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

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