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Mary's Musings: The Realities of Radio (Part 1)
By Mary Dawson - 02/28/2007 - 06:09 PM EST

1998-2000, CQK Music. All Rights Reserved. Used By Permission.

You have just written an incredible song!! You have worked hard on it. Everyone who has heard the demo (mostly your family and friends) thinks it is a "hit waiting to happen." You are convinced that your song is as good as or better than most of the songs you hear on the radio. So what is the secret to getting your song played?

Experienced songwriters and artists know that getting radioplay can be an extremely dicey deal. There are several realities -- both from the creative side and the business side of songwriting -- that must be understood before you and your song become "household names."

The first reality is simply that the radio is not primarily about songs -- it is about listeners!! While music and songs may be essential ingredients of radio programming, the primary focus of radio stations is to reach and keep listeners. Competition among stations these days is fierce and program directors literally lose sleep trying to come up with new ways to attract listeners and then keep them from changing channels. Ratings are all about numbers of listeners and stations with the most listeners attract the best and highest paying advertisers. The bottom line with radio -- as with any business -- is consumers. Songs and music, therefore, become the means to the end -- the way the station can increase its power and ultimately its income.

In the light of this reality, you -- the songwriter -- must learn to think and write from the listener's perspective. Resist the urge to write only for the incredible rush of venting emotions through a song, or to see how many inventive chord progressions you can put together to impress your musical colleagues. While these experiences may be personally satisfying to you as a writer or a performer, they may not even begin to appeal to John Q. Listener who knows nothing about music except whether or not he likes a song. And it is the millions of "John Q. Listeners" that the radio is trying to capture. To get a song on the radio, you need to determine what radio audiences like and then write songs that "hook" them.

How do you learn to think like a listener? First of all, you have to listen! Listen to all kinds of radio. I recommend that you have every button on your car radio set to a different genre of music. Pay attention to which songs are getting the heaviest airplay on which stations. If a station has a Request and Dedication Program at night, pay special attention to the songs the listening audience requests. Keep a log for a month and see which songs are requested most. Then analyze those songs. Whether you as a musician think a song is good or not, if it is selling millions of copies, there will be something about it that you can learn from.
Ask yourself:

  • What is it about this song that "hooks" people?
  • What lyrical techniques capture the listener's ear?
  • What melodic, harmonic and rhythmic elements in this song appeal to listeners?
  • What universal emotions are being expressed?

Now, objectively look at that incredible song you wrote from the same perspective. As you listen to the demo, imagine that you are a listener tuning into a station that is playing your song. Would you stay tuned? Be honest. If the answer is, "No," do some re-writing and tweaking until the answer is an emphatic "Yes!"

Come back next time and we will explore the Mystery of the Listener's Mind.

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