a women listening to the radio after she requested a song to play

How Songs Are Chosen for Airplay (How They Get On The Radio)

You’re listening to your favorite radio station wondering why some songs are played while others don’t make it on the air.

I am a program director. I’m in charge of deciding what songs are played on my station and when.

I’m sure it sounds like a glamorous job, listening to music all day. While it has its ups, it is a complicated job and not for the faint of heart.

I have experience programming country and alternative rock. While the audience is different, the process of putting a song on the air is the same.

Here’s a little behind-the-scenes snippet of how it all works.

So Much Data

Radio is an art and a science with much emphasis on science.

If you thought radio didn’t involve numbers or math, I have news for you.

Most stations use all types of data to make informed programming choices.

  • Demographics: This is the characteristics of the audience. Demographics determine the race, gender, age, income and other key factors that make up the audience.
  • Psychographics: This is the audience’s beliefs and lifestyle choices. Is the audience religious? Do they own a home? Do they like travel?
  • Focus Groups: Many stations rely on focus groups as a measure of how well a song will perform. A song that doesn’t test well won’t make the final cut.
  • Charts: Charts indicate how well a song is performing or how well it is selling. Stations that play new music regularly pull chart information.

Here’s how this data collection works out.

The country station I programmed was located in a small, close knit city in the South. The average age is 36. It’s a religious and conservative community.

The alternative rock station is nationally broadcast and patterned after large market stations. Think Dallas or Chicago. The average listener is 25-45 years old.

Country is storytelling and values. The music and other content should reflect the average country music listener. Alternative rock is edgier.

Both genres are what we call lifestyle brands. You may have an image in your mind of the average country or alt rock listener and how they dress.

I use the data I have to decide content. Every market, or city-wide ratings area, is different. We decided to play a southern gospel show on the country station on Sunday mornings. I might not make the decision in another city where the audience isn’t as religious.

Data is obviously the science part.

But data isn’t the only tool.

Good ‘Ole Intuition

Sometimes a program or music director has to rely on intuition. This isn’t a skill that is easily taught.

If you’re a trend watcher and know what is popular before others do, you may have a knack for radio programming.

Some people know a hit song when they hear it. Not every song is out long enough before it can pass muster through a focus group or chart.

Another important component to song selection is knowing when to let a song go. We call this burn. A song burns when it’s overplayed.

You could look at the charts, but what works for one market may not work for another market. You have to know the frequency a song should play.

Intuition is the difference between a mediocre and a great station.

Where the charts and data fail, intuition takes over.

Putting it All Together

One piece of advice I give budding radio personalities is it all starts with the audience. You’re not programming for yourself.

There is music I am not fond of at all. I do have enough wisdom to know when the song will go over well with my audience.

It’s the one mistake new employees make. They select the songs and artists they like. They avoid the songs they don’t like.

I worked for a country station that refused to play Taylor Swift. Needless to say, the general manager was not a Swiftie.

But here’s the problem.

Taylor is the most played, most requested, and most purchased artist of our time. She is consistently breaking records.

The audience will find Taylor Swift music one way or another whether through another station or streaming services.

Data gives us the clue as to what the audience wants. Mix data with a little trend watching and intuition, and you have a winning formula.

Next time you listen to a song on the radio, think about all the work it took to get there. It’s not as simple as playing a song and hoping it works.

It takes a lot of art and science to make it to the top.

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