US College radio: strategy

Second part of our guide on college radio. Now that the scenery has been established, Adam Lewis, founder of music marketing company The Planetary Group, gives advice on how to adopt an effective strategy.

The Planetary Group is specialized in college radio, new music shows as well as non-commercial / AAA radio. In this second part, Adam Lewis along with Mike Clemenza from IDOL offer insights on how to run a radio campaign, and help you take it step by step.

Read the introduction here

A radio campaign blueprint

Adam Lewis advises to start with college radio because it is the most supportive type of station in the US: “There’s all sorts of DJs, looking for all sorts of different music! We can even work foreign language music, but keep in mind that they don’t need the Belgian version of another American band: As long as it’s interesting and of quality, we can build something.”

“If you want to get College radio airplay, you need to service all of those stations and then follow up every week, because their editorial meetings are on a weekly basis. Hiring a professional helps you keep your music in the forefront,” specificates the music promoter.

The obvious next step is non-commercial radio made of NPR stations, the largest of college stations and community stations. For instance, KCRW and KEXP are non-commercial stations, reporting to the NACC and a separate non-commercial chart.

"A lot of labels make the mistake of going straight to that more glamorous format"

“A lot of labels make the mistake of going straight to that more glamorous format”, warns Adam Lewis. “But non-commercial stations are generally run by radio professionals that come from commercial radio and they want a reason for playing your record. College radio only cares about the music, they don’t care about your label, your data, the number of streams or followers. If they like the music, they just play it.

That’s why you need to have a solid base built on college radio before launching into a non-commercial campaign. Then, as you move up to AAA format – which is a more mature format – and then to top 40, they’re all going to ask for even more data. That’s why you take it step by step.”

In parallel to the college radio step, you could also look at specialist programmes, like the new music shows at commercial radio. They are very supportive, and that’s the one place at commercial radio where they’ll take some chances.

Mike Clemenza, Sr. Director, Label Development and A&R at IDOL, also emphasizes these specialty shows as an opportunity. Some of these specialty shows are on commercial stations in major markets, and they represent a rare and unique chance for the newest music to reach the general masses in a particular genre. You’ll often find these shows on beacon NPR-affiliate stations – or non-commercial radio, in addition to select commercial stations often in the evenings and the weekends to present more emerging artists and songs.

Navigating 600 College radio stations

The US radio landscape can be intimidating by its size, its scope and its expense. “There’s 600 College radio stations in the US but you only want to send to the 300 stations that are reporting to the NACC chart. So you know how much airplay you’re getting, and the songs picked by the DJs. It allows you to narrow it down, little by little, to maybe 30 to 20 markets where you can focus your efforts and spend social media money,” advises Adam Lewis.

“The NACC chart is an album or EP based chart,” continues the music promoter. “Sending too many singles will weaken the album’s performance on the overall chart. But the good thing is that with the album, you can create a connection with the artist as opposed to a connection with the song.”

Timing is the key

“At college radio, an album will keep current for about two months after the album release”, explains Adam Lewis. “Unlike a Spotify campaign where you release one new track a month, you need to pick one single that will be the highlight of your campaign. Once the album is out, we’ll suggest focus tracks. But you don’t want to send too many singles out to college radio: they want to discover the best songs themselves and introduce them to their audience.”

Radio doesn’t have to line up with your release date, it can be done in an orderly fashion as the momentum of your project is building. For instance, if a song just went viral and you’re getting key playlisting then you can decide to increase the budget.

“If a station has been supportive – as long as too much time hasn’t gone by – they’ll remember that artist as a core artist of the radio from one album to the next. To keep it warm, you can, without going into full campaign, send out a live edition or an extra single exclusively to the stations that have supported you, it helps being remembered at the station,” recommends Adam Lewis.

Combining college radio campaigns with tours: a mistake?

“It’s a mistake to think you need to tour in America to do a college radio campaign,” warns Adam Lewis. “It’s more about planting some seeds to see how it’s reacting, and this, in turn, can help build a tour. Then, when you come to the US for that second record, you’re not starting from scratch. That’s why you should always have an 18 to 24-month plan ahead of your US tour.”

“Of course if you’re coming on a tour, we can promote those shows,” continues The Planetary Group owner, “but it’s a lot easier if that station has already played your record previously. Imagine you have a show in Chicago, but the radio station hates this record? You’ve still got the show and there’s nothing we can do for you at that station. It’s better to get a bunch of airplay, find out what the greatest markets are for you, and where the agent can work on getting shows”.

To build on this, Mike Clemenza adds, “I’m often working with international teams starting at US radio for the first time. I’d agree that if you have the budget, it never hurts to plant seeds and find early champions for a project. It can only help you build on to in the future. However if funds are limited, timing the spend with a proper plan for the market could be most efficient. Ask yourself whether you are prepared to follow up with new material in a timely fashion after the release to keep the stations interested; if you get substantive support, are there plans to tour the market; are you prepared to promote new content in specific territories to continue engaging with these new fans? It’s great to have a check list of stations who have supported a project, but it’s also great to have multiple impressions that can lead to meaningful movement and change for an artist in a market.”

Breaking through: the power of College radios

It needs to be done over time, but the most important thing is to build a solid base. College radio is all about playing the best new music so after a month, to them, that song’s no longer new, and they’ll move on. On commercial radio, you’re only as good as your last hit single, while college radio won’t abandon you: they will play multiple songs, on different types of shows. And as long as you keep putting out music that’s fairly good, they’ll play your next record.

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