Commercial radio survives by charging money for commercial air time. The amount of money they get is based upon how many people listen to a given program on the station as measured by rating points. Rating points are determined by a company like Arbitron who picks people out of the phone book, calls them up, determines how much radio they listen to and then sends them a log book or diary to keep track of what station and times they listen.
Ratings vary widely from market to market. In big cities the All News stations get big ratings, as do the black and Hispanic music stations, followed by hit radio and soft rock. In an rural market country music may be on top, followed by mainstream rock and hit radio, with virtually no black or Hispanic music played at all.
Right now urban and hit radio are virtually neck and neck. The urban sound is rap and hip-hop. Hit radio is a combination of light rap, hip hop, dance, mainstream light rock, R & B, a little country and ballads. Right after this comes country music and religious music. Then comes smooth jazz, classic rock, alternative and oldies (which reaches a larger audience than most people realize). At the bottom of the heap is heavy metal, big band and "standards" -- traditional jazz and pop (Frank Sinatra and Barbara Streisand), although some heavy metal surfaces now and then on the alternative and classic rock stations.
Record sales, the stocking of records in stores, the payment for radio airplay and live appearances are tied to the popularity of the song. Someone like Bobby Vinton, who only gets sporadic play on ‘golden oldies stations’ can still play large size rooms and make more money per show than a small, modern rock act getting mainstream radio airplay!
It is the station owner, general manager and often the program or music director who will generally decide what format of music a given station will play and even what the program hosts and slots will sound like (the morning crew, the evening drive show). Then it is generally the program or music director who determines what specific songs a program host (DJ) will play – the play list. At commercial radio the play list is generally about 50 – 60 songs total. About 40 of these are current hit songs getting the most audience response (the top 40) and the remaining songs are those from recent years or something new they are trying out.
Each week every major record label comes into the radio station with 4 – 5 CDs each in an attempt to get the program director to give one or more of them an entry level slot. That’s 12 songs each CD, 50 songs each label, 5 or so major labels. That’s 250 songs the program director screens by playing 5 to 30 seconds of each cut looking for something they really like, while discussing what the bands are doing, which record stores will be stocking what new offering, etc.
To put a new song on the radio they have to remove an older song. That means to put you on the radio they have to take Madonna or Nelly Furtado off the active play list. They pull the weakest song, but only if the new song looks like it will be strong. These days the program director can insist that the band re-mix a given track, emphasizing more of this or less of that. As an example there are 5 mixes of Loves U Not by Dream, with different radio markets playing their favorite mix of the song, also most stations are playing Enya's Only Time with an added drum machine track that is not on the original album cut! An attempt was made to promote the very popular English folk artist Eliza Carthy with an alternative flavored re-mix of her Train Song which didn't really catch on with the "KROQ" radio market, neither did a similar re-mix of Natalie Imbruglia's Wishing I Was There which received two weeks worth of airplay on KROQ in Los Angeles before vanishing (as their audience is well versed and hard core, being very much into Greenday, Sublime, Offspring, Slipknot, Creed and Staind).
Most radio stations only add a dozen or so songs every few months. These days a lot of songs run from 8 to 16 months (when I was a kid the average song lasted only a few weeks on the Kasey Kasem top ten list). When they do try out a new song they either like it a great deal or they know the label, artist and management is going to promote it heavily. They give the song 2 weeks and if the audience doesn’t respond they drop it. I recall Star (KYSR in Los Angeles) commenting on how many phone calls they received after their first airing of Paula Cole's Where Have All The Cowboys Gone and I also remember KROQ's Jed The Fish telling one band I did some work with how their song didn't get one call after his first airing -- and it was an excellent song, too!
New songs generally get a single play per show (that's one play in 4 hours). The most popular song, on the other hand, gets one play every 45 minutes or about 30 to 35 plays per day (called heavy rotation). The last song I recall making in-roads across the board was Semi-Charmed Life by Third Eye Blind which was airing on 5 stations in Los Angeles in this type of heavy rotation back in 1999. No Doubt was doing this with a combination of three songs -- but not a single title -- while both hits from Shawn Colvin (Sunny Came Home) and the self-produced, underground religious band, Sixpence None The Richer (Kiss Me) only reached 4 stations at this level (neither was KROQ material) and none of them reach the Urban or Power stations. Conversely very little of Lauryn Hill's major Grammy album (The Misseducation of Lauryn Hill ) barely reached outside of the Urban markets into the adult contemporary (KYSR, KOST, KBIG) and only touched the alternative and hit radio play lists with selected cuts. Nationally in the U.S. there are about 200 stations in each of these genre's, which means Third Eye Blind pentrated 500 - 800 stations (including college) while Sixpence, Shawn Colvin or Lauryn Hill only reached 300 - 500 markets. All these artists stayed on the charts for the most of the year during their respective releases.
Each show on radio has a host (DJ) and a producer. The producer gets the play list and sets up the order of which song gets played. From the list of 10 - 15 songs from the recent past that they can play one or two selections if they want to and there may be a few they must play. The producer knows when and where the commercials are to be placed, they set up interviews and phone calls for the host. They sit together in a big room with an engineer who keeps the levels of the music, host and commercials where they are supposed to be (commercials generally are the loudest). The producer sets up the CDs for play (some people still use cart tapes as well as CDs and even phonograph records are also used now and then). They heavily compress the program output using a leveling amplifier (to keep the soft part close to the loud parts), which is akin to automatic recording level on a tape deck. At some stations there is no screening of the phone calls and you get right through to the host if you call during a song. The stations often tape all calls and do use some comments on the air, which the producer may pull on the spot if the caller was really interesting. Some shows are taped in advance. Wolfman Jack used to work a few floor above us in the Taft Building and he recorded his syndicated shows there each week.
Few hosts have the clout to put on a song they pick on their own, if any. The only time they can do this is if the program director has designed there be a “local music” show or if they are syndicated nationally. Rick Dees could break a song if he wanted to and probably without having to clear it with managment. Most other hosts could not do this...they must stick to the station play list. This makes it very hard for a small act to break into commercial radio, except way out in the sticks or in foreign countries where they actively encourage radio to discover local talent (British Commonwealth nations, for example, have a very open policy on airing local bands at least once if the material is on disk and meets basic programming standards, Canadian radio mustplay a certain amount of local artists).
With college and national public radio (NPR) this is not the same in the United States (censorship exists in some other countries, even for college radio). While these stations, too, have mandated play lists they are not as sacred. New acts and local bands who are doing more eclectic and less mainstream pop stand a very good chance with both of these alternative radio formats.
College radio is considered the proving ground for those acts that are not mainstream (rap, punk, alternative and metal). R.E.M., U2, Offspring, Metallica and many other recording artists who are now very big started off on college radio. College radio doesn’t have the commercial mentality or advertising constrictions of mainstream radio and they gear their shows to selective audiences who are largely ignored by mainstream media.
College stations have their own reporting networks (of which the CMJ or College Media Journal, is the primary listing and the Hard Report is the cross over journal covering selected college and commercial markets). Small, fringe acts work real hard at breaking the college mainstream top 10, which exposes them to dozens of airplays every day over a network of about 200 stations around the U.S.
To get college play all an act needs to do is send them a CD or vinyl record (some stations may even program off cassette tape, but they prefer disk because it’s easy to slip into a player and work into the program with no more than a push of a button). College radio programmers and show host are looking to make a name for themselves by discovering the next REM, Slayer, Metallica, No Doubt or Social Distortion (all of whom got extensive airplay on college radio long before the major labels and alternative commerical radio markets took a chance on these underground acts).
Record labels and artists get no pay from radio. Money does go to the songwriters and publishers from yearly licenses paid by the stations based on the amount of money sold in advertising or a minimum fee of about $100 in the United States. This money is paid by each station to two clearing houses: ASCAP and BMI. These clearning houses alloocate the money to publishers based on random samples of what is being played on current radio (ASCAP calls this the "current performance list").
ASCAP tapes about 10 hours per year from each city and each station to see what songs were played in those hours. BMI collect 10% of all radio station airplay logs and tallies what songs got reported. BMI pays between 6 and 12 cents per station, times the number of stations not tallied, times a factor for the history of a song ("She Loves You" by the Beatles gets 4 times the standard amount). ASCAP pays $2.50 times a weight for the station, which figures out to be about $70 for a major station like Z100 in New York or KIIS in Los Angeles for a single log. A college station would have a much lower factor, as would a station in Bangor, Maine.
A song in heavy rotation has a strong chance of getting many logs in a given year. A golden oldie played a few times a year or a local music show playing your band tape once will probably not get logged. A song that reaches 30 on the Billboard national charts will pay several thousand in royalties starting in the second year after release. This drops to hundreds in the next year. This drops for a few dollars thereafter. Thus the songwriters in a band like Staind will make very good money in a year or so off their cross-over hit "Been A While" as compared to a song that just gets played on alternative or college radio. This is why record labels and bands try to get cross-over hits that will cover alternative, soft rock and mainstream stations. This means more radio money, more record sales, more fans and larger venues when you go on tour.
Our Music Special continues with these other articles: