US College radio: an introduction

So you want to launch a radio campaign in the US, but you have no idea where to start? Adam Lewis, founder of The Planetary Group, a music marketing company specializing in non-commercial & college radio promotion explains how to get started.

Adam Lewis got his start in college radio and then worked for different labels as an intern. His first position was working at TBT Records doing marketing and promotions for bands like Nine Inch Nails, Guided by Voices, and The Black Crowes, before launching Planetary Group 27 years ago. This music marketing company specializes in college radio, specialty new music shows, as well as non-commercial (sometimes referred to as non-comm) and AAA radio. With the US being full of different radio formats, both Adam Lewis and IDOL’s Mike Clemenza offer their takes on college radio as a great way to kick a project off in North America.

The radio landscape in the US

What Adam Lewis likes about radio in the US is that there’s hundreds of stations and there’s dozens of stations in each city. Which allows for a lot of exposure opportunities for different styles of music.

The NACC chart measures the tracks most played, with about 300 stations reporting every week. The majority of those stations are college run stations, meaning they are run by college students but there are also non-commercial stations like KEXP in Seattle or KCRW in Los Angeles. On top of that, there are a few community stations and online stations.

“If you’re a new artist you’re not going to start at a top 40 radio station. You wanna work your way up, for instance, with a new music show at commercial stations where they play the best new music once a week. There are also college stations that play all types of music and community radio stations, run by local volunteers. These stations are called non-comm stations, they play a lot of news during the day and often interesting music at night.

If you target your project correctly, college radio can be a very supportive place to start building a fan base. But you need to look at it as a step-by-step basis, to take it slowly and check if it performs well before moving to the next level”, advises Adam Lewis.

Estimated budget

College radio is the cheapest radio campaign possible. Adam Lewis details that his rates are industry standard and haven’t changed in 20 years: “Your rule of thumb is 300 a week for an album campaign that generally lasts eight weeks. So $2400, with potential additional charges for mailing out hard copies, sending out .wav files, or shipping costs. In comparison, for a commercial specialty campaign, the budget starts around $750 to 1000 a week. And if you’re doing a non-com campaign separately, that could run between $3000 to 5000 for one song.”

Mike Clemenza, Sr. Director, Label Development and A&R at IDOL, further explains that these commercial campaigns can be exponentially more costly, and that these stations’ audiences and programming styles are very different from that of college and non-comm. For example, commercial radio stations program with a key initiative to keep listeners tuned-in for the advertising breaks, and because these stations are profit driven, a track’s potential familiarity to the general masses is a core programming metric they strongly consider. Therefore less risks are taken to play new music, especially during more valuable dayparts. On the other hand, non-commercial and college stations are not funded this way and so they have the opportunity to share new music and program their stations through a different lens.

Adam Lewis specifies that even in the case of a non-commercial campaign, prices can quickly escalate with additional expenses, because they very often want the artists to visit the station or play their event… In the end, a college radio campaign costs about 10 times less.

Popularity prerequisites and preferred music genres

Adam Lewis explains that Planetary Group works with established artists as well as new artists. “Obviously it’s the newer artists and new releases on independent labels that need the most help, so that’s what we get hired on the most. And we work with all styles of music. It just has to be good and appropriate for the North American market.”

The first step in the US should always be college radio, only because it’s a supportive place. “You can plant a lot of seeds, like blogging, playlisting and online PR early as well. But the bloggers are looking for clicks, the playlisters are looking for artists with traction on Spotify… About two-thirds of the NACC chart is made of self-released and smaller independent artists who use college radio to start building their popularity.”

Mike Clemenza adds that labels should discuss strategies with their publicists on how to reach beacon A-list blogs and key digital press, as their support can help result in successful radio campaigns due to aligned audiences. Similarly, a good publicist can help an artist make inroads with NPR and affiliate stations, with features such as Tiny Desk and All Songs Considered.

College radio’s target audience

Adam Lewis indicates that college radio stations are not just run by college students. “It’s a mix of community members, who will keep the stations stable, doing their shows for 5 to 20 years, while the students turn over every year.”

“College radio programmers, non-comm ones included, are either unpaid or poorly paid,” continues Adam Lewis. “They are doing it out of love of sharing music. Radio doesn’t give you instant data but college radio and non-commercial radio can build careers because of that passion for music”.

The station is also not just reaching the college campus, but all the people in that college town. KCRW for instance, is a professionally run non-comm station, but it’s part of Santa Monica Community College, and it covers all of Los Angeles and represents a huge market.

The audience would usually be more mature than that of the Top 40’s, “an older listener that wants to hear new music is looking for a station that broadcasts a great show with great music. That’s where the KEXPs and the KCRWs and all the other college stations come into play because people want that curation,” summarizes Adam Lewis.

Going further

US College radio: strategy. Read the article

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