Who Decides Songs on the Radio?
Alex Cosper (7/22/13)

Radio playlists have historically been determined not by DJs, but by Program Directors (PDs). But when the radio industry started being dominated by national chains in the late 1990s, PDs began to lose influence to national consultants and national VPs. There are still influencial PDs in certain markets, but usually national executives have a say in the direction of radio formats and stations. Music Directors (MDs) also have a certain amount of input by bringing new music to music meetings.

Prior to 2005 a lot of national hits were determined not by the merits of the music, but by music industry payola. A huge crackdown by New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer at that time, apparently brought an end to rampant payola practices, as top labels and radio stations paid multi-million dollar settlements. The way the process worked until the crackdown was record labels would pay independent record promoters money to "get airplay" at major market radio stations. The promoter was given a budget for every record that was "worked" at radio. The promoter would then split the budget money with either radio personnel or the consultant that controlled the playlist. Some of the money would be spent on radio contests and promotions built around the artist, such as flying winners to see a show somewhere.

In the post-payola radio world there is still a sense that music is selected by radio stations for marketing considerations. Big name artists tend to automatically be added to playlists, as stations want to play artists with huge followings to help their ratings. Most of the decision-making deals with statistics. If 100 stations across the country add a certain record, it can influence many stations to add it without even considering its musical merits. Most stations that play national hits tend to avoid playing regional music.

The best places for regional artist to gain airplay are at public and college radio stations or specialty weekend shows on popular stations. Many stations across the country dedicate an hour or two per week on Sunday nights (the least listened to time for radio audiences) to either local music or some type of special programming. Artists who seek airplay should get to know radio personnel, including announcers, who may be able to alert PDs and MDs if the music fits their format.

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