by Alex Cosper (7/22/13)
There are really two worlds of artists when it comes to radio airplay. There's the major label artists world and everyone else. The major label world hogs most of the airplay as of 2013. It's been that way for many years, although it wasn't really that extreme in the 1950s and 1960s. Starting in the late seventies, six big labels controlled most of the music on the radio, although these six majors had been around for decades. Until that time the charts featured a lot of independent labels. The six majored went through periods of financial trouble and began to merge. Between the 1990s and 2013 the music industry shrunk from six to three major labels, which still controlled the airwaves.
Radio programmers decide which artists and songs get played on their stations. The term "programmers," however, has expanded in definition over the years. At one time through the 1990s the term referred mostly to Program Directors (PDs) and Music Directors (MDs), but has since reflected upper level corporate executives who plan out stations for several regions around the country. How does one become one of these executives? It usually takes years of moving up the ladder in the radio industry, but there have been strange examples of industry outsiders rapidly advancing in the industry.
At one time radio playlists were decided by DJs, which was prevalent until the mid-sixties for top 40 radio and the late seventies for album formats. Then radio owners and national consultants started to decide that audiences needed to be divided by demographics and that playlists needed to be regulated to create high rotation formats, which helped the music industry target specific markets. Repetition of the biggest hits has been a staple of top 40 radio since the mid-sixties when a consulting team called Drake-Chenault began to spread their programming across the nation. The root of this programming came from a radio owner named Todd Storz in the early 1950s, which influenced other major market programmers in places like New York City and Dallas.
Major label artists are more likely to get played on most commercial radio stations than independent artists. Part of the reason for this disparity is that most commercial and even noncommercial radio stations have relationships with the major labels, who send stations a steady stream of releases for free in the mail or digitally. The most powerful labels have historically done whatever it takes to get radio stations to play their releases. But these labels usually have too many artists on their rosters to get secure airplay for each act. So each label floods stations with several releases then informs stations what their "priorities" are for airplay.
Radio stations tend to have a herd like mentallity. If several stations add a record to their playlist, other stations follow. If new airplay dries up around the country, it can mean the end of chart action for that recording. Radio programmers based airplay mostly on statistics such as:
- number of stations around the country playing a song
- stations in the region or market playing the song
- number of new stations adding the record on a weekly basis
- how well the record fits the station's format and audience demographics
- the artist's track record in terms of chart performance
- number of units the record is selling
- research surveys of target audience listeners that rate songs
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