Getting Airplay on Folk Radio Shows

by Bob Blackman

The following article was originally published in Sing Out!, Volume 40 #3, in late 1995. This version has been slightly updated and expanded.
In 2009, Richard Gillmann removed references to cassette releases and added a bit on digital releases.
In 2013, Richard Gillmann updated the reference to Jeremy Butler's Folk Radio List.

If you're a performer with a recording, whether it is self-released, on a small independent label, or on one of the established folk labels, you probably want to get your music on the radio. The good news is that there are scores of folk programs around the country; the bad news is that a station receives hundreds and hundreds of folk albums every year. How can you increase the odds of having your album make it to the airwaves?

Here are some tips from my 20-year experience as a folk radio host, supplemented by many good ideas gleaned from the FOLKDJ-L listserv on the Internet (see Tina Hay and Alan Rowoth's "Hey Rube!" column in Sing Out! V.40#1) and from participants in several radio workshops at the 1995 Folk Alliance conference in Portland, Oregon. (Thanks to everyone who provided suggestions, and special thanks to Mary McCaslin and Peter Kernast for chairing a particularly useful session on radio airplay. Thanks also to Mike Yuhas, who created the FOLKDJ-L listserv and web page.)

Finding the folk shows

There is, sadly, no publicly available, up-to-date mailing list of folk radio shows. Professional radio promoters often have such lists, but you'd have to pay for their use. You can compile your own list by going through the emails posted to FOLKDJ-L by radio DJs.

Many artists and labels also subscribe to the FOLKDJ-L listserv, both to "lurk" quietly, checking the posted playlists, and to offer promotional copies of their recordings to interested DJs. The Folk Radio web page (where you found this article) includes searchable archives of FOLKDJ-L postings and instructions on subscribing to FOLKDJ-L. The URL is http://folkradio.org.

Members of the Folk Alliance (901-522-1170) can purchase a list of over 1,000 radio stations and syndicated programs. In fact, attending a Folk Alliance national or regional conference is a great way to meet radio hosts and other media people in addition to fellow artists and label owners. And don't forget to read. Sing Out!, Dirty Linen, the Old-Time Herald, and Bluegrass Unlimited are among the magazines that regularly mention radio shows.

Once you have a mailing list, send your album in a sturdy package, like a padded mailer or a box. (Use bubble wrap around the CD if it fits loosely in the box.) Manila or paper envelopes aren't secure; CDs can get smashed or even break out of the envelope en route. If you don't know a contact for a given station, address the package to "folk music programmer."

For that matter, if your music is specialized or your budget is tight, you might find it cheaper to send out a postcard that offers a promotional copy upon request. This may prevent you from wasting scores of recordings on stations that won't play your music. On the other hand, some DJs may ignore or lose the postcard but would try the CD if it showed up unsolicited.

Surely the world is changing and CDs are slowly being replaced by Internet downloads, but CDs are still best for radio promotion. You may offer some tracks for download to folk DJs and some will accept this offer, but donít count on it for wide distribution at this time. Entering your CD information online to Gracenote (formerly CDDB) is a useful thing for the growing number of DJs who use automated tools.

The cheapest way to start is to join FOLKDJ-L and to post a notice there, asking who would like an airplay copy. That message won't reach every folk radio host, but it will reach hundreds of them all over North America and even other parts of the world. Describe your album succinctly but with enough detail that each DJ can decide whether or not your music will fit their format. (Original material or traditional? Solo voice and acoustic guitar or full-blown production?) Don't bother with tons of hype, and don't post more than one or two notices per album.

The CD packaging

Number the track listings and provide the timing for each one, preferably (for the easiest reference) on the tray card that shows through the back of the jewel box. Make sure the timings are accurate, at least within a few seconds. You can imagine the fun of watching a carefully-planned show go awry when the final song ends a minute sooner -- or runs a minute longer -- than the printed time.

Don't get so carried away with the graphic design that you sacrifice legibility; text printed over artwork or a colored background can be hard to decipher. Be sure the album's title and the artist's name are consistent throughout the packaging and that we can tell which is which. Put this information clearly on the spine as well, so we can find your album quickly on a crowded shelf. It's also handy to have the artist's name and album title on the disc itself. (When a DJ is shuffling CDs around while on the air, a disc may not make it back into the right jewel box unless it has some sort of identifying text.)

We like to know who wrote each song, or whether the songs are traditional. It's also nice to have the musicians identified by track if the line-up isn't the same throughout the album.

Include the label's name and address on the tray card or in the booklet so we can easily pass that information on to listeners who inquire. If you're a distributor who sends out albums from various labels, put a sticker on the jewel box that says "Available from ....."

Some artists or labels send out their promo albums in a cardboard or plastic envelope rather than a jewel box, whether to save money, reduce breakage in the mail, or for environmental reasons. But if you do that, many stations will want to transfer your disc to a spare jewel box so it doesn't get lost on the shelf; therefore, it's a good idea to include a tray card and booklet that can fit in a jewel box, even if you don't use a jewel box itself.

If you want retail distribution, it's extremely helpful to have a label name and catalog number for your album, even if you're just releasing it yourself.

The extra blurb

Promotional albums are often accompanied by a page or two about the album and the artist, and this can help attract a DJ's attention. A brief biography, a review or two, or a mention of any well-known musicians appearing on the CD can convince us the disc is worth checking out. A description of the music can suggest that the album will (or, in some cases, won't) fit our show's format. But we don't need a lot of nonfactual hype about what a great album it is. (Anything above a certain label of hype tends to make me suspicious that the album can't stand on its own merits and I move it to the bottom of the pile.) You can also save money by leaving out fancy folders and glossy photos; they may be useful in getting gigs and for the print media, but radio people don't need them. Most of the accompanying materials will quickly get separated from the actual album anyway once the CD goes on the library shelf. After they whet our interest in the record, they probably get thrown away.

Aside from trying simply to get our attention, your materials can provide very useful information for a DJ. If the artist has an unusual name, indicate the correct pronunciation. While this has been a particular frustration with the growing number of Celtic and world music albums (would you know that the Irish band Deanta is pronounced something like "dJohnta"?), it also applies closer to home. When Denver folk singer Carla Sciaky had her own label, she always wrote "Sciaky is pronounced 'See-AH-kee'" on airplay copies of her LPs.

Some labels suggest certain tracks for airplay. This is especially helpful when the album covers several styles. If your enclosure mentions which songs are, say, appropriate for a blues show, or for a traditional folk show, or which are instrumentals, we can jump right to the tracks we're most likely to use.

If your album doesn't include a lyric sheet, please warn us about any radio-unfriendly words on the disc. Several FOLKDJ-L members played Joel Mabus' song "Rivethead" without listening to it first, and were surprised to hear the phrase "kiss my ass" coming over the air. (And there are far worse words that occasionally show up in a song.) Depending on the station's policy and the time period of the program, that sort of language may or may not matter, but we'd rather know about it in advance. For that matter, a lyric sheet is another way we can quickly see what sort of songs are on the album and which ones might work on our show. A recent Greg Brown CD not only included printed lyrics in the booklet, but had a sticker (on the DJ copies) with a specific language advisory as well.

Since many of us put together thematic sets or entire shows based upon a theme, it's worth pointing out any songs that, for example, would be appropriate for holidays or other occasions. Christmas music is one obvious case, but Yellow Tail Records made a point of suggesting the Electric Bonsai Band's "I Am My Dad" for Father's Day, and many of us have used the song on that day. Similarly, Red House sent out a single of Neal and Leandra's "Old Love" just before Valentine's Day.

The Borealis label (in Toronto) has done a particularly nice job providing this sort of information. Each promotional CD has a single card that fits inside the jewel box and includes brief comments about each track and about the artist, including pronunciation if necessary.

Include the artist's future itinerary if possible; if he or she will be appearing in our area, we're more likely to play the album (and mention the concert).

If this isn't your label's first album, it's worth including a list of your titles with a new release. (If you're an established label with a large catalog, send a revised copy once a year.) We can see if there are other titles we're interested in getting for airplay, or pass information along to listeners. Mention the price, if any, of back catalog promos.

Feedback from us

It can be annoyingly difficult to get feedback from radio stations. Some folk DJs are great about sending playlists back to the labels, but many of us are too overwhelmed to stay in close touch with everyone who sends us promos. (Almost all folk radio hosts have separate day jobs, so even putting the show itself together -- let alone the follow-up communication -- can be a tight squeeze on our time.)

Some labels include a stamped, self-addressed postcard with a brief questionnaire on the back, asking how much airplay is expected and for which tracks, the name of the folk show and its host, what local record stores might carry the album, etc. These make it easier for DJs to respond, but I'm told that the return rate is often disappointing. For one thing, the postcard (like the other accompanying materials) may get separated from the CD almost as soon as the parcel is opened. For another, though some DJs may air your disc the day they receive it, many of us screen everything before using it, and the backlog may mean a delay of several days or weeks before we can accurately report our reaction.

This is where FOLKDJ-L has been very helpful to everyone. Many DJs post their weekly playlists there, so labels and artists can either join the group and get the daily postings, or check the archives on the web page, and see who has been playing their music.

If a station doesn't acknowledge your album, you might want to follow-up via postcard, phone (though, again, many folk DJs are hard to reach at the station itself), or e-mail. But wait a few weeks to give your album time to move through the pipeline.

When I have time to correspond with labels, I give priority to the companies who send me albums on an ongoing basis. You can require regular feedback in exchange for continued service.

For all of this advice, I haven't said anything about the music itself! Unless you're seriously aiming at a commercial career, I assume that airplay considerations won't much affect the artistic decisions behind your recording. Besides, the range of programs is so broad that it's hard to make general suggestions. The same rich production that makes an album appeal to "adult alternative" radio might be too pop-sounding for a very traditional folk show.

In the end, the music is the most important factor. If the host likes the album and it fits the show's "sound," it will get played. But even a great record can get lost in the shuffle. I hope these tips will help keep your recording from falling through the cracks, and give it the best shot for getting airplay.


 

Bob Blackman (blackman@wkar.msu.edu ) hosts The Folk Tradition over WKAR-FM in East Lansing, Michigan. His day job is running the computer system at Elderly Instruments, a retail and mail-order music store. He wrote Sing Out's Songfinder column for several years and also co-founded the Ten Pound Fiddle coffeehouse in East Lansing. His show's web page is at http://wkar.org/folktradition.

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