Since the beginning of its era, radio has been the driving force of music discovery for most people. Whether a major label is pumping millions of dollars into a nationwide radio campaign for the next big hit or a college student is playing their friends’ band during their 1-hour radio show once a week, radio has become ingrained in the music industry’s business model. And even though radio doesn’t make or break an artist like it used to, there are still a number of people out there who don’t discover music on the internet, and rely solely on the radio stations they’re familiar with for new tunes.
In this article, we’ll be exploring the worlds of Internet and Terrestrial radio, looking into the characteristics of each, determining when it’s smart to submit your music for airplay, and how to prep the necessary materials to submit. Although there is no true test for how one’s music will get airplay on the radio, this article can serve as a simple guide to independent artists seeking some info on the medium.
Terrestrial radio is the transmission of signals through free space by electromagnetic waves in the radio frequency range (about 3kHz to 300GHz). In layman's terms, Terrestrial Radio is what most of us knew simply as "radio" before there was satellite radio, Internet radio, podcasts, etc.
There are two main categories for terrestrial radio in the market - those that are corporately owned/commercially run, and those that are not. Commercial radio stations are the WFNX and WAAF’s of the world, and their content ranges from straight music to talk radio. Non commercial radio stations consist of college radio, public radio, non-profit radio stations, low-wattage radio, etc. WERS and WUMB are good examples of Boston area non-commercial radio stations.
Many industry insiders will tell you that commercial radio stations are fueled mainly by major label funding, and due to this, major label artists make up most of what’s played in commercial rotation. At this point, Program Directors and Station Managers have little control over what is being played, and pretty much just make sure the programming rules are being followed, chiefly that those investing money are the ones getting the airplay. While these stations are owned by large corporations, fueled by major labels, and funded by advertising dollars, there is little room to fit an independent artist in. In an interview with Joe Graham of MIT’s WMBR, he describes how the near future goals of commercial radio stations are to keep listeners up by playing what’s defined as “popular” to keep advertising dollars up, and provide enough rotations to keep the major labels happy about their investments. Most would say this has been the case for a very long time. “It’s clearly obvious that this type of action isn’t in the hands of one program director at any one station,” says Graham.
With this being the case for commercial stations, the window of opportunity for independent artists to get their music into rotation is essentially non-existent. Until they’ve got label funding behind them (or are some viral craze that takes off), many commercial stations may have to say “No thanks” to submissions, as they might not have room within their regular programming schedule for unsolicited material.
These types of stations have a lot more freedom when it comes to choosing what they play. Like I said, they’re the college, public, and non-profit radio stations of the world, where the program directors create a show schedule that supports a variety of genres and talents. This type of schedule gives the on-air DJ’s much more freedom, and you’re more likely to hear a variety of independent artists and genres. However, while independent radio stations may accept and play your music, they usually don’t have nearly the same size listener base as commercial stations do.
Keeping that in mind, it’s clear that submitting to independent radio stations is a much better starting place if you’re looking to get your music played on air. Many of these stations will listen to (and consider) any and all submissions, and some program directors have complete control of what they choose to play. Furthermore, many of these radio personalities consciously support the independent artist, and enjoy giving them the opportunity to build a larger audience through radio exposure. To submit your music, you’ll typically want to speak with a representative from the station to confirm the submission materials they’re looking for. It’s safe to say that all stations will ask for a CD-quality Master of your music, and a short blurb about you as an artist/band. How you submit these materials is your chance to show a little bit of creativity, so whether you’re sending a hard copy presskit or emailing your new Presskit.to link (wink wink), be sure to put some time into your submission to set yourself apart from the crowd. Creativity like one-of-a-kind hard copy materials or personal emails can help sugar coat your submission. (For a little more in-depth info on how to submit to college stations, check out our rock shop video where the topic is covered at 1:20.)
Internet radio is an audio service transmitted online stream (unlike a podcast, which requires the download of an audio file). To be clear, we’re not talking about interactive online streaming services here like Rdio or Spotify, or non-interactive algorithm based streaming services like Pandora. We’re talking about radio stations with DJs that simply exist online, like Unregular Radio or The BIRN. Internet radio offers a different opportunity to independent artists than does terrestrial radio of any kind. Many internet radio stations aren’t regulated by major label funding, thus offering more potential for local and independent artists. This being the case, you can find internet radio stations of all shapes and sizes, and many are similar to independent terrestrial radio stations in the way that they are willing to consider any and all submissions for airplay.
Many internet radio stations have a strong presence through social media channels, podcasts and archives of past shows, and have potential for a larger broadcast audience. With that being said, internet radio is certainly a rapidly growing force in the radio world.
Submitting to an internet radio station can offer a chance for marketing creative expression as well, in the sense that you have technology working on your side. You can “sell” your band to the station by linking to your social presence online or providing them with additional youtube video links for blog and social outreach purposes on their end. This helps gain exposure to your band by placing you in several different places for people to see, and is a perk that internet radio stations have on lock-down as they’re a platform that exists solely in the technology space. Many internet radio stations accept email submissions, dropbox or soundcloud sharing of tracks, or even hard-copy submissions, and often times you’re submitting to the station manager directly.
THE RADIO AUDIENCE
Much like the live performance world, knowing your audience is important when deciding where to attempt placing your music on the radio. You probably won’t want to submit your speed metal band’s record unknowingly to a jazz radio station, so make sure you investigate the stations and shows that best fit your music. When researching stations, you’ll come across a lot of three and two letter acronyms that describe what kind of music they play, such as AAA, AOR, CCM, etc. These acronyms are known in the industry as the alphabet soup of radio formats, and you can see them all listed out here and here.
The terrestrial radio audience is a large and varied one, with interest in both the commercial and independent radio stations. Listeners can essentially tune in anywhere that there’s a radio present (at work, at the gym, etc.), and the vast majority of listeners listen in their car, though terrestrial radio stations are only accessible to a certain geographic area. Internet radio, however, offers a slightly different audience, where computers, smart phones, iPods, and now even some cars are great for downloading podcasts and listening live. Internet radio also has international appeal, as a radio station exists online and can be accessible to anyone on the web. This makes it possible for family members across the country, or your HUGE fanbase in Yakutsk to tune in while your music is being played. This can be a powerful tool to independent artists to grow a more targeted audience.
RADIO IN THE FUTURE
Since its modest beginnings in the 1800’s to its currently ubiquitous existence, radio is here to stay. Auto manufacturers that have had terrestrial radio built into their cars for almost a century are now accommodating to the format’s new horizons. Companies like Toyota and Ford have begun manufacturing cars with multimedia centers (check out Ford’s SYNC and Toyota’s Entune systems), which connect with your smartphone via bluetooth to control apps. Companies like Pandora and iHeartradio are members of the radio industry that have capitalized on this move by auto manufacturers.
Pandora as seen on Toyota's Entune interface
Despite the rapid growth of these new radio services, it’s safe to say that Terrestrial radio isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Financially, this platform is more friendly as it requires a one-time purchase of a radio (or a car...does anyone still listen to radio through a boombox?)- where Satellite services require a subscription, and tech-driven devices streaming internet radio can be pricey (Ford SYNC’s MSRP is $395). In addition, major labels (despite hard times for them) are still funding commercial radio stations and although these stations also exist on the web, their presence remains larger as a terrestrial FM station. Independent terrestrial radio stations will continue to exist as an option for people that aren’t necessarily “wowed” by the online or satellite options and have a desire to support music on a local, public, educational, or nonprofit level. As long as there is a need and want to tune in that way, independent radio stations are at no risk.