Radio Promotion – Why You Won’t Get Commercial Airplay

Radio promotion - radio playDo-it-yourself radio promotion tips for independent musicians

Here is my diatribe on Radio Promotion. Please take it with a grain of salt. Absorb some of the ideas, tailor it to your own needs, or outright reject it. In the end, you know what is best for you. But…

Without the support of a monied label, an extremely well known PR person, or a heavyweight radio promoter on your side I’m fairly certain that you’ll NEVER get sustained or meaningful commercial airplay.

Commercial radio is such a racket. It’s a closed system of secret handshakes, payola, and broken promises. Radio promo is a real trail of tears and dashed dreams. The playlists on commercial radio stations are mostly dictated from a central corporate headquarters and the songs are picked based on what record companies are “paying” the most in favors, vacations, junkets, money, cupcakes, drugs, and other various sordid somethings. (ClearChanel anyone?)

So how do you get your music played on radio?

An Indie Artist’s only hope is college radio, public radio, community radio, internet radio, or niche programs on commercial radio stations that are specifically focused on local/unsigned music. But luckily for you, me, and the world these venues are exactly where the interesting and important music of today is getting aired.

You could get a radio promoter to help in these areas. But it’s a ton of money, and in 99.9% of the cases you’d be a salmon swimming upstream only to find a big dam has been built while you were away. You could find much better ways to spend the money you were setting aside for radio. I’d recommend using that money to find a publicist or finance a tour instead.

I’m not trying to dampen your spirits at all, but if you’ve got your heart set on it, make sure you really get the goods on any radio promoter you do work with. They can be a scary bunch sometimes. Check their credentials, their previous successes in promoting indie artists, get some testimonials, and make sure you can check up on their work to make sure they’re giving it their all. And most importantly, make sure its affordable and that they really are enthused about your music. Otherwise, you’ll pay too much for someone doing too little.

Sorry for the big warning. We just want to make sure indie artists are utilizing their limited budgets and resources in the most effective ways possible (and radio promotion at the indie level is a very chancy bargain).

Here’s a few rules for doing radio promotion yourself (which I DO recommend):

1) Be prepared to send out 100-200 CDs with One-Sheets

2) Target college, community, and public stations, online radio, blogs, podcasts, and commercial specialty programs (like local or unsigned feature hours) that are appropriate for your genre and within a geographic area that you can realistically tour through at least 3 or 4 times a year. Don’t get carried away with Florida if you live in Oregon. Radio doesn’t stay faithful to you if you’re not continually playing in their area, and its a waste of time, energy, and discs if you don’t plan on maintaining the relationship.

3) Get the contact info for particular DJs or hosts on those stations depending on their specialty genres. You may have to send CDs to 3 or 4 different people at the same station (KEXP comes to mind!!!). Its not that they’re lazy. They all just have a constantly growing pile of discs to listen to and they probably won’t be passing discs back and forth, even when they’re jazzed about a certain album.

4) If you’re touring, get the marketing/booking contact at each station that has added your music to their playlist and ask about the possibility of an in-studio performance the day of your show.

5) Big one — make sure you’re ready and willing to do all this stuff in a short period of time. Your big chance to make any significant dent is when your CD is new (1-3 months old). All your ducks should be in a row. The stars should align for that magical period right before and right after your release where you’re able to put every last bit of energy into your music getting out to the world.

6) Have your CD in hand about 3 months before releasing it. This gives you ample time to prep the release party,… but more importantly it gives reviewers, critics, press, and radio program directors the chance to determine whether they’ll leave it in their pile of CDs that are going to the nearest used record store, or if they want to get behind it. 3 months is also a good lead time to start booking your tour to support the new album once it comes out.

7) After you send out your CDs to radio, check back in a couple weeks by phone or email to make sure they’ve got it, had a chance to listen, and ask if they’ll be adding it to their playlist. Don’t put up a fight if they say NO. Just politely ask “why” and say thanks if they tell you the reason. If they say yes, give them a quick thanks and casually ask what their preferred protocol is for you to check up on the actual reception your album is getting from their listeners. Feel free to check back every few weeks to see if its still in rotation. You might feel like you’re being a pest, but I’ve actually heard from college radio DJs that they appreciate when someone calls to remind them to play a certain song. Otherwise, they tend to feel like they get into a programming rut and just start playing the same old things.

8) Go! (and continue, and continue, and continue, in 3 month cycles of touring and resting… ad nauseum).

I hope this helps. Its by no means the only way to do radio promo, but it seems like a good place to start, at least. Check out the Indie Bible (, too. Its a great resource that has many of these contacts listed in nice orderly categories for your quick reference.

Please keep us posted on how its all going and let us know if we can help further.

Chris Robley



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