Mastering the Hustle 18: Radio

Mastering the Hustle
01/17/2020
Martin Douglas
All photos by Brady Harvey

KEXP, Upstream Music Fest + SummitMoPOP, and The Recording Academy have partnered together to present Mastering The Hustle: a panel discussion with six annual events, tackling a different topic to help emerging artists make better decisions earlier in their careers. Throughout the series, we’ll be discussing everything from how to get airplay, legal and licensing, healthcare for artists, and promoting your brand.


Ah yes, trying to get played on radio stations.

For as long a lot of us can remember, we've listened to our favorite songs on the radio. Some of us have played music and sent demos, CD-Rs, EPKs and the like in hopes to hear our song on the radio. Sometimes it seems like there's no way in – like it's a zero-sum game. How in the world do you get your music on the radio? On a panel moderated by KEXP's Marco Collins, a decorated veteran of radio, Gabriel Teodros (musician, writer, also a KEXP DJ), Steven Graham (host of 107.7 the End show Locals Only), and Michelle Feghali (radio promotions manager at Sub Pop Records) have convened in the gathering space for the eighteenth installment of Mastering the Hustle, where they go over the ins and outs of radio and provide very sound strategies to at least have the best shot of getting your music played on the air.

Collins begins the panel by starting to break down the different types of radio. First are "non-comms," which are non-commercial radio stations supported by donors and underwriting, like KEXP. (Underwriting, in Collins' words, is a "tasteful" form of advertising.) He points out the non-comm format is growing and advises the artists in the audience to send their music out to non-comms first. Radio Milwaukee, the Current (in Minneapolis, MN), KCRW (a Los Angeles NPR affiliate), WFUV New York, and WXPN Philadelphia are all examples of great stations using the non-comm format.

Another example is college radio, where Collins got his start in the field and eventually became a program director. Teodros asks if KEXP started as a college radio station. (It did, the University of Washington's KCMU was the station KEXP would later become, featuring a mix of students and community.) Feghali notes the differences between college and commercial radio as 1) college radio doesn't play commercials (much like non-comms) and 2) it exists as a fundamental education for students who want to see if they'd like working in radio. College radio is also a great way for bands to learn how to play radio sessions and do interviews. She also points out a time in the 80s where college radio was a big influencer for new music. She alludes to College Music Journal charts, which were a big deal for artists to potentially move up to alternative radio, and Teodros adds CMJ was still essential toward the beginning of his career.

Collins also pointed out to low-frequency stations -- 100 watts which range at about a three-mile radius -- which are extremely locally focused, and streaming radio (like Rainier Avenue World). Collins asks Teodros, in his experience as an artist, the best path to submitting music to a station. Teodros was asked right after if he was working with KEXP when he first started putting out music, to which he replied his relationship with the station started as an artist. Collins adjusted his question to ask if Teodros' relationship with submitting music to radio stations changed when he started working for KEXP in 2016. He mentions he saw the perspective of the DJ. To answer Collins' earlier question, Teodros notes working with radio was dependent on having good relationships, which are paramount to any artist in the music industry, or any business in general. 

Collins brings up the subject of submitting music to radio stations, saying he has encountered a few artists who feel it's difficult to get their music played on KEXP, which he doesn't feel is the case. He tells an anecdote about a band called Killer Ghost, a lo-fi, garage-rock-leaning band in the city, who sent the station one copy of a seven-inch they recorded. He sat down with them and got them to make a CD with their best work -- with their most impactful tracks first -- he brought them to the station and they wrote personal letters to each DJ at the station along with their CDs and put copies along with their letters in their boxes. The next week, they were added to medium rotation. He says the process isn't as scary as you might think.

Teodros explains his process for selecting music for his shows. He usually works late night between Friday and Saturday, which means many of the songs he plays are from albums which are brand new; he loves the opportunity to "break" these songs (meaning playing them for the first time on the air). He combs through Spotify, iTunes, social media, YouTube, wherever he can find new music to potentially play on his show. He also brings up radio publicists, some of which vibe well with his tastes, so he always checks to see what records they're working.

Teodros also notes as a hip-hop artist himself, radio edits are crucial to getting daytime airplay. Since he does overnight shifts he can play unedited music, but the FCC won't allow certain words to be uttered on-air (think: George Carlin's "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television"). Sometimes it's something the DJ will do themselves if they feel strongly enough about it (like a recent Frank Ocean single Collins edited himself to play), but it's simply easier to have edited versions at the ready for stations.

Collins notes the process is different for every station, sometimes even every DJ. The process at KEXP starts with the music director, Don Yates, who listens to everything submitted to the station (a superhuman feat requiring every minute of the day in these times). Yates' preference is CDs. Sharlese Metcalf (KEXP Expansions DJ and former host of Audioasis) jumps in to clarify that Collins is talking about what you need to do to get your album in rotation, versus getting it played by specific DJs. Teodros points out the station's DJs only play songs they like. There are four tiers to rotation at KEXP (heavy, medium, light, and recurring), and DJs are required to play at least two songs from heavy and medium rotation, and one from light and recurring. The rest of the format is up to them. The function of that standard is to get everyone to consistently listen to new music. DJs are also required to play one song from a local artist every hour to keep ourselves ingrained in local music.

Collins asked Graham, as a DJ at a commercial radio station, how he prefers to be serviced music by local artists, to which he answers because physical space gets scarce when you have so much music being sent, he prefers emails with streaming and a Dropbox link upon his request if he wants to play it. Collins asks the panel if they ever stream music live (he knows Graham does); Teodros answers he doesn't livestream the music he gets, but sometimes he'll hear something during one of his shows, download it, and play it pretty much on the spot. Graham does livestream music on occasion, as he knows how to work on the fly because he gets so many requests.

Collins asks Feghali how she services Sub Pop's music and the format college radio stations prefer. She answers that because the digital catalog system at radio stations are pretty advanced and not all college radio stations have them, they'll typically want CDs. She generally sends about 200 CDs per new release and hires an indie PR company to work with her which will have a website to host digital files. Feghali also notes that during her time as a music director, she liked receiving the story behind the records she was being sent, a great tool for setting yourself apart from all the other artists sending their CDs to radio stations. 

Teodros adds to that by noting the importance of a one-sheet, which is all the band's pertinent information (tracklist, photo, a few paragraphs describing the work, sometimes press quotes) on a single sheet of paper, usually sent with a physical copy of the album. (Though it's enormously easy to create a digital one-sheet as well.) He mentions as an artist, he disliked coming up with one particular item of the one-sheet but it helps him tremendously as a DJ: the RIYL list (it stands for "recommended if you like," a shortlist of artists an artist or band might sound similar to). Collins points out an integral part of the one-sheet, the recommended tracks. Most DJs are strapped for time, so having a reference to the two or three best songs on an album is tremendously helpful. 

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