In this day and age, we should be thankful that college radio still exists, static-y and awkward though it may be. While commercial frequencies pump the same boring playlists into every city, and in many cases have ceased to provide live, local DJs to give the station any personality (be it comments on local bands, events, or even the weather), college radio provides unique, local voices to the airwaves and internet. The latter is especially good news to New Yorkers who are more often plugged in to their desktops or riding the subway underground where streaming internet radio or podcasts are better options than trying to find WFMU or WSOU amid the noise of reggaeton and JackFM hogging the FM dial.
For an indie band with a limited budget for promotion, is college radio worth the buck, and how do you navigate the 500+ college stations out there (not to mention podcasts, NPR-affiliates, internet stations, and satellite radio)? Well the first question to ask is, as Linda Perry would say…
What’s Going On?
Do you have a brand new CD or EP? Are you going on tour? Do you have a label? Are you currently getting any notable press? Has David Bowie been showing up at your shows? The more of these items you say “yes” to, the more college radio is likely to show you some love.
Thankfully, college radio isn’t as cutthroat as getting press – if your music is half decent, it’s likely to find its way onto the shelves at many of the stations you mail it to. As for whether or not it gets any airtime, that all depends on what might draw the DJs or programmers to your disc. If you are promoting tour dates, particularly in their town, they might give you a spin. If you are on a decent label with some other familiar bands, you might get a spin. Is your new CD getting written about on Pitchfork, in Punk Planet, or some other blog or music mag college DJs read? All these things give your music a better shot of getting some airplay.
So you have all these elements in order – you’ve got a new disc, tour dates, some decent press, maybe even the seal of approval from David Bowie, who knows! This would be the ideal time to invest some cash in a full college radio push. This means sending your CD to at least 200 college (and non-commercial) radio stations (though 400-500 is more effective, if you can spare the promos), and following up with them to bully, er, encourage them to spin your disc and get some feedback on what they think. It’s also a great time to set up radio interviews and in-studio performances.
Despite how hard-working and DIY your band may be, really doing this kind of radio promotion right requires the help of a full-time college radio promotion team. Someone who has the know-how, the contacts, the relationships, and the help of eager interns to stuff envelopes, mail, and follow-up on your disc. Sure, you can Google a list of stations for addresses, send out a bunch of packages, and make a ton of phone calls and emails to push for airplay on your disc, but a music director (or “MD” to those in the biz) is much more likely to take a call from a promoter who might be able to get them the new Shins CD than from Joe Shmo indie rocker. These MDs are college kids, far too busy studying for exams or sleeping off hangovers to return every call or listen to every CD. Or they are curmudgeony old community radio volunteers who are too jaded to care about your stupid band. Hire someone to do this for you, and spare yourself the agony.
In addition to having the manpower and the skillz to adequately promote your record, indie promotion teams know the ins and outs of the college radio world and can help find the right niches for your disc, leverage for airplay, set up interviews and ticket giveaways, and can interpret the feedback into something useful for you (ie: “KEXP is making it available for airplay but no spins yet, that’s huge!!” or “WMTU in Houghton, MI looooves your disc, so that means like 3 or 4 people in the upper peninsula have heard it.”)
That’s The Price Of Love
The cost to get your disc to college radio can vary from as little as $200 to just mail out your CD, to perhaps $4000 for a full promotional campaign (and that price varies greatly with the promotion team and the expected work involved). Obviously the more money you spend, the more likely you will get airplay. But this isn’t commercial radio, so it’s not directly related. You might be able to “buy” some extra spins (or fabricated CMJ chart numbers) by bribing MDs with free t-shirts, concert tickets, or– if you are lucky enough to meet them at CMJ or SXSW– free booze!
But the best way, and most legitimate way, to get love on college radio, is to be loveable. Hire a promotion team who seems sincere about loving your music, because they will be more likely to represent you well and to give your album priority over their other projects. Don’t harass anyone, including your promotion team, but be on top of things, ask a lot of questions, send thank yous (even via MySpace) to stations playing your music, and go out of your way to do your part participating in radio interviews, recording station IDs (you know, “This is Your Band Here, and you’re listening to…”), and (if you are lucky enough to be so loved) signing autographed posters or banjos or whatever to send to supportive radio stations. What’s nice about college radio versus commercial radio is the DJs and programmers are generally sincerely excited about new music, and if you can win them over, you will have a supporter for life.
What If We’re Broke?
So maybe you don’t have a label to help fund a full promotional campaign, or your label is small or broke, or you are broke or don’t even have a label, but you still have these really sweet tunes you want to get out there and you are playing three shows in two states – is it worth it to hit up college radio?!
Sure! If you believe in your music and can spare a few bucks for postage and to give away some CDs, then a small, targeted college radio approach can still be worthwhile. Even if you only mail out 100 discs, at least half of those will get listened to by the MDs, which means like 50 new people have heard your band. And if half of that half likes what they hear, they will tell a friend or two, or play it on the air themselves, which means several more people have heard your band. If you can tie in this radio mailing to some tour dates you can promote, you are likely to get that word-of-mouth and airplay going in a more timely fashion. As for whom to send the disc to out of the hundreds of stations out there, you can choose stations that you like to listen to online, or stations in towns you are playing. Some indie promoters will even mail small quantities of your disc to key stations at just slightly more than the cost of postage, which can be worth the trouble you will save researching stations and stuffing envelopes. AAM’s “Sunday Service” is one such a la carte package and was a great resource, for example, for The Yeah Yeah Yeahs and The Liars to get their CDs out to radio on a budget before they ever got signed. Just don’t expect such a small scale approach to get your record on the CMJ charts. And speaking of CMJ…
Should I Work With CMJ?
CMJ, for those not in the know, is the College Music Journal, a trade magazine (with a retail version that is supposedly available in stores, though I’ve never seen it) that tracks trends in college and non-commercial radio and retail and publishes weekly charts reflecting those trends. The charts are compiled by stations who subscribe to the mag, and since it’s the main standard by which to judge college radio airplay, most stations worth a damn subscribe and chart to CMJ. CMJ also offers specialty radio charts for hip-hop, loud rock, jazz, RPM (a.k.a. electronica), new world and “Triple A” (a.k.a. the stuff your parents might like if they are kinda hip).
You don’t need to broker any sort of deal with CMJ to appear on their charts, you just need to gain enough nationwide airplay to make an appearance in the Top 200. However, you might wonder if you should be advertising on the pages of CMJ or work out promotions with them online, at their yearly festival, etc. In my opinion, CMJ doesn’t carry much cred with music snobs, but it’s a good place to get coverage if you want to reach lazy MDs who don’t actually read music blogs or magazines. And sadly, there are a lot of these kids running college stations out there, though usually not the stations that really carry much weight. So you do the math.
Do-Do-Do, Don’t Don’t Don’t Is All I Have To Say To You
o Do include a one-sheet with a short bio, tour dates, suggested tracks and “recommended if you like” bands (and try to do better than “Sonic Youth and Archers of Loaf”).
o Don’t include a folder containing your glossy band photo, every review you ever got, and a five-page bio.
o Do send some kind of memorable tschotske like stickers, a keychain or if you are the Reindeer Section, a pair of fuzzy antlers.
o Don’t send your glossy band photo, it will only get defaced and hung up on the studio wall.
o Do follow up with individual stations in cities where you are getting a good response or touring.
o Do not call the on-air line requesting your own songs, they will be onto you.
o Do ask your label to pay for college radio promotion when you are working out your record deal.
o Do not worry as much about spending big bucks on college radio if your band happens to be amazing and on some trendy indie label like Secretly Canadian or Drag City. Sometimes names sell themselves, and what with the invention of the internet, DJs and MDs are savvier than ever. But still service your disc to radio so they have it for airplay. And DO spend money on promotion if you want a #1 record on the CMJ charts. Unless you are LeTigre. Hell, even if you are LeTigre, spend the cash on promotion for that #1 record if it’s October, because everyone releases a disc in October, and even Yo La Tengo isn’t guaranteed a #1 when it’s up against the Decemberists, Beck… you get the idea.
o Do ask your friends’ bands for advice on which stations supported them or did interviews.
o Do not wonder why Clap Your Hands Say Yeah did so great on college radio and you aren’t.
Who Should I Know?
Some essential stations, nationwide:
KEXP – Seattle
KCRW – Santa Monica
KALX – Berkeley
WSOU – NYC
WRAS – Atlanta
WFMU – NYC
KVRX – Austin
KXLU – Los Angeles
KUOM – Minneapolis
WOXY.com – Cincinnati
WDBM – East Lansing, MI
KUTK – Knoxville
KCMP – Saint Paul
Some NYC-area stations:
WFMU (very avant garde, strong listenership)
WSOU (great station if your band is what you might call “metal”)
WFUV (not student run and tends toward the “adult” alternative format)
And then there’s student-run stations so small you will rarely be able to find them on the dial, but who can be good resources for campus promotion and some local word-of-mouth support: WSJU (St. John’s), WSIA (Staten Island), WPUB (Pace), WBMB (Baruch), WFIT (FIT, of course), WSVA (you guessed it, SVA).
There’s also NYC-based Sirius Satellite radio, which has some good DJs who support indie bands on the Left-of-Center channel, and we have East Village Radio (www.eastvillageradio.com) for online listening.
For a list of indie promotion companies see here.
*Many indie promotion companies offer publicity campaigns in addition to radio and offer package deals. There’s also a range of companies that offer specialty promotion for hip-hop, metal, etc, but you’ll have to do your own research there pal.