Guide To Independent Radio Promotion: Why It Still Matters
The term radio has transcended the idea of terrestrial broadcast, and is now representative of connection through curation. That said, it remains an invaluable marketing tool, perhaps more now than ever before.
What we mean when we talk about “radio” these days is so much more than amplifying and broadcasting audio content terrestrially across radio waves. In essence, the term “radio” has come to represent a form of connection by way of curation, and in light of this, there is no greater time to be utilizing any and all radio platforms as marketing tools for your music. Thanks to platforms like Spotify, Pandora, and Apple Music, as well as podcasts, blogs, and indie radio, the selections of both professional music tastemakers and algorithms based on a listener’s personal preferences have reached peaks unlike at any point in history.
Curators create playlists of music for audiences to experience in a way that transcends the mere compiling of a group of songs together and posting them to be heard. This programming creates opportunities for musicians like you to grow your audience, expand your reach, and build more connections with music influencers. Yet there is a difference between a true music curator and an amateur playlist maker, which is why radio continues to be a player in the music media world. Radio’s long-standing history of being a portal for connection to emerging talent continues to be a driving force behind the launch of successful music acts around the world. True music curators are professionals who sift through the vast quantities of music produced on a daily basis and make choice selections for their specific audience, and more importantly, have the reputation of an entire station or show on their shoulders.
I’ve spent the past 20 years working in radio in a variety of capacities from program host, to show creator, station manager, interviewer, and fundraiser. Radio continues to have a powerful impact on the lives and careers of musicians. Connecting with radio is a passion of mine that fuels much of the work I do as the Audience Growth Farmer. It’s important to understand the aspects of radio, the different types of radio, and the best methods of outreach so that you can get the maximum benefit for your music promotion.
Why Radio Still Matters
Spotify and Pandora have helped to change the landscape of music discovery. Technology has that affect on all of us. However, these newer methods of music discovery have not replaced the stalwarts of the past. Too often, musicians who have only ventured into the realms of digital streaming assume that radio is a thing of the past, that people aren’t listening to it anymore. That couldn’t be more wrong.
Some radio platforms have seen an increase in their listenership and engagement with their platforms over the past few years while others have seen a decrease. There are reasons for this, highlighted in the description of the types of radio below.
The main reason why radio still matters is because it provides a human connection between music and an engaged audience. The difference between what radio does and what music streaming services do has everything to do with the human connection and experience. Streaming services typically play song after song, with the only transition coming during a commercial break. There is no introduction of the next song, no insights or backstory of the artists presented. It’s a hands-off presentation of music, with no one assuming responsibility for the choice.
Radio hosts talk about the music they play, give their insights into why it connects with them, and tell the stories of the artists played. The audience has a connection with the voice behind the microphone. The on-air personality has cultivated a connection with the listener through this exchange, which creates a trust and bond. This is one big reason why indie music radio programs, including my own, continue to grow year after year. People want to connect with people, they want to engage with something that isn’t automated or robotic, and feel connected to a community of folks with shared interests. That’s human nature. This is what makes radio a powerful agent in showcasing the talents and works of artists like you.
Different Types of Radio
The term “radio” does not represent any one form of radio broadcasting, but several. And each type of platform operates differently than the others. Here is a breakdown of the types of radio for your reference.
College & University Radio
College radio stations usually feature a combination of public radio, online, and top 40-style programming and are owned by universities. They also operate as a training facility for the next generation of professional broadcasters, helping to launch the next David Dyes (host of World Cafe), or John Peels (BBC Radio 1) of the world.
This is a great place to start your journey towards gaining national radio airplay because college and university radio programs are constantly looking for new music and new artists to showcase. College stations (both those who play mainstream artists and those who land closer to the public radio realm) have music hosts who love showcasing new talent. That human connection benefits you and your music growth.
Plus, appealing to college and university audiences is a great jumping-off point for building a passionate tribe of fans in each network around the country if you’re planning a tour through those places. When you’re on tour, it’s often not as difficult as you think to organize a live, in-studio radio interview and/or performance at a nearby college to help promote for your gig. Our advice: Find not only the stations that play your genre of music at the college, but the shows that specialize in it, and communicate directly with them.
Non-Commercial & Community
This is the titular umbrella under which public radio falls (think NPR, BBC, American Public Media, CBC in Canada, etc.). Several university and college stations are in this area, too, because of the way their stations are set up and supported. Public radio has been growing steadily in audience reach and engagement over the past decade. Commercial radio has not.
The target audience for most non-commercial/public radio stations and programs are college educated, passionate about the programming on their chosen stations, and financially committed to supporting that programming. And this is a really big deal. People who are contributing money to a station’s programming are the types of people who spend money on what they love and value. In other words, that’s the target music fan to go after.
Small to mid-sized markets are a great place to start in getting radio airplay. Once enough stations are carrying your music, you can move up the totem pole to larger markets and more national features on NPR stations like KCRW, XPN, KEXP, KUT, and other stations, not to mention trying to score an appearance on one of those lovable Tiny Desk Concerts hosted by NPR!
Commercial radio is so called because it’s owned by corporations with a primary interest in commerce, and because they depend on revenue from commercial advertisements and sponsorships in order to operate. The most prominent commercial stations in the US are owned by Cumulus and Clear Channel. This type of radio is known for showcasing mainly pop music stars, top 40 hit-makers, and mainstream powerhouses.
Major-label artists have a stronghold here because labels are generally also invested in these stations, and because the parent companies of these stations don’t have the flexibility to accommodate localized music communities. The labels have been marketing their artists to corporate radio stations for decades. This (among other reasons) is why getting your music on commercial radio is much harder for artists representing themselves or working with a smaller label.
The average commercial station playlist or song selection contains very few (if any) indie or DIY music acts, at least until they amass a significant number of fans, or other stations are carrying the artist/band. For this reason, commercial radio is not ideal for DIY, indie, and unsigned musicians to begin their radio and media outreach for airplay promotion. Once you get the the place where this makes sense, the first step to getting commercial play is having a record that fits what commercial radio does.
SiriumXM is a satellite and online radio company. Through deals made mainly with automakers and the automotive industry, Sirius has been able to recover from nearly declaring bankruptcy in 2008 after the two companies merged together (Sirius and XM used to be separate entities; their merger was fought by terrestrial FM stations due to a potential monopoly). SiriusXM is best known for its talk show programming, including for example Howard Stern, where a good chunk of the 30 million subscribers to the satellite service spend their listening time.
The subscription model for audience engagement is very different from what public radio provides for a few reasons. First, SiriusXM offers over 150 different channels, and so generally, users are subscribing for the variety it offers — variety that spans sports, talk, music, news, and more — rather than out of loyalty towards specific music curators. Second, SiriusXM service is commercial free (with the exception streaming service at one pricing tier) . Which means that the motivation for some subscribers is not so much to gain access to curated content, but rather, to avoid commercials.
While there undoubtedly are shows and channels with dedicated followings, overall, the reasons listeners subscribe to SiriusXM for the service vary widely and a smaller percentage of subscribers are dedicated music supporters, which makes it a less reliable platform for artists in the early and growing stages of media promotion to make a strong connection with potential fans.
You can build up to the point where your music is heard on SiriusXM through getting airplay and features on other stations, gaining leverage in the marketing process. At that point, more and more people know your songs and it becomes a regular thing to have your music a part of most radio platforms. And getting strong SiriusXM airplay can help you make the pitch to commercial and other national broadcasters that you’ve got a wide audience for your music.
Web radio can be produced by smaller businesses, for and not-for-profit organizations, and individuals passionate about specific genres, sub-genres, artists, and niche markets. Some web stations are built as non-commercial radio with only a web broadcast (meaning that they don’t also broadcast on terrestrial FM or AM frequencies). Others are set up as small for-profit businesses that operate similarly to commercial radio but without the 5-8 minute commercial breaks during the programming. And some college stations have auxiliary stations created specifically for online airplay, to diversify their programming and gain the added flexibility that online provides.
HD radio was birthed in the first decade of the 2000s, a digital response to the HD TV movement. Unlike HD TV, HD radio did not provide a higher caliber listening experience because the broadcast is still in stereo. However, several public and college radio stations have added HD radio streams to their stations because it gives them more opportunities to provide a varying selection of music. While the audiences that listen to (or know about) HD radio are smaller than any other area of the radio market, programs that are aired on these portals can have passionate and loyal audiences, as well as being syndicated in multiple markets. Stations with HD radio will have HD1, HD2, or HD3 signifiers on their websites.
Podcasting is quickly becoming one of the best ways to reach an engaged audience. For musicians, it’s also a relatively untapped area where opportunities lie in being on the ground floor of media platforms run by passionate and connected individuals who want to showcase great music. There are a few ways an artist’s music can be featured on a podcast, including the show using an artist’s music for their theme and interlude music, commissioning artists to create original music, and of course featuring exclusive music and interviews with an artist just like that of an in-studio radio session.
In this way, podcasts can give you many opportunities to connect with new audiences in a way that allows you to tell your story, invite fans to see the behind-the-scenes side of your work, and have a little fun in the process. When you can connect with folks who excel at the human connection (great podcast hosts do this), your music promotion works very well because it syncs with individuals on that human level like nothing else. Some of the best radio-styled music podcasts include my friends Shaine Freeman (The Miews), Marcio Donovan and Ross Barber-Smith (Bridge The Atlantic Podcast), KUTX’s Song Of The Day, and Hrishikesh Hirway’s Song Exploder.
Bridging the Gap
Radio’s greatest strength is how vast and unique its variations are; since it’s not limited to one type or one format, the opportunities for musicians to use radio as a conduit to build connections with real music fans are incredibly powerful. Airplay on the right radio platform can make an enormous impact on how your band finds its target fanbase. While some podcasts, indie music platforms, and stations have an audience reach that may seem smaller than the big powerhouses of commercial radio or even SiriusXM, audience size and audience connection are two different things.
One of the reasons that real music fans gravitate towards smaller, independent or community-supported radio stations is that they simply don’t enjoy listening to 5-7 minutes of commercial breaks. Most diehard music fans also diversify their listening selection to combine multiple music curation platforms.
Upcoming blog posts in our “Independent Radio Promotion Guide” series will provide a closer look at how to target specific radio stations, and reveal a proven process to gaining radio airplay and building relationships with the curators behind the music selections. Sign up for Soundfly’s email list to make sure you hear when we launch the next installment!