How to Submit Music for Airplay: Advice from a Radio Exec
Amanda Carr is Executive Director at radio station WICN, a National Public Radio member station in Worcester, Massachusetts, broadcasting commercial-free, 24 hours a day to an audience of about 50,000 listeners.
They offer 140 hours weekly of live on-air jazz programming. Amanda is also a professional musician, with an active career performing as a vocalist and pianist, and Composer of “Strong: A Boston Anthem.” Amanda performs throughout New England and internationally and is widely acclaimed in the press. She has performed with the Boston Pops under direction of Keith Lockhart.
“No matter what genre Amanda is performing in, she brings an excitement and energy to the stage and a vibrant connection to her audience. She is an entertainer in the first degree…” —The BOSTON HERALD
The following interview was conducted on July 24, 2018. Amanda shares her experience and advice on the importance of radio for bands and Musicians, how to get airplay for your music, and some dos and don’ts. As a musician and artist working in radio, Amanda has unique perspectives on the state of radio in today’s entertainment industry, how artists and Managers should view the role of radio in promotions, how streaming has impacted radio, and the future of her own career and the radio business.
(Note: Answers have been edited for clarity and length.)
Tom with Careers in Music:You are a musician. Tell me a bit of your background, how you got into radio, and what your job is like now.
Amanda: I started out as a musician from the Boston area, and I have now worked in the music industry for decades. In my teens and 20s, I was performing professionally in clubs and restaurants, at events, and in concerts. It came very naturally to me, as both my parents were professional musicians. It was just expected that I would be a musician. In those earlier days, we had more opportunities to play out than young musicians have today, and we were less isolated than young people seem to be today, maybe because there was no internet. Back then, I performed mostly in rock and pop genres. My music career took me to New York City and Los Angeles, where I rubbed elbows with celebrities and learned about how the music business really worked.
After some time, I returned to Boston where I began singing the American Songbook, which I ultimately became best known for. I was discovered by a global audience and recognized as an accomplished jazz singer, winning awards. My career began to intersect with radio around this time, as I was getting interview requests. I developed my own marketing plans which included radio promotions. I was sending my music to about 350 stations, and I learned about how new artists are viewed by the radio stations. Ironically, the station where I now work was the first station I ever interviewed on. As Executive Director who is also a musician, I have so gained much perspective about how radio has been important to musicians in the past and still is today. I also know the right steps artists and Managers need to take to get their music played on the radio. I’m happy to share that with anyone looking to break into the business.
Tom: Tell me a little about the radio station where you work, its history and mission.
Amanda: WICN has been a part the cultural life of Central Massachusetts for fifty years. Beginning in Worcester in 1969 as Worcester’s Inter-Collegiate Network, we joined The College of the Holy Cross and Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) with other local colleges. WICN was accredited by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in 1987. Known as the “Voice of The Arts,” our mission includes improving the quality of life by supporting the local community and economy using arts and culture, curating and presenting authentic, independent music on radio and in concerts, in order to preserve America’s living art forms of jazz and other music for the current and future enjoyment of generations. We are a non-profit organization and somewhat unique in that we design and create all our own broadcast content, are independent and listener-supported, and unlike many stations, we do not use pre-programmed playlist content. At WICN, we promote and preserve the best in music with a strong focus on jazz, that distinctly American art form. Our programs engage, inspire, inform and entertain.
How to Get Into Radio
Tom: What advice would you give to others wishing to work in radio?
Amanda: Do whatever it takes to just get your foot in the door, in order to learn as much as you possibly can about how all aspects of radio operations work. Every station is different and will offer differing kinds of opportunities depending on your background, training, and skills. Just take whatever is available and especially strive to understand the way different departments integrate and support each other. Be patient, and don’t let a sense of entitlement or the expectation of getting a specific role get in your way. The important thing is you are learning how things work and finding ways to be an asset in different roles that might be available. Don’t be afraid to take an unpaid internship if you have to. If you show yourself to be dependable, smart, hard-working, and flexible, eventually the right roles will become available. Networking is also important. People don’t often prefer to hire graduates of a certain school or program, it’s more about what you can do and who you know. Watch your attitudes carefully. This kind of advice also applies to other kinds of creative careers, I’m sure.
Why Radio Still Matters
Tom: It’s interesting that with all the changes in the media landscape, such as the move to streaming, social media, YouTube, etc. that radio still seems to be a vibrant and valuable medium. Why do you think this is?
Radio is indeed still crucial and vibrant in so many ways. Of course, every industry has challenges, but as you said radio is still going strong despite so many changes in the media landscape. I think there are a few reasons for this. Radio acts as a central place that feeds all the other kinds of media. For example, streaming has helped us immensely since people today can download an app to hear us from any location, on their phone or computer, and from any country on any continent. This has greatly expanded our listener reach, making our programming even more mobile for the listeners. It’s an incredibly good thing for us. With streaming, we can also use data in new ways, to understand our listeners’ behavior and how they interact with our programming. Using their IP address, we can see where they listen from, how long they listen for, and when they are listening. Having access to this kind of data is new to us, and has turned out to be really useful and important.
Another important reason radio is still so important is because people listen in their cars. We have a captive audience, which spans all demographics. We are literally always everywhere, available to listeners of all ages, preferences, and backgrounds. It’s meaningful that radio is still a place where all kinds of audiences discover new music.
Tom: What is the health of the radio industry today and where do you see it going? Is radio in trouble as a medium? What changes are happening in radio today?
Amanda: As I said in the previous answer, radio is doing well as a medium, but there are some challenges. One trend that might be concerning is conglomeration; this happens in many industries as they mature. Lately, many smaller radio stations are getting bought by larger stations. This means there will be less variety available to listeners as more stations adopt centralized programming. What’s really happening is the airways are getting monopolized as bigger companies buy local and regional stations in order to own the signals. In many cases, they want access to the broadcasting towers in order to use them as “repeaters” to broadcast their own programming into more markets. It may make sense from a business standpoint, but the result is that as local stations lose on-air programming in favor of preprogrammed content, so the broadcasts of music will become less culturally diverse.
WICN is one of the few member-supported stations left that does all our own programming on-air. This allows us to be more independent in serving our listeners’ preferences and offer a much wider range of music programming than would be possible if we were part of a conglomerate. After all, we know our market and our listeners better than anyone.
Tom: How can bands or artists get their music on the radio?
Amanda: First, identify the stations that offer the kind of programming you have. It may not make much sense to submit heavy metal to a classical station, though you never know. Next, find out how they accept submissions. Some accept physical CDs while others might only accept digital formats. Make sure you carefully follow any guidelines for submission they provide. Know who to send your submission to, whether it’s the New Music Coordinator, a DJ, or some other title. Do the research to find out who you should approach. Relationships are key, if you are able to cultivate them with the right person at the station. For example, if you had previous success at a station, when you send your next release you should go back to the same person. Don’t send it only to the DJ who played your music and go around the New Music Coordinator, for example. Respect the channels and chain of command at the station. Follow up by email and don’t make too many calls to the station as that can quickly become annoying.
I have a few other pointers regarding physical submissions (CDs) which may surprise you. Take off the cellophane wrapper on the CD. I know this is counterintuitive, but people are so busy that they might not listen to your CD right away because they don’t want to take the time or effort to remove the wrapper, believe it or not. They might listen to someone else’s CD first because of this. We get a LOT of submissions and can’t always listen to all of them, so having your wrapper removed could be a make or break factor! Make sure you use a font that is large enough and easy to read. As we age our eyes aren’t as good, and if your font is small or hard to read your CD could easily be passed over. Make sure the CD title and artist name are displayed clearly on the spine of the jewel box in bright large font. Also, include your exact track lengths everywhere the song titles are shown. A DJ needs this information and if it isn’t clearly marked or it is hard to find, it can be a reason to play something else when they are in a hurry. We have a lot of programming and certain blocked out time slots (for ads or underwriters), so we need to know exact length for each track we play before we decide to use it. So don’t overlook this small but important detail.
This is important also for vinyl records. Believe it or not, many stations still play vinyl because much older music might not be available elsewhere. Even in the digital age, maintaining physical content libraries is very important. Some stations might be all digital, but music stations still tend to use a lot of physical formats to design and deliver their programming.
Tom: What are some other important strategies for getting airplay?
Amanda: There are strategies within strategies. For example, it helps if you have great marketing materials designed to quickly and clearly communicate why people should hear your music, your backstory, genre and so forth. Include a “one-sheet” with bullet points to make it easy for the DJ to find exactly what they and their listeners need to know about you. There are some grassroots approaches that harness synergies with radio and live music. If you are playing in a city or location, you could call local stations and offer them an interview, or free tickets for giveaways. If a station is playing your music, you could set up a gig in their area.
Depending on the mission of the station, you might offer them a live performance on-air in their studio. Some stations sponsor festivals and concert halls, so they could offer you performing opportunities. Find out if they are community oriented and allow special relationships with artists, so it can potentially become a mutually supportive relationship and a kind of symbiotic collaboration. For these kinds of partnerships, it is important to look for the right stations based on your music. Consider your music as a product and consider which stations fit best with your own values and vision as an artist. Some stations are very committed to supporting the local music scene, or independent artists. If you are offered opportunities to play live on air for free, this might be an opportunity to get your music heard by tens of thousands of potential fans. Since most radio stations sell advertising or are underwritten by sponsors, they know the value of the airtime. These are some of the best opportunities for artists and radio stations to support each other.
Tom: Tell me the perspective from the radio station about bands and musicians getting airplay.
Amanda: Radio stations know who their listeners, advertisers, and sponsors are and they are dedicated to serving their needs with appropriate programming. They are interested in keeping standards of quality in order to attract and maintain a listening audience. When bands are trying to get their music on the radio, they should not approach the stations with any expectations or ego-driven attitudes. The station is not obligated to play your music if they feel it isn’t up to their standards, or the right choice for their listeners. So avoid any pushiness and be polite to them regardless. Even if they don’t play your music now, they might mention you to others or play your music later at some point.
Tom: Is there still such a thing as “pay to play?”
Amanda: Not really, at least not in the sense of the payola scandals from years ago. The music industry has become so fragmented that no single person can make or break a star. The distribution channels are too diverse today, and it is easy for artists to market directly to fans using social media and other channels. There are some trade-offs where artists can offer VIP treatment at a concert, free tickets, participation in fund-drives, or other types of premium services as a thank you to radio personnel.
Tom: What should artists avoid doing in regard to radio?
Amanda: I recommend you avoid calling the station frequently or repeatedly, as it can be perceived as annoying. Don’t be pushy or come with an unprofessional attitude. Don’t circumvent the channels at the station, and don’t ignore the submission guidelines. If they say they only accept physical submissions, don’t send your submission digitally. Don’t try to contact everyone at the station. Avoid having any expectations that your music will be played; remember that the station’s primary obligation is to their listeners, advertisers, and sponsors. As a matter of common sense, don’t be a jerk.
Tom: What can you say to Artist Managers and others in the music industry about the role of radio today and going forward?
Amanda: Be aware of the importance of adding radio into the mix of serving your clients. Radio can offer unique opportunities to targeting prospective audiences in every genre and market. For live tours and concerts, request the venues to reach out to local radio stations to offer free tickets for giveaways and interview opportunities with the artists. Usually the venues already have relationships in place with the stations, so be sure to leverage those relationships to reach the most listeners possible and encourage them to attend the live shows.
Tom: How does one network in the radio and broadcast industry? How can newcomers get into radio?
Amanda: Networking in radio depends on your skill set to some degree. If you are looking to be a Reporter on air, a Production Manager, or a DJ, that might make a difference as to how you go about networking and looking for a job. The reality is that money is always tight and there aren’t many entry-level jobs, so graduating from a school like the Connecticut School of Broadcasting isn’t necessarily going to guarantee you will land a job right away. I would recommend you monitor job boards for openings, such as on the Massachusetts Association of Broadcasters, or at your school. Using online networking platforms such as LinkedIn can be helpful to connect with others in the industry.
As I said initially, you should take anything available just to get your foot in the door. The most important thing is that you learn everything you can about the different roles at a radio station and how departments interact with each other. Learn as much as possible, so you can become versatile and ready to handle different roles at a station. Interning will give you the chance to show you are an asset to the station, a team player, and will give you a 360-degree view of how things work. You want to be well-rounded so you can wear a lot of different hats. There are people who can do it all: production, on-air presenting, news script-writing, management, and engineering. Most of the roles today in radio are hybrid, meaning you won’t just be doing one thing.
Tom: What is in the future for your career?
Amanda: I feel grateful to have this opportunity to serve as Executive Director at the radio station which gave me my very first on-air interview as an artist, and to contribute my skills and knowledge to successfully lead the station into its next phase of development. I’ve been able to use my creative thinking and problem-solving abilities in useful ways, and I’ve learned so much about radio and management as a result.
My primary passions in life are performing as an artist and sharing my knowledge with young people as a teacher and musician, so I am finding new interesting and exciting ways to follow that passion. For example, I have been involved with performing around the region and internationally, and I will continue to develop those amazing opportunities. I’m also excited to present workshops and master classes to help guide young people to achieve their own career goals and inspire and encourage them to reach for their dreams. Performing on stage and teaching are the best ways I can reach my audience and impact the next generation of artists, musicians, and Managers, so that is exactly what I am doing, and will continue to do going forward.
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