Commercial radio tends to be the great white whale for indie artists and small labels, but the first step to actually conquering the comm radio world is to understand a little bit about how it operates. Before you try to promote your music to commercial radio, keep these five little tidbits of info in mind to help you plan a PR campaign that actually works.
1. The DJ Doesn't Pick The Music
Although it may seem like it from the listener's perspective, the DJ is not the one with the playlist power. DJs - the on-air personalities - are given playlists by program directors/music directors who decide what the stations will play. There's nothing wrong with trying to get on the good side of a DJ - they may have a few free slots on their shows that they are allowed to fill, and they may get to cherry pick interview and session subjects. They may also mention you on-air. Those are all good things. However, when you're trying to promote your music to commercial radio, it is the program director/music director you'll need to court, not your favorite DJ.
Now, there can be some variation. Some directors double as DJs and some DJs have ample free slots they can fill. However, when you're getting your contact list together, make sure you are sending out your music to the program director to get the ball rolling.
2. Getting on a Speciality Show Doesn't Necessarily Mean You'll Be Playlisted
Speciality shows on radio stations can be a great thing, and depending your style of music, it might be easier to get played on one of these shows. However, it is important to note getting a speciality show spin does not always - or even often - translate into making it into heavy rotation on a given station. Remember that the nature of specialty shows is that they play, well, "specialty" music. That means that some of the music being played doesn't really fit into the regular old playlist on the station, which doesn't bode well for you getting spins outside of the show.
Now, that isn't always the case. For instance, if a speciality show features local music, and listeners keep on requesting a song from that show, that song could start finding a place in regular rotation. However, very genre-specific shows and the like are usually an outlet for songs that the station feels may not have broad enough appeal to live outside of the show. That doesn't mean that getting spins on a specialty show is a bad thing - any radio play is to be embraced. It's just important to put it in its proper context.
3. Commercial Radio Isn't College Radio
Indie music doesn't have a better friend in the world than college radio. It's the most accessible form of radio to up and coming musicians and labels, and succeeding in the college realm can increase your chances of success when you approach commercial radio.
That being said, don't think you can hit up commercial radio stations the same way you may have approached college stations. First of all, commercial radio doesn't want your burned promos without liner notes. They want finished product or professionally produced promos (if you send finished product, make sure it is labeled "promotional copy - not for sale" or that you punch through the barcode). Anything less makes them think you aren't serious about your project. You need to give them a clear add date for your release and start promoting at least four weeks in advance of the add date. Advertisements in radio trade publications also help convince them that you've got something serious going on.
In a nutshell, college radio is set up to give indies a lot of leeway, but for commercial radio, you need to go in promoting more like a major label would.
4. Trade Publication Ads Matter
Part of announcing your promotional campaign to commercial radio includes buying advertisements in radio industry trade publications that help spread the word that you're looking for adds. Now, let's be clear - buying advertising isn't absolutely, 100% REQUIRED to get spins, but it sure does help. Why? It once again communicates with commercial radio that you have a serious project that you have the resources to back up. This is the area where commercial radio campaigns can really get cost prohibitive for small indies - and make no doubt about it, these things can cost big bucks - but if an ads help you get important commercial radio plays, they can certainly be a worthwhile investment.
What happens if you can't buy any ads? If you've already done well at college radio, take it as a sign that a commercial campaign can be worth a go. If you haven't quite slayed the college radio crowd yet, it may be time to refocus on that group.
5. Commercial Radio Wants Ratings
Commercial radio doesn't care if your song is "good" - they just care if people want to hear it. That's it in a nutshell. Commercial radio makes their money by attracting enough listeners to make their advertising spots attractive to advertisers. You can convince them that people want to hear you by playing shows and getting press in the station's respective markets. But make no mistake about it - a program director may LOVE your song, but that doesn't mean it is getting playlisted. You have to prove to them that playing your song makes sense in their hunt for ratings. If it does, they'll play it whether they personally love it or not.
Do keep in mind, however, that commercial radio DOES care how your recording sounds. It needs to sound like a professional recording - not something you knocked up with a tape recorded - otherwise, it won't meet their needs.
What does all this mean to you? When you're pitching to commercial radio, remember to sell them from the perspective that their listeners are going to be looking for your music because you're playing shows and getting press reviews rather than trying to convince them to play it because it's so musically great.