Radio Promotion 101

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In the last blog post I discussed the grassroots power of fan requests to push an indie band’s single to satellite radio and syndicated programs, and we learned to never underestimate the power of speaking up for what you want.

But how does a single from a band in Toledo or Baltimore or London get in the rotation at a smallish, locally-owned station half way across the country?   What is the magic behind the curtain?

Lucky for me, Bangor, Maine can boast that we have locally-owned and locally-programmed radio stations.  Bobby Russell, general manager for Zone Radio Corp, which includes these fine stations:  100.3 WKIT – Stephen King’s Rock and Roll Station, 103.1WZLO – Maine’s Adult Alternative, and 620 WZON – The Pulse, welcomed me in for a very informative conversation.  (Yes, that Stephen, and Tabitha, King.)

Radio Promotion 101:

If you think there is anything about the music industry that can easily be distilled to something simple, I’m afraid you are sadly mistaken but I’ll do my best.

First, when the budget allows, artists and labels often employ or contract individuals to do radio promotion.  Their job is to call on personal experience and connections to get a band radio air time, air time which will in turn build notoriety and a strong fan base.  Radio promotion is a function of the artist’s, or label’s, public relations plan and intended to build mutually beneficial relationships – in this case between the radio promoters, program directors, and the artist/label – three entities who rely on one another to be successful.  Without these connections, these relationships, nothing happens.   And something better happen for the money spent to hire a radio promoter.  Bobby Borg, long time musician, educator, and author of Music Marketing for the DIY Musician, states that independent radio promoters can charge between “$3,000 and $10,000 for a four-month professional radio campaign.”

Second, like everything else, the methods used to promote music to radio have changed over time but the premise has stayed the same – a song makes it into rotation because it suits the station’s listeners.  This sounds obvious, I know, but consider the many segments of rock music.  A program director looking for new music for a soft rock audience may love the latest release from a great new, innovative hard rock band, but her listeners will likely turn the dial to another station if the song suddenly makes it to air.  To be successful, a radio promoter must know their band’s music and accurately target the station’s genre … and then hope like hell that the stars line up just right for a single to even be entertained.  On the program director’s end there could be many things to consider before deciding to try a new single such as timing, the current songs in the lineup, artists scheduled to be releasing work soon, you name it.

Enough textbook, how does a radio promoter actually promote?

Russell’s tenure in radio, starting in the mid1970s, means he has seen a few versions of promotion.  Once upon a time, radio promoters for the big labels were always calling the station, sending free stuff for contests, and wining and dining their way to a relationship with the station’s program director.  (No, this was not payola – this was something else, stayed tuned for the next blog post.)  This promotion method went on for quite a while, up until the 1990s, when it came to a halt. Russell said that it just dried up.  Why?  According to Russell, the Internet appeared and the “labels lost their shirts.” Radio promotion had to shift gears.

Today, promoters rely heavily on technology to put their music in front of the program directors for locally-owned stations.  While promoters still call and email with their “wish lists” for the week, according to Russell much more of this communication happens online.  Russell showed me a trade website used by bands and promoters to showcase their latest singles, and as you have probably guessed, this music is downloadable to program directors who feel a song and band fits the station’s format and will be enjoyed by listeners.

What about CDs?  Yes, a radio promoter can still put a CD in the hands of a program director, and the shelves at Zone Radio were full of those sent by mail, but from my point of view the labor and cost associated with mailing CDs to stations across the US has to be substantial although perhaps not as much as hiring a radio promoter.

I am way beyond my 500-words-or-less limit, but I am still just scratching the surface on this subject.  I’d like to thank Bobby Russell for taking the time to graciously answer my questions and show me a few of the things behind the curtain.  Like any industry we take for granted, radio is propped up by many smaller pieces we never see or even wonder about…and as a longtime fan of WKIT, it was really cool!

Stay tuned.  Support Live Music!

Feel free to email us at rockandrollintel at with questions – I said questions, not ranting or bitching or complaining – and leave comments and ideas on Facebook.


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