Radio is one of the most powerful methods of music discovery and promotion. A song on the radio can reach millions of people instantly and, according to Arbitron, 93% of Americans still listen to traditional radio at least once a week. So, how does a song get an opportunity like that? The process can be a bit complicated and not every song follows the same path, but for the sake of understanding how it usually works, let's simplify things and take a look at the route songs usually take to radio stardom
Understanding Radio Stations
As technology has changed, so had radio. Now there are, of course, countless online stations, streaming services, and even satellite while terrestrial stations have been consolidated. This has, to a degree, affected what is played and how it gets there but, as they say you have to know the rules before you can break them, so we'll stick with the traditional side of things here and focus on FM music broadcasting. Most of these radio stations are commercial businesses with offices, marketing departments, and a full staff. These commercial stations have the same business model as a television station: the music they play attracts listeners and advertisers pay for the ability to reach those listeners. Generally, people working in radio are huge music fans, but that doesn't necessarily mean they can just play whatever they want. Radio stations need to keep people listening in order to make money and keep broadcasting, so if a song they play causes many of their listeners to change the station, then that song probably doesn't work for that station. Of course, there are plenty of great radio stations who play cutting-edge music, support local artists, and are willing to take a chance on an up-and-coming band, but most stations still have some type of guidelines of what they will and won't play based on their audience. Understanding this fact will help you understand what happens when a new song is pitched to a radio station.
The first step on the way to radio is choosing the potential single to focus on (not including the process it takes to choose the songs for the record in the first place). From there, a new song usually starts its journey to the airways with a radio promoter. These are essentially the sales reps of the radio industry and they are responsible for making a radio station aware of the new music they represent and convincing them it is worthwhile to play it. They are often employed by or independent contractors hired by a record label to work as part of the marketing campaign in support of a new record and will "work" a given song for a few months.
Once a record label has hired a radio promoter, he or she uses her expertise to establish a strategy for "breaking" the single and which formats to target. For example, the plan for a rock song might be to start it off on Alternative and College stations with the hopes of eventually crossing over into Mainstream Rock and Top 40. Promotional packages (or more recently emails) are sent out to targeted radio stations around the country including music, press releases and / or onesheets and other supporting materials to help convince the station that the song is likely to be a success.
PDs and MDs
The musical decisions of what to play at a radio station are ultimately made by its Program Directors and Music Directors. The PD is usually responsible for the big picture of the station overall while the MD is usually responsible for individual shows and programs, though that can vary. These people are responsible for shaping the musical identity of the station and understanding what its listeners will find appealing. PDs and MDs will review the pile of new music they receive and make decisions at a weekly music meeting. The job of the radio promoter is to convince these people to take a chance on a new song. It is a difficult job that requires an ability to work well with people and understand their needs
Tracking & Research
Brand new music by an unestablished artist is usually premiered and given a "test spin" at a time when few people are listening - such as overnight - in order to see what kind of reaction it gets at a time of least risk. Once a song has been played a few times it will undergo a lot of scrutiny and market research to determine how much listeners actually enjoy and recognize the song. This can be done by measuring requests, putting the song in a "battle", or asking listeners to rate the music. Another common method is by doing call out research. Call out research surveys listeners and their reaction to and recognition of new songs over the phone. Again, it is the job of a radio promoter to try to ensure the song is given the right amount of airplay before it goes into research (too little airplay could lead to unfamiliarity) and that the song is given a proper. Promoters might use airplay data from other radio stations around the country (collected from tracking companies like Nielsen's BDS and Mediabase), sales data, social media statistics, TV performances or song placements, or any other number of statistics to attempt to prove that a song will receive positive reactions once it is played.
Ultimately, a song makes its way onto a radio station and up the charts when a promoter has done a good job building a story and convincing PDs and MDs at influential stations to take a chance on a new song that then receives positive reviews, requests, and reactions and continues to build in popularity until it reaches the top of the charts. That of course, is an incredibly simplified version of how it all really works and doesn't take into account the potential for other influences (both positive and negative- like payola), but understanding the generalities of how this process works can help you understand how a hit becomes one and what it takes to get it there.