Loads of songs have been written about the radio: Queen’s ““Radio Gaga”, Elvis Costello’s “Radio, Radio”, Steely Dan’s “FM”, The Ramones “Do You Remember Rock ‘n Roll Radio” and REM’s “Radio Free Europe”, just to name a few. Now, how do YOU get your song played on the radio? Well, the first step is to get familiar with the different radio formats. In this article, I will focus on music-based formats, which means I will be skipping over talk radio and the formats that play only classic hits.
In Canada, there are six different music based radio formats: CHR (Top 40), AC (Adult Contemporary), HOT AC, ACTIVE ROCK, ALTERNATIVE ROCK and COUNTRY. There are a couple of AAA (Adult Album Alternative) stations in Canada, but they tend to be grouped with the Alternative Rock stations. In the United States, these formats are expanded to include URBAN radio (with a sub category of Urban AC), RHYTHMIC radio (with sub categories of Rhythmic AC and Rhythmic CHR) and Gospel radio. In the U.S., you will also see the Rock charts further divided into AAA (with a sub category of Americana and Folk), Classic Rock and Adult Hits. Did you just reach for your bottle of aspirin? Yes, this information can be a bit overwhelming! However, if you really desire a radio hit, then you must understand formatting in order to produce music that is suitable for the right station and demographic.
Let’s break things down a bit to make it easier. CHR is Top 40 radio, which is pretty self-explanatory. The top artists currently at this format in Canada are artists such as; David Guetta, Britney Spears, Lady Gaga, Owl City, Kesha, Cascada, Black Eyed Peas and Jay Z. Now, if you are familiar with these artists, you can properly surmise CHR radio in Canada is fairly rhythmic (dance-oriented), although you will see ballads on the charts if they are very strong and have hit at other formats. This should give you an idea of the type of sound you will need to produce in order to have your songs played on CHR radio. Keep in mind, rock oriented tracks DO appear on CHR radio, but only after they have charted at ACTIVE ROCK or ALTERNATIVE ROCK. Rock artists like Nickelback, Kings of Leon, U2 and Weezer regularly appear on the CHR charts. Are you feeling a bit more comfortable now? Great! Take a deep breath and we’ll move onto other formats!
Canadian ROCK radio is divided into two categories. We’ll start with ACTIVE ROCK, which is a bit more classic sounding than Alternative. Some of the artists currently on top at this format in Canada are Foo Fighters, Three Days Grace, Them Crooked Vultures, Billy Talent, Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains, Default and Green Day. In order to chart at this format, you’ll need to crank up the guitars, bang on those drums and get a killer bass line. Now, when we look at the artists currently charting at Canadian ALTERNATIVE RADIO, you will notice a bit of crossover with the ACTIVE ROCK artists. The chart toppers are Weezer, Foo Fighters, Muse, Billy Talent, Three Days Grace, Rise Against, Tegan and Sara, Them Crooked Vultures and Alice In Chains. In the US, there tends to be a bit more diversity in the lists, but keep in mind, there is a greater population density in America, and that lends itself to more variety in formatting. Again, if you want that ACTIVE ROCK hit, get your guitar out and prepare to wail away!!
AC (Adult Contemporary) radio appeals to an older audience. AC stations are generally played in offices, as the music is mellower. The current chart toppers at Canadian AC radio are Michael Buble, Colbe Caillat, Taylor Swift, Pink, Chantal Kreviazuk, Sarah McLachlan, Rob Thomas and Mariah Carey. If you want a hit at AC radio, put away the guitar and take a valium. (Just kidding.) Seriously, AC radio programmers steer clear of wailing guitar solos and concentrate on songs that have a broad appeal. On the other hand, HOT AC radio appeals to a primarily female audience that is younger than AC. The top artists currently at Canadian HOT AC radio are Kelly Clarkson, Black Eyed Peas, Owl City, David Guetta, Miley Cyrus, Michael Buble, Bon Jovi and Lady Gaga. You will notice there are a few artists who appear on the CHR charts as well as the HOT AC charts. And if you are a smarty pants, you will correctly surmise HOT AC radio can be more rhythmic than AC radio (hence the younger audience). If you want a hit at HOT AC radio, you can follow the rules of CHR and Rock radio (but you might want to do a HOT AC edit of your track that takes the crunchier guitar parts out).
Country radio should be pretty self-explanatory! Get me some pedal steel guitar and take a look at the current top Canadian country artists: Lady Antebellum, Reba, Carrie Underwood, Taylor Swift, Darius Rucker, Terri Clark, Tim McGraw and Kenny Chesney. Canadian country programmers are always looking for a great song. Lyrical content is VERY important in country music! And, as previously mentioned, pedal steel guitar is a pretty important part of the country sound. There are many country artists who have successfully crossed over to the CHR charts, and these included Faith Hill, Shania Twain, Keith Urban, Dixie Chicks and Taylor Swift, just to name a few. I think you know what to do if you want to top the country charts!!
So now you have a bit of knowledge regarding radio formats, which should help you to target where your music will be heard. However, getting your track to radio is the tricky part. That’s when you need to hire the services of a radio tracker, also known as pluggers and/or radio promotion people. Radio trackers have a database of all the radio programmers per format in the country they work in. In Canada, many trackers cover multiple formats. In the US, trackers tend to concentrate on specific formats – jazz, country, active rock, AAA/Americana, etc. Again, the US has more radio stations per format, which makes it easier to specialize in one genre of music. Let’s focus on Canada; otherwise your head will start spinning!
Why do you need to hire a radio tracker? Well, you can try to track your single by yourself, but you will have to spend several weeks researching all the different radio stations in Canada to find the names, phone numbers and e-mail addresses of the program directors and music directors of the stations in the format you want to target. (A quick note: the program director – or pd in industry lingo – is the top dog at the radio station. He or she ultimately decides what music gets aired on the station. The music director – or md for short – is the program director ‘s right hand man/woman and has a say in what gets played on the station.) You will also have to figure out when they take their music calls and when they send out their playlists. This is incredibly time consuming, especially since there is no industry trade paper in Canada with these lists readily available to you. The other spanner in the works is many radio programmers will not take calls or listen to music from people they do not know. Keep in mind, radio programmers receive anywhere from twenty to forty new songs each week. Obviously, they don’t have time to listen to every single one of these, so they rely on trackers and promo reps from major labels to help them set their priorities.
Hiring a radio tracker helps you get your music noticed by programmers. Mind you, there is NEVER a guarantee of airplay when you hire a tracker. Anyone who promises you with 100% certainty your song will be played at a station is probably lying to you. If I could guarantee radio airplay, I’d be a millionaire and right now I’d have a hot cabana boy bringing me drinks and applying suntan lotion to my body. Radio airplay is a crapshoot. Obviously, you need a GREAT song to get attention. You also need a savvy radio tracker to help you decide the release date of your single to radio. As an independent artist, you don’t want to send your debut single to radio in September. Why? Because September and October are the months for the fall ratings period, (also referred to as the fall book) which is usually the most important ratings period to stations, as they base their advertising rates on this book. Look at the calendar and you will notice a BIG holiday that involves an obese man in a red and white suit. This holiday means major record labels are counting on a big fall quarter to boost their profits, so you will see releases from BIG SELLING ARTISTS, who will also be vying against you for radio airplay. Who do YOU think a programmer is more likely to add – Lady Gaga or an unknown artist? If you chose Lady Gaga, give yourself a gold star in radio knowledge. If you chose the unknown artist, please sober up before reading further.
A radio tracker can help you choose the song that will most likely get airplay for you. The first single you release to radio should be a strong song that aptly represents YOU as an artist. The tracker will also direct you to the proper format for your music. Sometimes you can approach two formats with your song. This is called crossing over. If you look back at the list of formats, you will notice several artists who are on two charts at once, hence the term crossover. It does cost more to work double formats, but there is an added bonus of more exposure, which translates into more sales. And sales mean money, which we all love to see!!
When you hire a radio tracker, you are paying for their relationships with programmers. As you can guess, music is subjective. Many times, programmers have two or three songs of equal merit to add to their station. Their choice of the single to add to their station can come down to who they have a relationship with and who they want to help. That is why you need a great radio tracker on your team! Before you decide to hire a tracker, I would highly recommend speaking with several trackers first. You need to work with someone who has a good track record and who you feel comfortable communicating with. Check out their websites. Speak to their former clients to see if they were happy with the work done. Try to chat with a programmer to get their recommendation. Be sure to do your homework in order to be sure you have hired a reputable radio tracker who will secure adds on your single.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions! You are spending your hard earned cash on your dream of breaking into the music business and you have every right to get the answers you need. Now go write that hit single so we can deal with the next step in your musical success!