Commercial VS. Non-Commercial Radio

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The Benton Foundation, a nonprofit organization with a focus on media education, reports that there were close to 15,000 AM and FM radio stations operating across the United States as of 2011. To hear them all, you’d have to listen to about 42 different stations every single day of the year. With numbers that staggering (and they’re growing all the time), it’s obvious that no sensible musician would ever submit their demo materials to random stations. There are simply too many out there for that type of strategy to work.

In order to successfully navigate the maze of stations in the U.S. today, musicians need to take a precise and focused approach. That means narrowing about 15,000 stations into a manageable group of targets which could make a good musical fit. However, the style and genre of your music aren’t the only factors that go into determining which radio stations are “right” versus which ones are a bad match. The type of station also has a huge impact on what gets airplay (and when).

There are two basic types of music radio stations: commercial, and non-commercial. In terms of playlists, budgets, vision, and overall culture, commercial and non-commercial radio are as different as night and day. So what sets them apart? Is one “better” than the other? And where does internet radio fit into the spectrum?

commercial radio

Commercial VS. Non-Commercial Radio

Most radio stations in the United States are considered commercial, with only a small minority making up the non-commercial category. (The term “minority” is a little misleading, since thousands of stations operate in the non-commercial category, but you get the general idea.)

As their names suggest, the core difference between commercial and non-commercial radio stations is the degree to which the each airs commercials. Commercial stations tend to play advertisements in long, aggressive, attention-grabbing blocks, with shorter blocks of music tucked in between. By comparison, non-commercial stations do not run advertisements at all. In fact, under Section 399b of the Communications Act of 1934, stations which hold a non-commercial frequency are legally prohibited from playing advertisements.

But why should there be such a gap between commercial and non-commercial in the first place? As you might have already guessed, the reason for the difference in levels of advertising ultimately boils down to one factor: money.

Web advertising is a good analogy to explain this. Advertisers pay websites to feature their ads, which is how the ad-featuring websites make money. Meanwhile, the advertiser gets the benefit of reaching more potential customers.

Commercial stations operate in basically the same manner. They rely on advertisements to generate their profits, because outside companies pay commercial stations for ad placement. The station is effectively acting like an auditory billboard, charging a price in exchange for giving other companies exposure to their listeners. Since major stations can have millions of people regularly tuning in, there’s a massive captive audience, which is hugely appealing for the advertiser.

Why Non-Commercial Stations Are a Better Fit for New Musical Artists

Unlike commercial stations, non-commercial stations tend to be labors of love. They are generally run by smaller staffs, often consisting of volunteers and community members who are simply in it for the music.

College radio, which is typically staffed by a mixture of students and volunteers from the community, is by far the most popular form of non-commercial radio. Over the years, college radio has built a very positive reputation in the broad music community for showcasing edgy, offbeat, and innovative artists. Tons of bands that went on to have huge hits and are still beloved today – including R.E.M., Devo, Pixies, The Cure, Sonic Youth, Cake, and The Smiths – are all associated with college radio, to the point where “college rock” has even developed into its own genre.

So why does college rock (and other offbeat music) have such a solid foothold in the non-commercial world? The answer lies in the vast financial and structural differences between commercial and non-commercial radio stations, which inevitably lead to major differences in the sorts of material each will seriously consider for airplay. To put it bluntly, commercial radio stations will not realistically consider playing artists who aren’t already popular and established. There is simply too much financial risk involved on their end.

Now, that isn’t to say that commercial stations don’t have any perks. Because commercial stations usually have larger budgets to play with, they can put more “oomph” into aggressive, comprehensive promotional pushes, which is always great news for musicians. However, if you’ve reached the stage in your career where you’re appearing on commercial radio, it means you already have a strong promo team marketing you anyway.

At the end of the day, the truth is that commercial stations just aren’t the right home for emerging artists who still lack brand recognition. Unhindered by financial pressures, driven only by matters of quality and taste, non-commercial stations can afford to be more open-minded about what types of material they’ll pick up. By comparison, the Program Director at a commercial station has to think more about their financial backers and less about your music.

Additionally, because commercial stations rely so heavily on advertisements, they therefore need to leave more air-time open for those advertisements to fit into. That takes a huge bite out of how much room is left for the music, which automatically ups the rejection factor. If the music that fits into the small amount of allotted space fails to reel listeners in, they’re not going to hear (or make purchases based on) the ads, which means that the artists on commercial stations must be “big” enough to more or less guarantee listeners.

For all of these reasons, commercial radio is virtually impossible to break into as an artist or band who’s just starting out. But don’t worry: non-commercial radio has thousands of listeners, a diverse musical community, awesome connections to plenty of websites and magazines, and a rock-solid reputation for producing quality music while fostering visionary artists who still resonate with us decades later.

non-commercial radio

The Pros and Cons of Internet Radio

With all this talk about commercial and non-commercial radio, you might have begun to wonder about web radio, which obviously plays by different rules than the stations using traditional broadcast methods. It’s also a massive chunk of the modern radio landscape – and as internet becomes more and more ubiquitous in our daily lives, it’s only going to keep getting bigger. According to a survey of 3,000 Americans conducted by Bridge Ratings & Research in 2007, about one fifth of all U.S. consumers listen to internet radio stations, which equates to roughly 57 million listeners nationwide on a weekly basis. The survey also found that “more people listen to online radio than to satellite radio, high-definition radio, podcasts, or cell-phone-based radio combined.”

Internet radio is everywhere, but it doesn’t really fit into the schema of brick-and-mortar radio stations. It isn’t college radio, commercial radio, or non-commercial radio — it’s its own entity. So what are its pros and cons? You might be surprised, because they’re a little counterintuitive.

Since an internet connection is cheap and accessible, online radio seems like the holy grail of distribution for emerging musical acts — and at first glance, it is. After all, the only things you need are a computer, some inexpensive gear, a little bit of technical knowledge, and presto, you’re a broadcaster. Better still, there are no gatekeepers, no submission requirements, no backlogged demos in need of review — no roadblocks.
Sounds perfect, right?

Well, not exactly.

Have you ever heard the saying that if something’s too good to be true, then it probably is? Unfortunately, online radio is a perfect example. Yes, it’s highly accessible… but that’s just the issue. It’s too accessible. Virtually anyone can start a web station, and therein lies the problem. Since anyone can create a digital station, the internet is now littered with millions of them. Many never snag more than a few dozen listeners, if that. Most internet stations are obscure, and therefore lack enough clout to really advance your career in any meaningful way.

That being said, there are exceptions to every rule. Several web-based stations are serious heavy-hitters in the radio world, with some of the best examples including:

  • KCRW 89.9 FM – With over one million followers on Google+, the extremely robust KCRW is a far cry from the tumbleweed-strewn wasteland of most online stations. KCRW describes itself as “Southern California’s leading National Public Radio affiliate, featuring an eclectic mix of music, news, information and cultural programming.” Three of KCRW’s streams are web exclusives, and the station reaches more than half a million listeners on a weekly basis.
  • KEXP 90.3 FM – KEXP is a public station based in Seattle. Formerly known as KCMU, KEXP focuses predominantly on alt rock, but also plays blues, hip hop, punk, and other genres. Part of the reason KEXP’s web presence is so powerful is that both the University of Washington and NPR (National Public Radio) help pay for KEXP’s streaming and web technology.
  • Breakthru Radio – In their own words, Breakthru Radio “is devoted to giving a voice to talented, upcoming artists and empowering DJs to pick and play their own music,” and the station motto is “Radio rediscovered.” Visitors to the Breakthru Radio website are met with dozens of options when it comes to choosing between programming, with offerings ranging from drone to Latin hip-hop to Japanese to jazz.
  • SomaFM – SomaFM calls itself “Listener Supported, Commercial-Free Radio.” Established in 1999, Soma FM is a popular web stream which features more than 20 channels dedicated to the more relaxed end of the electronic spectrum. To cite a few examples, listeners can toggle between Groove Salad (ambient/downtempo), Dubstep Beyond, and Lush (“mellow” female vocals with an electronic bent). In addition to its electronic offerings, SomaFM also features folk, Americana, and even Icelandic music.

Still have questions about how all this stuff works? Need tips on how to prepare your demo to submit to a radio station? Looking into professional radio promotion, but aren’t quite sure where to get started? Call the experienced team at Planetary Group at (323) 952-5050 to talk about your career goals. We represent bands, solo artists, rappers, and DJs across a wide spectrum of musical genres, and have worked with international musicians from all over the world.