How Radio Works

By Mike King

In a perfect world, radio stations across the country would play songs based simply on the merits of the songs themselves. In a perfect world, a major radio station in a major market could be solicited in the same fashion as a publicist solicits Rolling Stone, for example: by sending a package, making a follow-up call, and if the “deciders” (in the case of radio, the program directors) like what they hear, they would promote the record by playing it on air. Unfortunately this is not how large traditional radio stations work.

Traditional radio is (still) a big business, and there is a HUGE promotional vehicle behind any song you hear played on commercial radio. (commercial radio is a term used to describe the dominant form of radio in the US and several other countries, those that are broadcasting for profit.) The amount of money and resources it takes to get your music played on commercial radio during peak listening times makes it an unrealistic avenue to almost all independent artists and labels.

The good news is that there are a number of noncommercial traditional radio stations that are a completely viable outlet for a musician that does not have a spare $500,000 to drop on a commercial radio campaign. (noncommercial radio is a term used to describe those stations that are not funded by advertising, typically located on the left side of the radio dial.) Additionally, commercial stations often times have specialty shows that fall outside of the regular programming that are open to less expensive solicitation. Furthermore, the rise of online and satellite radio have further opened the doors to independent artists and labels, and provided another avenue for artists who aren’t on major labels to get national/international radio coverage.

Let’s take a step back and talk about what needs to be happening with your band before you consider radio support.

When Should You Consider Radio Support?

Traditional terrestrial radio (as opposed to online radio, which has its own set of rules) should be the last consideration in an independent artist’s marketing campaign for a few reasons. First, it can be incredibly expensive. Second, there are fewer spots available to promote new artists than there are at other marketing outlets (like press, retail, online, and touring), which makes it incredibly difficult to get play during the time of day when folks actually listen to the radio (as opposed to placement at 3 a.m.). Third, and most importantly, radio is best used to support other efforts you already have in place—in particular, a tour.

For example, say you are a New York City-based band, and you’ve hired an indie radio promoter, and they’ve secured radio play at KUSF, a great noncommercial station in San Francisco. Without a tour in that market, without records in the stores in that market, and without press visibility, the radio play will not really do you much good. That being said, there are some folks (independent promoters, usually) that feel that radio play should come before a distribution deal, as it can be used as a “promotional ammunition” to sell the distributor or a label on the merits of your band.

While there is some truth to this, distributors these days are just as impressed by a solid online community, great press, and a band that can draw a good amount of folks to their shows nationally. Radio on a national level is a more expensive and generally a less effective avenue if your goal is to impress distributors or label folks. A national radio campaign should not be considered the “magic bullet” to kick-start your career or marketing campaign. However, depending on where you are with your career, your fan base, and your general visibility, some degree of radio presence can help to propel your visibility into larger arenas.

What Else Should Be in Place Prior To Considering Your Radio Campaign?

To truly capitalize on a radio promotional campaign, both at noncommercial and commercial radio, it’s best to have your integrated marketing campaign running on all cylinders. Radio is designed to complement your other marketing efforts and make the listeners take action. To start, you’ll need to have your Web site up and optimized with tour dates, any press you’ve had, bio, etc.

If folks hear about you through a local specialty radio show and are intrigued, chances are they’ll search for you online. Again, touring, press, a distribution campaign, and most importantly a GROWING fanbase should also be in place before you undertake your radio campaign. It make the radio pitches a lot easier if you (or your radio promo indie, to be more specific) can point out that a buzz happening with your campaign—but you also need to have these other segments in place so that folks hear your music, find your music in stores, and find out where you’re playing,

In addition, if you do decide to undertake a radio promotion campaign, you are going to need to budget for creating and sending a number of promos (promotional copies) of your record to your target stations. This is a serious consideration for an artist on a limited budget.

This article was taken from Mike King’s online Music Marketing 201 course enrolling at

Musician, educator, and consultant Mike King is a veteran of several prominent independent record labels and has over 10 years’ marketing, project management, and artist development experience in the music industry. Mike is the managing editor and directs the marketing efforts for Artists House Music. He also authors and leads several online marketing and technology courses for CNET, and is a contributing writer for Making Music magazine.

  • Kellee Maize

    If you’re an indie band, ignore radio. Noone listens to it anyway and as you can tell by turning on any radio station, ads that play are always about pregnancy, bankruptcy, back taxes, DUI and other low budget sponsors.
    If you’re an indie band, focus online. If you can get 100 fans online, you can get 100,000 fans online. Just continue to make good music and interact with your fans via twitter, facebook, myspace, email, and all of the different networks out there where your fans will be listening to you.
    do this 24/7.
    don’t just market to your fans, interact with them. become their friends.
    If you had 100,000 friends/fans that bought 1 song off of you once a month, you’d be a millionaire.
    That’s what I do.

  • Billy LuFrances

    Right on Kellee…. Good Perspective!
    I like what you say….. “do this 24/7”

  • Vicki Garrison

    No offense to Kellee (who makes good points about making real connections online) but people do still listen to traditional radio stations. It’s true that radio is on the decline (especially with younger demographics) but I wouldn’t count them out yet. This is a huge industry and they aren’t going to go down without a fight.
    That said, besides the cost of your time & materials to reach out to them, radio is free promotion if you can get it so why ignore it completely? One 30 second radio spot in Nashville, TN which has a metro population of nearly 1 million consumers can run anywhere from $25-$200+ depending on the station and time of day. If you figure that most songs are at least 2.5 minutes long then the value in terms of what it would have cost to purchase this exposure is around $125 per play on the low side. Kind of makes the work to get on-air seem more worth it.
    While you can certainly promote fan-by-fan and through word of mouth, reaching a larger market will help to speed that process. Promotion of your music on radio can lead to promotion of your shows which is how most people are making money now anyway. Even if you feel that you won’t gain a lot of listeners through airplay what you will definitely gain are relationships with your area radio stations and you never know where those can lead you.

  • jason s

    thanx kellee for piece of knowledge because B4 this article and everything ive heard from u guys i sure as sky is blue was gonna focus on the radio thing first ,glad i didnt make that rookie mistake…lol!!!!!!!

  • McKenzie.Anderson

    Yes, radio play takes effort but I wouldn’t discount it entirely… an online community/presence is more important, but you can’t just say “ignore radio” because it may be worth the extra effort just to reach a different audience than you can reach by solely focusing online. Radioplay should result in expanding your online community anyway. Like this article said, the point would be to get radioplay in an area you are trying to reach, like if you’re going to play a couple shows in atlanta this summer but you’re based out of Ohio. Good luck trying to build a fanbase in atlanta by tweeting about it! If you get radioplay in the atlanta area between now and showtime in May then you’re reaching the people in your target area and those people that like your songs will want to look you up online and then you start to build an online relationship with those people! But it would be more difficult to do this solely online.
    Online community is key, good online community is like dropping a pebble in a lake it should be expanding, but it can’t hurt to have your buddy radioplay drop one in at the other side (cheesey much? Yes, I know…)

  • Pearce

    i need promo. for my artistes.

  • Francisco Toscano

    I have recently been contacted by an agency called “Bryan Farrish Radio Promotion” in order to start a radio promotion in the USA. Has anybody of you heard of them? Would you recommend their work?. Thanks a lot, in advance for your insights!! this is realy importante for me 😉

  • james bedu graham


  • Mighty Fleiss Radio

    i wouldn’t discount the idea of radio entirely. While it’s true your not going to get an accidental runaway hit without mega bucks, a focus, or target on local & specialty shows can gain some limited success
    Several years back i did mail a punkrockdemo to Mr Shovel on indie 103.1(He’s now the MD for Steve Jones radio show Joneseys Jukebox on KROQ)& they did play the song on the air for the Locals Only Sunday show. Sadly however, A bunch of A&R scumbags listened to that show like vultures waiting for The Road Kill to snuff & led the road to ruin. Sold a few 45’s though
    Rodney on the ROQ in LA, Locals Only (Kat)on KROQ, KLOS, KCRW (Public, Community, College etc) etc may offer a shot at some limited sucess but i feel radio really only creates real selling opportunities with a high level of repitition (i.e money required for promotions etc)

  • Xan
  • kendrick

    how can i collaborate with you? cuz im tryna get myself known out there and im tryna get in the money just hit me up,

  • Moivaan