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Can radio boost your music career? Pt. 1: Commercial vs. non-commercial radio

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Part 1 of this post explores a brief history of radio deregulation, its impact on the national radio market, and the opportunity local non-commercial radio represents to indie musicians.

Thursday, March 31, 2016 was one of the darker days in recent memory for San Francisco Bay Area musicians and music fans when long-time supporter of the local music scene, KFOG radio, FM 104.5 lost its battle with the bean counters and had its indie music soul silenced. Four of the region’s best loved and articulate music disc jockeys were fired without notice, leaving the station broadcasting on “autopilot” with no deejays for nearly a month until it was re-launched on April 20, 2016 under the new unintentionally ironic slogan, “Music Matters.”

Not surprisingly, while some staff was retained, there are far fewer on-air personalities resulting in a much more streamlined (read less expensive) staff. According to 32-year veteran deejay Rosalie Howarth, commenting to the San Francisco Chronicle, “There were a couple of centuries worth of musical knowledge and Bay Area [music] history that went down in a matter of minutes.”

On the surface, the culprit was a steady slide in the station’s ad revenues, but if you dig a little deeper, perhaps a greater issue is KFOG is owned by Cumulus Media, an Atlanta-based juggernaut and the nation’s second largest radio station syndicate, which owns 450 radio stations in 90 US markets. It’s hard to imagine an accountant 3,000 miles away would lose much sleep over the decimation of a pillar of San Francisco’s local music community.

While I’m grieving the loss, if one were to strictly look at the numbers, the writing was clearly on the wall. Advertising revenues for KFOG were reported by Inside Radio to have declined from $16.2 million annually in 2010 to only $4.2 million by 2015, a precipitous 75% decline in a matter of years. From the point of view of Cumulus, even I have to admit that a complete reboot with much lower overhead and some fine tuning of the programming was a logical business decision to make.

Still, in addition to the decades of local music knowledge and deep ties to San Francisco’s legendary music legacy that were silenced, the region is also mourning the loss of charitable concerts, benefit CDs for numerous causes, promotion of “Live and Local” artists, and an avenue to spotlight new artists. None of these efforts seem likely to be restarted as such activities are time- and labor-intensive undertakings that may or may not have much impact on an advertiser’s willingness to buy air time on the station.

Does radio matter anymore?

The loss of an institution like KFOG got me thinking about the role of radio today as a vehicle for an up-and-coming artist to build a fan base. Does radio even matter anymore if there is only a handful of programmers deciding playlists for the majority of the country’s commercial stations? What options exist for new artists to connect with radio programmers?

Before we get to tips on DIY radio promotion, let’s take a quick look at the last two decades to see how things have changed across the radio landscape. If you’re an Indie artist trying to manage your own career, it’s important to understand how things got so messed up in the radio industry.

It was 20 years ago today…

Twenty years ago, Congress passed the 1996 Telecommunication Act, which was designed to increase competition in the telecommunication and broadcast markets. The 1996 law led to a rapid evolution known as “deregulation” as the law overturned ownership limits that had been put in place in 1934, when the government recognized the benefit in limiting the power a single radio station or network could wield.

In the post-1996 landscape, a handful of powerful station groups went on a buying spree that resulted in “significant and adverse effects on musicians and citizens,” according to a 2002 Future of Music Coalition report titled “Radio Deregulation: Has it Served Musicians and Citizens?” In the report, the authors showed that in the first six years of deregulation, “Virtually every geographic market is dominated by four firms controlling 70% of the market share or greater. In smaller markets, consolidation is more extreme. The largest four firms control 90% of market share or more.”

With one company owning dozens of stations across the nation, programming the same format, one radio programming executive literally became the gatekeeper for tens of millions of listeners. Talk about a deck stacked against an indie artist dropping a CD off at the local commercial FM station in the hopes of getting a weekend or late night spin. If the station is owned by one of the conglomerates, don’t bother.

So what can you do if you want to begin to leverage the power of radio?

Commercial vs. non-commercial radio

Let’s start by taking a look at this chart, which shows the top six radio groups ranked by total radio audience size.

commercial and non-commercial radio leaders
The top six broadcasting groups by listening audience, according to 2011 Pew Foundation report.

While five of the six groups are commercial, for profit companies, one stands out that isn’t – National Public Radio (NPR). The 900 NPR-affiliate stations are locally owned and operated, unlike the monolithic for-profit radio chains. Roughly 66% are operated in conjunction with a college or university, while community-based boards govern the remaining 33%. A few are affiliated with locally managed public television outlets, many of which create their own relevant locally focused programming.

Over the past decade, NPR has staked a claim to being one of the most respected musical tastemakers in the nation. Just look at the listenership for their show All Songs Considered and that segment’s spin off, the Tiny Desk Concert series, with performing artists ranging from Adele (4.4 million views), Leon Bridges (1.3 million views) to the eclectic mountain music of Anna & Elizabeth (74,000 views) shows. Even for lesser-known artists at the lower end of the page view counts, these numbers prove that this is one very effective alternative to the closed doors of commercial radio.

Think locally, act locally

To find out more about how one NPR affiliate station keeps a finger on the pulse of its local music scene, I spoke with Nick Brunner at Capital Public Radio in Sacramento, CA. Like most folks working in public radio, Nick wears a few different hats. He manages promotion and imaging for the affiliate and also has been hosting the station’s Saturday evening indie and alternative show, Blue Dog Jam. For the past two years, he’s had the opportunity to connect with quite a few regional bands looking to get some airplay on the show, and admits his desk is piled with CDs, promo kits, and pitch letters, with no end in sight.

“It’s tough for me to listen to them all, as I’m a one man department when it comes to alternative programming at our station,” says Brunner. “And I’ve only got two hours a week to program. I rely on what’s trending on CMJ (College Music Journal), as well as packages submitted by reps from around the country. Local musicians drop off materials, in fact someone just dropped by today with music from a local band that I plan to check out.”

When I asked if he could share an example of regional artists he’s worked with, two came to mind. “The first is a SF Bay area-based group, Foxtails Brigade, who I had heard about and who reached out to me a few years ago,” Nick said. Their lead singer, Laura Weinbach, was doing a follow up call leading up to the release of the band’s new record. After we connected, it was just a matter of scheduling and I invited them up to the station last February to play an entire set in our Community Room, which we recorded for later use. We did a complete set up that took about four hours, but we got some nice takes and I was able to piece together a feature on the group that aired as part of an April Blue Dog Jam broadcast timed to coincide with that release.

“Another comes from one of our community sponsors, Fulcrum Property Management, that is building out some new living spaces as well as an event space called The Barn in West Sacramento. One of the team got in touch with us and asked us to help recommend some live music for a 13-week live series titled “Friday Nights at the Barn.” I had some ideas and pretty soon had been tapped to book the bands. We kicked off the series with a local act, Salt Wizard, on August 5th. It’s free and open to everyone and offers food trucks, a bar and live music. This is exactly what I wanted to do when I first was attracted to working in radio back in college – be a connector between the community and artists.”

I asked Nick what advice he’d share with aspiring artists working to connect with radio programmers, especially at non-commercial stations. “First, bear with us, we get a lot of submissions, so patience is necessary,” he said. “But do your best to keep in contact. For local artists, we do want to know what’s happening and it never hurts to drop by the station to briefly say ‘hi’ in person. And if you’re local, chances are you may already know someone who knows me or some of the other station staff, so use your connections.”

In regard to the materials you submit, Nick insists it doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive.

“I’m mostly concerned with how you sound and getting a sense of who you are as a musician,” he explains. “If your materials tell me that, I can readily make a decision about your music. If you link to your online presence and tunes on SoundCloud or ReverbNation, that will work just fine.”

Another show on Cap Radio, “Insight,” is a daily news and information show, that also regularly features local musicians, actors, authors and visual artists live in the studio, further connecting artists and listeners, which is one of non-commercial radio’s real strengths.

Part 2 in this series looks at KDVS in California and the model it employs as a self-described non-Top 40 station.

Keith Hatschek subbed as a late night college radio disk jockey at KUCR Radio in the 1970s. He’s a regular contributor to Disc Makers Echoes blog and directs the Music Management Program at University of the Pacific. He has also written two music industry books, How to Get a Job in the Music Industry, which just came out in its third edition, and The Golden Moment: Recording Secrets from the Pros.

Story Links
Includes tips for submitting music to KDVS programmers, and and the information will likely transfer to many other non-commercial stations.

Global Hit
Does your band feature international music or band members? Public Radio International’s The World, a daily news and information show airing on 300 stations, has a segment called “Global Hit” that features a wide range of world musicians.

Start and Run Your Own Record Label
Daylle Deanna Schwartz’s informative book has a great chapter that offers real-world, commonsense advice on how to approach radio and build relationships to get airtime.

The Indie Bible and The Musician’s Atlas
Two directories that have lists of indie-friendly radio stations.

NPR Stations and Public Media
Learn how NPR affiliate stations are managed for the public benefit and why they have a vested interest in being the voice of their local communities. You can also find your closest NPR affiliate using the zip code finder.

The Death of Diversity in U.S. Broadcast Ownership
Jeffrey Blevins penned this thoughtful and disturbing piece in Cincinnati’s City Beat documenting how media consolidation has resulted in not one single TV station being owned by a minority, greatly stifling diversity.

Who Owns The Media
A link to the Pew Foundation’s 2011 report on major media ownership.

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3 thoughts on “Can radio boost your music career? Pt. 1: Commercial vs. non-commercial radio

  1. Aloha that was a great explanation on what’s happening with radio stations I recorded my CD mystical Molokai at mana’o a non profit commercial free radio station on Maui one of the meager Hawaiian islands with out the help from mania radio I wouldn’t have been able to complete my project Don Lopez and Vince exquier help me produce my project got me on the radio for alive show recording when it was over he called up stairs I thought it was bad especially because when I was done everything went silent so I walk into office or recording station he I give you this disc now or we can into production I had no idea what that meant when it was done 4 years later i was amazed with there patients and dedication thanks to real radio jocks been traveling around Europe Japan and few states promoting my cd who can I send my CD to help stay on this wave been to the bay area three times heading back there and Seattle next if there is any radio station that would have us for a live show I would appreciate anyone who is in radio broadcast or music promotion can listen to my iTunes Pandora or send me your address I send you a sign CD mahalo and aloha take care keep smiling shaka tanaka mystical Molokai island music available on iTunes and CD hope you enjoy my music

  2. While NPR is a great gateway, adding music into regular rotation is also based on genre reporting to CMJ and FMQB. Both commercial and non-comms report to FMQB equally in the Triple A format, where deserving unsigned bands can get a shot at real rotation airplay on commercial and non-commercial radio. It’s not one versus the other.

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