, if you like, keep an eye on the station website’s play list.

Requests:
Inform your supporters which stations are playing your CD. However, make sure that they don’t overload the station with requests or turn bitter towards the station because your music is not being aired enough. DJ’s can tell when a band’s supporters are overloading them with requests and this will not win you more airplay. Most stations will play music based on merit and not on requests. I must really hammer this point home. Do not over do it. But still, do it a little. There is a balance there. I’m not sure what it is, but it’s there.

NATIONAL PROMOTION

Does all this seem like a lot of work? It is. You should think about hiring someone to help you. There are several top-notch radio promotion companies that specialize in helping musicians get radio airplay around the country. They generally service 300 to 750 stations for a fee that ranges from $500 to thousands of dollars. Promotional mailings to radio stations will cost you money for both postage and lost CD’s. Usually you handle the mailings while they track your release by calling the Music Director each week and finding out where in rotation it is and how many plays it is getting per week.

Go to the post office and get information on how to bulk mail. It will save you hundreds of dollars. Bulk mailing parties are when you find out who your friends really are. It’s like moving day. I will admit, I do not miss these days.

Most companies service your CD for 6 to 8 weeks and can assist with setting up in-studio visits and giveaways. Most will recommend the type of stations to target. Here are a few of these companies:

AAM
Cornerstone
Co-Sign
Distiller Promo
Fanatic
Pirate! Promotion and Management
Planetary Group
Revolver
The Syndicate
Team Clermont
Terrorbird

IN CLOSING
Radio has been getting its assed kicked for some time by the bigger commercials interests that own our airwaves. It’s a shame. It should be a place where art and creativity as well as both local and national communities can come together and enjoy great music and ideas. I’m biased of course but this is only happening on the left end of the dial. The idea is taking off though. More and more commercial stations are turning to a listener supported model. More and more classical stations are doing this and by doing this, in theory, the quality should improve (less talk, less selling of the airwaves, more music and they must connect with their listeners) so all hope is not dead. There are more and more online stations that you can reach out to with your MP3’s and not even worry about the cost of a hard copy. There are more and more sites and places to be heard so don’t give up.

Being in a band or being an artist is such an incredible and frustrating thing. You have a very small window in your life to make this happen and I wish more of our media outlets would support you in this effort. The last thing you need is to beg people to play your songs. So hopefully these tips will help you and you can always reach out to me at: john@kexp.org for any advice or suggestions. I want you to keep making music, even if I’m not playing it but hopefully I am... and I want to thank you for trying. You may never hear that in the entire length of your creative output but thank you for trying and for being creative and putting something together that no one else has. It’s important for this world that you do and no matter how crappy it gets out there, keep your chin up, plenty of us out there appreciate you.

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24 Comments

  1. Adam
    Posted August 1, 2011 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

    This is a great article. I work at a non-com which regularly receives music from smaller, independent artists. I take a few hours every week to preview all of the submissions, and pass them along to the DJs for whom they would be appropriate.

    However even when artists follow all the steps outlined above, only a small percentage of their submissions ever make it onto the air, and most often they’re only played once and then forgotten.

    The single most important tip that I would give to any artist trying to get their song played on nationwide radio is: “Write some kick-ass songs.” You might think your band is great, and you may have spent a bucket of money in the recording studio, but if your song sucks, it’s not going to get played no matter how many times you “follow up” on it. Guys like me are just going to say “oh yeah, we got it and it’s available for the DJs to play” and then hang up and continue on with their day.

    Be a good musician. Write good music. That will go a very long way.

  2. Peter at WNMC
    Posted August 1, 2011 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

    John,

    Thanks for publishing this. I have been asked this question by many really great touring indie bands and the landscape keeps moving so fast (including inside the NRP Music program) that I don’t know what to tell people anymore.

    This is very concise, I have sent it to several people already. Enjoy your show when I am not on the air myself...

    Peter

  3. Mark
    Posted August 1, 2011 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

    and this is what makes KEXP & JITM so damned GREAT!

  4. Christian
    Posted August 1, 2011 at 11:08 pm | Permalink

    John - This is such an excellent post: an informative and complete resource for hopeful bands. This is exactly why KEXP is well loved by true music lovers around the globe.

  5. Astrid
    Posted August 2, 2011 at 9:09 am | Permalink

    You are missed in NYC!
    Love your show- it helps me get to work and makes me so happy.
    Best,
    Astrid

  6. Lubenow at KALX
    Posted August 2, 2011 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    Great article! Long live the left side of the dial.

    Point of clarification: KALX can very much be considered a student run station. Most (and at various points in time all) of our management positions are staffed by UC Berkeley students and station policy dictates a majority of the air schedule is manned by the same.

    Keeping it non-com,

    Michael

  7. Michael J.
    Posted August 2, 2011 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

    I wouldn’t put too much faith toward this article.

    Even the headline reads wrong. It’s “TOWARD radio air play.”

  8. Posted August 2, 2011 at 9:55 pm | Permalink

    Michael, that is actually untrue. Both “toward” and “towards” are acceptable in common usage. If you are strictly using the AP style, then you’d need to use “toward”, but we are not. Sorry. And if that’s your sole basis on how much “faith” to put in this article, then we wish you the best of luck in your adventures forwards. Ciao.

  9. Jared at WRSU 88.7FM
    Posted August 3, 2011 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    Great article. I have one thing to add: If you’re in a band: Do your research on the stations you send to. Listen to the stations close to your area. Look at their websites-- if they have program schedules posted, read them and see what show would be most likely to play your stuff, and let the stations know. When I was music director at WRSU, it got to a point for me where we’d get something like 100 records a week, and I would have believed it if you told me 100 one-sheets were written by the same person (How many bands can REALLY sound like “Elvis Costello meets Weezer,” anyway? Oh, and your band is influenced by Nirvana, the Beach Boys, and the Beatles? WOW!). But I LOVED getting short letters that read “Hi, we’re a 4-piece indie rock band from Brooklyn. We think our record would do really well on “the 6pm Britpop hour,” “the 8am indie show,” and “the local music show.” Most of the time the bands that did that were right.

  10. Christine Salazar
    Posted August 7, 2011 at 8:05 am | Permalink

    Thanks, John, for this article. It was posted 5 days after the release of my debut album, so you better believe I’ve printed this, pored over it several times, and will follow your advice to the letter. Cheers, and thanks again.

  11. vv saintclair
    Posted July 13, 2013 at 11:57 pm | Permalink

    Loved your article john. Gives encouragement and keeps the world flowing in a wonderfully positive way. Carry on the good work:)
    VVxx

  12. Nathan Shubert
    Posted July 18, 2013 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    Thanks for writing this. Absolutely helpful. Just wondering though, why do you say “You have a very small window in your life to make this happen”. I get that to be the next Beiber you hit your expiration date when you’re 22, but in the context of a less commercial world we’re discussing – where artistic merit is the be-all, end-all – I’m a bit surprised you’d suggest the window is still so narrow.

  13. Kenneth M.P.
    Posted July 19, 2013 at 10:15 pm | Permalink

    Why can’t I get your Broadcasts anymore?

  14. Maia H.
    Posted September 5, 2013 at 10:17 pm | Permalink

    Thanks so much for posting this! I’m thinking of sending in some of my friends and I’s music from our album, it won’t be for a little bit. We have been getting requests from random people to send our music here, so I think I will!!!! Very informative, and it answered all my questions!

  15. Muelly
    Posted September 14, 2013 at 1:53 am | Permalink

    I’m not in a band nor do I desire airplay for profit or personal gain -- but occasionally really good new music comes my way and I strongly feel that it should be shared with KEXP listeners. My recommendation would be to replace this extremely long-winded essay with the comment from Jared at WRSU 88.7 which gets to the point:

    Great article. I have one thing to add: If you’re in a band: Do your research on the stations you send to. Listen to the stations close to your area. Look at their websites-- if they have program schedules posted, read them and see what show would be most likely to play your stuff, and let the stations know. When I was music director at WRSU, it got to a point for me where we’d get something like 100 records a week, and I would have believed it if you told me 100 one-sheets were written by the same person (How many bands can REALLY sound like “Elvis Costello meets Weezer,” anyway? Oh, and your band is influenced by Nirvana, the Beach Boys, and the Beatles? WOW!). But I LOVED getting short letters that read “Hi, we’re a 4-piece indie rock band from Brooklyn. We think our record would do really well on “the 6pm Britpop hour,” “the 8am indie show,” and “the local music show.” Most of the time the bands that did that were right.

  16. Chris Blacker
    Posted September 22, 2013 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for this article and all of the helpful tips, though I really have to say that your claim that radio DJs can magically tell what a CD will sound like based on its cover is preposterous. No one can do that, and to pretend that they can is a disservice to unsigned bands and artists who may not have the money to pay for nice cover art. (I won’t even start on examples of successful with terrible album art.)

  17. Langen
    Posted October 15, 2013 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

    This is the greatest article on air play that I have read, I live in St. Louis City and we have a radio station very akin to KEXP here called KDHX. I feel very lucky as a musician to live in a time where radio stations like these exist and where we have the wonderful inter web to share information like this! I am brand new to sending out CD’s but I have found that researching what DJ’s play bands like yours and addressing it to them personally can sometimes be super helpful in getting noticed but it’s also important not to over load any one station with to many CD’s or it gets desperate and annoying for the staff to deal with. Once again thanks so so so much for writing this.

  18. Posted December 16, 2013 at 7:55 am | Permalink

    Do you accept digital music submissions? people still listen to CD’s?

  19. SImone Bruyere Frase
    Posted December 26, 2013 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    How do I get this song on KEXP??? I LOVE this station!!!!

  20. fluffy
    Posted February 20, 2014 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    Is there any submission process for digital-only albums? For example, my most recent EP is only available on Bandcamp (as a pay-what-you-want download, including $0.00), because it just isn’t worth going through the manufacturing rigamarole for a smaller release anymore. But this article says that burning to a CD without artwork etc. is a great way for it to not get listened to.

  21. Posted February 20, 2014 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

    If you would like us to consider adding an album to our library for airplay, we would need a physical copy of it. At KEXP, our DJs still play CDs and vinyl.

  22. Olivia Gilmore
    Posted March 3, 2014 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

    hey, i just want to thank you for sharing your insight and valuable information about radio airplay! I’m definitely going to look into a radio promotion service!

  23. Jeffrey Lamar
    Posted March 9, 2014 at 7:47 pm | Permalink

    Very helpful! Thanks!

  24. Dana
    Posted March 19, 2014 at 7:05 pm | Permalink

    I have the rare opportunity (ie overnight babysitter) to get out and see some live music this Friday night (3/21). None of the names on your concert calendar are familiar, even though I’ve probably heard them on kexp. What show would you recommend that I see? I don’t like metal...but otherwise, I’m open.

    Thanks so much!

    Dana

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