Is Broadcast Radio Relevant? (And, how relevant is your music to radio..?) by Geordie Gillespie

Geordie Gillespie, music executive and entrepreneur, has spent the last 25 years developing new artists at indie and major labels and is a principal at unleashedmusic.com



This is the first in a series of discussions on Radio – terrestrial, satellite and Internet, and it’s impact on contemporary music marketing. Let’s start with the first big question: Is Broadcast Radio Relevent


I guess its safe to say that radio has been getting a bad rap lately. There are those who state that no one listens anymore, that airplay doesn’t sell records and radio doesn’t play any new music anyway.  The bottom line is that none of those things are true.  Radio is still the single most effective way to reach a large audience and build awareness for an artist’s song.   Radio is and always has been the premier platform for songs to become ubiquitous, part of the Zeitgeist – how they truly can be hits.

While it is a fact that there are now more outlets, channels, avenues, and platforms to make your music available to fans old and new, no single medium has the reach and penetration of good old fashion FM radio.  One interesting aspect of terrestrial radio has always been its power to create community. When someone listens to their favorite music on an iPod, they listen alone, where as when a song comes blasting out of an FM radio, a whole listening audience experiences the song at the same time. 

And people are listening.  I’ll give you an idea of how many.  


Radio Ratings and Audience Impressions

Stations are ranked in their broadcast market by how many people in specific demographics are listening at any given time, according to the ratings company Arbitron.

They are able to tell you that there are more daytime then overnight listeners, more morning drive then afternoon listeners.  These differences matter to the stations as they attempt to maximize their billing potential and it matters to bands when their songs are exposed on the air.

Audience is measured in radio by how many times a song is heard by the amount of people listening at any given time – this is known as audience impressions. So the “number of impressions” is the amount of times the song has been heard by the universe of listeners in any given time frame, the total of which is known as it’s “gross impressions”.

I’ll use Ke$ha’s TIC TOK as an example of the immense reach of radio.  According to Arbitron, for the 7 days ending last Sunday night, her song generated 71 million audience impressions.  By contrast, getting your song played on the number one show on broadcast television last week, which happened to be Desperate Housewives, would be heard by maybe 7 million people, according to Nielson Ratings.  The TV play would be a one-time shot, and only a small portion of the song would be exposed.

But as TIC TOK continues to be played at radio everyday for weeks, the compound effect is enormous.  Ke$ha’s Tic Toc has over 750 million audience impressions to date and growing fast.

To get an idea of the current audience reach (total impressions) per week of the most heard song at each radio format:

TOP 40 – 72 Million 

Rhythmic Pop – 43 Million

Alternative Rock – 10 Million

Active Rock – 9 Million

As a point of reference, The Foo Fighter’s studio version of EVERLONG has almost 2 billion gross impressions to date.  Are 2 billion song impressions relevant?

Radio is a Business

Terrestrial Radio is a business that depends on advertisers to survive.  If a station doesn’t attract and hold listeners with great music, advertisers won’t pay for spots on the air, and the station will run out of revenue and go dark – or they will switch to a talk format.  So the programmers know they have to play songs that listeners will not just like, but love, because it is very obvious the audience will go somewhere else to hear their favorite songs.  Programmers have to be very careful about what they play or they will actually lose audience if they play songs that aren’t hits.

So why do some songs get on the air and others don’t?  What determines how often a song is played or what time of day it gets rotated?

What Programmers care about:

  1. Format
    First and foremost, a song has to fit into the sound and attitude of the station, or it will be impossible to get them to listen past the first 8 bars. 
  2. Familiarity
    If you’re a band that a station has played before you’re way ahead of the game.  The programmers love continuity and band that has proven itself at a station will get top priority when it comes to listening to a new song.
  3. Passion
    The best radio programmers are the ones who can hear a song and have a gut feeling about its potential for their target audience.  When they hear a song, or play it for someone else, they want it to evoke a passionate response.  If it just sits there it’s not going to do anyone any good.  Songs have to seem to jump out of the radio.
  4. Sales
    Once a song gets past the passion hurdle, another key element is sales.  Is the song or album selling?  Do fans care enough to buy the music?  Sales are a great indicator of the size and loyalty of the fan base.  The better the sales the better the chance of getting airplay.
  5. Local and National Picture
    If your band is very popular in your market, that can have an impact on a programmers interest. Popularity on a local level can be measured by concert attendance and local sales.  A national picture, meaning big sales around the country are even more important, especially if your song is getting radio play in other markets, because that shows that its having success elsewhere.  It’s much easier for a station to come on board if they don’t feel like they are all alone in giving you a shot.

How Much your Song Gets Played and When
If a station decides to play a song, they then must decide how often to play it, and at what time of day it will work. When a station plays a song during particular times of the day, its known as dayparting.  At different times of day there are different sets of listeners.  If an Alternative station decides to play an aggressive rock song, they may want to play it only at night.  That same station may be looking at afternoon play for other songs that are more mainstream.

If the request lines light up when the song is played, programmers know that they can play it more often, which is known as increasing the spins, or moving it to a higher rotation.

As a song becomes more familiar, it is often possible to play it in more departs. Opening up the day parts increases the audience reach and exposes the song to different sets of listeners, thereby increasing the opportunities to sell more music.


So, it’s clear that radio continues to be relevant. In fact, it is the most relevant platform when it comes to exposing your songs to the highest number of listeners who then turn into fans. 

The only way to build and satisfy a fan base? Absolutely not.  But no one would possibly deny the value of 750 million or 2 billion song impressions. And, the only place to get those numbers is by getting your music on radio.  In conjunction with other media exposure, the compound effect is significant.

Once you understand the way radio works, you can do a way better job of focusing your efforts on finding the right format for your song and developing it from there.

Next installment – Getting Your Music on the Air

  • http://www.ramin.tv Ramin Streets

    Just because radio as a channel is measured and to some extent can account for their audience base does not make it “still the single most effective way to reach a large audience”. Most experts agree online is the most effective (and efficient) medium. If cost efficiency is not an issue, then I would pose that TV can get you wider reach while also putting an image to the sound. It’s already been proven in the ad world that TV mixed with a robust online/search campaign creates a “spike” in audience response that augments the performance derived from both individually. Radio does not currently do this as those who are listening are mobile (perhaps the current shift from desktop usage to mobile may mitigate this – who know?). Much like print, radio is a dying media that will most likely find a new form via the iphone and mobile devices similar to it (perhaps the oncoming tablets). Further, I don’t believe most stations are as connected with their respective communities as they once were. Many have lost their identity. They don’t have the caliber of DJs they once had and many of these stations are owned by “evil empires” such as Clear Channel that decimated each stations individuality in the interest of uniformity in playlists and formats. It’s a shame and as a result it’s been years since I have even bothered to turn on the radio. Satellite is an entirely different animal but is also experiencing its own share of challenges.

  • http://www.claudiarussell.com Bruce Kaplan

    I have a hard time buying the 71 million impressions kind of numbers. It is all extrapolated from a few hundred surveys. Arbitron (like the radio stations who buy the numbers from them) have a vested interest in inflating the impact and importance of broadcast radio.
    Perhaps you have noticed those little white wires coming from many people’s ears. Or the multitude of new cars with iPod ready stereos. Or the aftermarket FM transmitters for iPods.
    And then there’s the audience for Pandora and other web based music, that goes untracked by Arbitron.
    And it’s not necessarily true that advertisers are completely rational in spending their ad dollars. As Henry Ford said a long time ago, “I know half my advertising is wasted, I just don’t know which half.”
    I, personally, am ready for radio to roll over and die. Radio has basically sucked for the last 20 years. Long live downloadable music.

  • David Egan

    the answer? College Radio!
    1. creates community
    2. and local fan base
    3. bands are in good company; not with sell-out
    performers or Idol starlets
    4. better audio quality than ALL MP3s
    5. supports higher education
    Unbeatable from my elder(57) perspective.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/dedtiredtoonz DedTiredToonz

    The number of impressions touted in this article doesn’t mean anything unless it’s tied to certain demographics. By not establishing exactly who listens to commercial broadcast radio in major metropolitan areas these days (i.e. the demographic profile of the morning/afternoon/evening listener by format type), this article only provides wishy-washy information. I expected more insight from someone with “25 years” of experience. I don’t have hard data to cite but it’s common knowledge that advertisers’ budgets for radio continue to shrink. If the number of impressions is not good enough for companies advertising their products why would it be good for songs, when in essence they are just another form of advertising? I have to agree with a previous poster that placement in TV programming is more effective, even if it delivers a fraction of the purported impressions radio does, because it engages the audience *at the same time* they are willfully paying attention to the content, as opposed to having radio music as background noise while driving or working. Can an artist break-through on the scene and/or survive without radio airplay? When it comes to the younger target demographic I’m inclined to say, yes. How do most people learn of new music these days? Is it on the radio or is it through word-of-mouth and online? (someone’s myspace profile, an embedded link in Facebook, a Tweet, or simply downloaded from a friend’s playlist). There is adequate community penetration and reach on the right social media platforms to increase the level of individual engagement (and then spread to mobile devices and perhaps FM frequencies) that radio does not need to be in the mix. I’m not saying it doesn’t help, it’s just not as critical any more. Where do artists have the biggest opportunity to be heard? On the uniform, whitewashed lists of commercial radio or via a well-executed social media campaign? My experience says, the latter.

  • Kevyn

    It really depends on the region and place: in some regions of the country and in other countries radio is still relevant.
    Some people listen just for the DJ’s or the people on the radio and not the music I can fall into that group sometimes depending on where im at.
    The radio is also a good way to get to know the culture of the area by the type of content (jokes,news,music,ad’s) that are aired on the stations
    In areas where there are no big cities or where you can not easily get broadband/dsl/cable it holds more relevance because it is a way people are exposed to things either music or just anything in general.
    In countries where the internet is not as accessible as it is here I have to say it is a definite yes such as parts of India, China, Bhutan, most of Africa and many places in South America

  • http://www.azoz.com G. Ziemann

    “The Foo Fighter’s studio version of EVERLONG has almost 2 billion gross impressions to date. Are 2 billion song impressions relevant?”
    It depends on whether those impressions were paid for or spontaneous.
    Meanwhile, Tunecore is selling “guaranteed” broadcast airplay through Jango. Supposed to be illegal, last I heard.

  • http://www.garyplantmusic.com Gary Plant

    Radio impressions may not always have a direct impact on record sales but regardless of what country or territory you are in, they will definitely help an artist or band generate stronger live concert revenue. A band with a billion impressions will fill concert halls. The other impact of radio impressions, especially in developing countries where the demographics are nearly impossible to figure out like China, India, Indonesia, Brazil and countries in Africa, is the amount of corporate sponsorship support you will gain and the number of ring tone downloads you will receive, which is where artists in these regions earn the majority of their revenue.

  • http://www.markhansen.biz Mark Hansen

    I haven’t listened to commercial radio for many many years. It is not interesting or relevant to my life nor does it provide any sense of community. Commercial radio here in Sydney Australia is finding it harder and harder to get audience ratings. Music is playing second fiddle to comedians and shock jocks. I find all my new music through friends, my daughter, and the internet. There is so much variety and depth of music out there that will never ever “make it” to commercial radio and thank God for that !!!

  • http://profile.typepad.com/bobbykey Bobby Key

    Internet Radio gives people more of a variety
    but I also agree with Ramin Streets about Clear channel .& other Radio stations…I remember back in 1970 when I had a part time dj job there were 3 rules , but none now a day, don’t follow them…it’s all about control ..the biggest sellers aren’t always the best song
    it just shows how many people sell out to all this imagery ..its more about image than song
    that’s why it isn’t as good as it used to be and probably never will be again…music that is …the record labels are the ones that control the radio stations…I quit listening to radio because of it..we will never hear the best acts because too many artists or entertainers mostly sound too much alike …No wonder the Beatles are still going strong.and Tune core watch out! because, if you do get a monopoly ,,just remember what happened to Rockefeller…
    Wake up America ….
    p.s. and something else electronica & progressive crap..it isn’t Rock …just gimme’ some truth..

  • http://www.myspace.com/chocolateflydiva Misz Angie B

    Sorry Those Stats R For an old or dead Marketing. Viral Marketing is The New Trend along with Cloud based Music Radio!

  • Rainer Wiechmann

    example: when Eva Aguila won Canadian Idol, the radio was full of airplay for the “hit” release of her first single. in fact, pretty much all of of the Idol contestants that ended up in top spots over the show’s span ended up with a huge push on radio to launch their “careers”. not long after her win she was scheduled to appear at a local venue that holds aprox 450-600 people. Having sold only about 80 tickets the performance was cancelled. The radio still plays her music, despite the fact there is no audience for her, but because there are marketers and programmers attemting to manipulate consumers’ likes and dislikes with their idea of what represents “decent” song choices or “wholesome” artists, we get this kind of drivel. Incidentally, Canadian Idol is NO LONGER ON THE AIR (or cable, or whatever..) because it failed to steer consumers toward spending their money on “fabricated” popstars.
    as others have noted, radio has lost some vital connections with listeners because it IS largely homogenized and tries to shove the same music down everyones’ throats coast to coast. College and university stations are far easier to listen to since they at least try to embrace a variety of music.
    fyi…i am 50, in the music business, and listen mainly to talk radio these days.

  • http://www.facebook.com/evervigilant david bradlee hays

    radio itself is not the problem… it’s be business behind it… it’s the same story with the record labels… technology has crushed their models, yet they are hanging on while everything is falling down around them, trying to convince themselves that it’s just a slump and that all will be well soon…. what needs to happen is a complete overhaul in the way radio stations get paid.. same with record labels… the ones who will prosper in these times are the ones who are not afraid to change the services that a radio station offers.. change the way that radio stations get paid. people want music, especially seemingly free music.. free always reaches the masses. those of us who are young and fresh to the game have to come up with inventive ways to either buy out, or just come up and smash these old dinosaurs. too many in the entertainment industry have simply gone through the same old boring motions, feeding the same crap to the people, because it got their fathers paid and there father’s paid…. people with passion need to go out on a limb and create the new world of music. I’ll be there.
    brad hays… evervigilant

  • http://www.playlistresearch.com Alex Cosper

    Geordie, it’s great to read your writing … it is true that radio is still relevant and still is the driving force behind music sales … but let’s not forget that it is an eroding industry and that a lot of people don’t want to hear corporate style radio anymore … it’s important for the music/radio industries to understand that we are moving into a brave new world where people are becoming their own music programmers and they really don’t need radio anymore, although many hang onto radio … As for the Arbitron monopoly, I guess we have to take their word for it since there’s nothing to compare it with … Then again, the recent people meter technology implies they were wrong all along and we’re suddenly supposed to believe they finally got it right … I appreciate you laying out how radio works, which may be helpful to industry outsiders.

  • http://www.fritzkundler.com Fritz Kundler

    This (series of blog posts) is going to be a commercial for Jango, a radio station that charges artists for air ‘plays.’ Hardly relevant except to guys in suits making their money this way.

  • http://www.myspace.com/russtewart Rus Stewart

    1) Radio’s relevancy?
    Radio was best, for me, as a listener, in the ’80s, when they’d play that extended remix and that rare b-side, and not just the three-minute pop song, and would play the less-commercial album tracks too, from a given artist.
    After deregulation, it became homogenised, and i noticed that the stations i listened to, a given artist’s track that they were playing, began to shorten, no more extended versions, all edits…
    and stations started changing format, like for example, when WXXP, New Kensignton, PA a New Wave station, that was different from everything else, changed around ’88 to just another pop/country station…
    Back then, I still had WVBC to listen to however, that college station, would play some pretty good left-of-centre B-sides, remixes, and even a whole concert…and were one of hundreds like them around the world that would play my music…and they had me on as guest artist and guest DJ a few times.
    After the early/mid ’90s commercialism took over full-on, and even these college stations now are not the same today as they were.
    By the late ’90s when the Boy Band and Pop Star egos took over, radio was finished.
    The only stations that are now true to the original vision of radio are the underground, LPFM, Part-15, and pirate stations, if you are lucky enough to be within reach of one.
    The rest, for the more part, only play the same two-minute commercial tracks from the same Idol pop-star types and the Wal-Mart-variety Hip-Hop/R&B or Country star….and within each “genre” all of them sound exactly the same, over-produced with lots of fake vocal harmonies, and so over-compressed that the VU meter needle on your tapedeck -if you want to tape this crap, is stuck in the red at all times! (what happened to dynamics?)
    Ratings are manipulated, the numbers are inflated, and fake, it is all fake, no “DJ” even spins a promo record or CD anymore, it is all fake Internet streams sent over a satellite, and the “DJ” is really just an MC, announcing it, pretending to be locally-programming it.
    If you are an indie artist, forget trying to get on commercial stations…just order a transmitter from somewhere like PCS-Electronics and hoist the ol’ Jolly Roger and put up your own pirate station and take back the airwaves! (you can do this legally now too, Part-15 -if you have lots of listeners residing nearby- or can apply for a higher-power LPFM license)
    Radio needs to back local programming, real records and real DJs, and it would not hurt for them to not be afraid to play that rare B-side gem or extended remix…Play that less-obvious album track, and play that demo from the great indie artist that you discovered on Myspace, or perhaps even never heard yet!
    Commercial radio is dead, and will always be dead until the above is brought back.
    And, it is only relevant if the DJ actually says it when he or she plays it!
    There were times when I actually heard something I liked, and wanted to buy it, but the DJ did not announce who it was after it was played….and went right back to crap songs or a commercial break, at which point, i tuned out!
    2) The second part of your question: Music, as an artist, relevant to radio?
    Well, from an international artist’s point of view, it is purely in the opinions of the gatekeepers of a given station or network….what THEY think is relevant to them.
    That said, my long-format Ambient music (usually much longer than the typical radio edit of today’s commercial vocal popstar, and often very abstract in structure and form) has been heard and enjoyed by many fans, on broadcast radio, around the world…much of it prior to the use of the Internet.
    (and, I do not consider “Internet Radio” or any audio stream that goes to any chintzy disposable digital device via any sevice fee, true RADIO at all! Radio, real radio… is what you get using one of those analogue devices called an actual RADIO, which you tune into for FREE…)
    Any music that the PEOPLE like, can be relevant to radio.
    However, it is the gatekeepers and focus-groups and commitees of out-of-touch corporate suits that do not understand artistic endeavours, that filter out most of the music that does not fit their pre-contrived formulas….and this is a problem that is plaguing radio and causing radio to lose it’s impact and relavancy to music.

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  • http://www.myspace.com/russtewart R.Stewart

    1) Radio’s relevancy?
    Radio was best, for me, as a listener, in the ’80s, when they’d play that extended remix and that rare b-side, and not just the three-minute pop song, and would play the less-commercial album tracks too, from a given artist.
    After deregulation, it became homogenised, and i noticed that the stations i listened to, a given artist’s track that they were playing, began to shorten, no more extended versions, all edits…
    and stations started changing format, like for example, when WXXP, New Kensignton, PA a New Wave station, that was different from everything else, changed around ’88 to just another pop/country station…
    Back then, I still had WVBC to listen to however, that college station, would play some pretty good left-of-centre B-sides, remixes, and even a whole concert…and were one of hundreds like them around the world that would play my music…and they had me on as guest artist and guest DJ a few times.
    After the early/mid ’90s commercialism took over full-on, and even these college stations now are not the same today as they were.
    By the late ’90s when the Boy Band and Pop Star egos took over, radio was finished.
    The only stations that are now true to the original vision of radio are the underground, LPFM, Part-15, and pirate stations, if you are lucky enough to be within reach of one.
    The rest, for the more part, only play the same two-minute commercial tracks from the same Idol pop-star types and the Wal-Mart-variety Hip-Hop/R&B or Country star….and within each “genre” all of them sound exactly the same, over-produced with lots of fake vocal harmonies, and so over-compressed that the VU meter needle on your tapedeck -if you want to tape this crap, is stuck in the red at all times! (what happened to dynamics?)
    Ratings are manipulated, the numbers are inflated, and fake, it is all fake, no “DJ” even spins a promo record or CD anymore, it is all fake Internet streams sent over a satellite, and the “DJ” is really just an MC, announcing it, pretending to be locally-programming it.
    If you are an indie artist, forget trying to get on commercial stations…just order a transmitter from somewhere like PCS-Electronics and hoist the ol’ Jolly Roger and put up your own pirate station and take back the airwaves! (you can do this legally now too, Part-15 -if you have lots of listeners residing nearby- or can apply for a higher-power LPFM license)
    Radio needs to back local programming, real records and real DJs, and it would not hurt for them to not be afraid to play that rare B-side gem or extended remix…Play that less-obvious album track, and play that demo from the great indie artist that you discovered on Myspace, or perhaps even never heard yet!
    Commercial radio is dead, and will always be dead until the above is brought back.
    And, it is only relevant if the DJ actually says it when he or she plays it!
    There were times when I actually heard something I liked, and wanted to buy it, but the DJ did not announce who it was after it was played….and went right back to crap songs or a commercial break, at which point, i tuned out!
    2) The second part of your question: Music, as an artist, relevant to radio?
    Well, from an international artist’s point of view, it is purely in the opinions of the gatekeepers of a given station or network….what THEY think is relevant to them.
    That said, my long-format Ambient music (usually much longer than the typical radio edit of today’s commercial vocal popstar, and often very abstract in structure and form) has been heard and enjoyed by many fans, on broadcast radio, around the world…much of it prior to the use of the Internet.
    (and, I do not consider “Internet Radio” or any audio stream that goes to any chintzy disposable digital device via any sevice fee, true RADIO at all! Radio, real radio… is what you get using one of those analogue devices called an actual RADIO, which you tune into for FREE…)
    Any music that the PEOPLE like, can be relevant to radio.
    However, I find that it is often the gatekeepers and focus-groups and commitees of out-of-touch “corporate suits” that do not understand artistic endeavours, that filter out most of the music that does not fit their pre-contrived formulas….and this is a problem that is plaguing radio and causing radio to lose it’s impact and relavancy to music.