Types of Radio Shows
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Commercial radio is structured in way similar to TV channels. The morning hours are heavily dedicated to talk and news; the daytime and early evening are full of prime-time (i.e. musical) content; and the particularly off-beat or edgy shows play late at night, when ratings aren’t as critical and fewer people are tuning in.
For musicians who are trying to be heard on the airwaves, both the type of station and the time of day — and in turn, the types of radio shows being broadcast — can make a world of difference when it comes to audience and exposure.
Non-Commercial Specialty Shows
Commercial stations and non-commercial stations are seldom similar, so it’s hardly surprising that the non-commercial approach to specialty shows is a little different. While they are alike in that both commercial and non-commercial specialty shows make excellent gateways for new and unheard-of acts, non-commercial specialty shows tend to be more numerous and diverse than their commercial counterparts.
For example, let’s examine 89.9 KTSW, the college station which broadcasts out of Texas State University. KTSW lists no less than 10 specialty shows on their homepage. One show is called Wanderlust, which “spotlights music from a different city or region in the world each week.” Another, called The Shack Party, “will bring you the best in all forms of American roots music—from Appalachian music to Zydeco.” Even the most offbeat commercial specialty show is unlikely to showcase Applachian and Zydeco music, which goes to show just how invaluable non-commercial specialty shows can be not just to new artists, but also to artists working with unusual genres.
Commecial Radio Morning Shows
Anyone who has ever driven to work knows that compared to the normal daytime format, morning radio is its own beast. That’s because radio stations know that the morning hours are peak time for listeners to tune in. During the morning hours, millions upon millions of Americans are commuting to work in their cars — and in an attempt to perk up for the workday stretching ahead, many of them listen to the radio as they travel.
Of course, there are aspects of morning shows that aren’t always relevant to musicians — for example, hosts taking calls to get public opinions on the latest political scandals — but other morning show features are perfect for and indeed intended for musicians. For instance, during their AM talk or news shows, many stations will host interviews with artists. Typically, these interviews cover topics like upcoming or recent shows, album releases, or projects they have in progress. However, because morning shows are so heavy with traffic, musician appearances on morning shows are typically reserved for well-established acts, or at least acts who have already achieved airplay on that station’s rotation.
Commercial Late Night Radio
Like morning radio, late night radio doesn’t follow the same format as the daytime programming. Why not? The amount of people tuning is much lower than normal, because late at night, most people are either sleeping, channel-surfing, or out on the town. The number of people on the road (and consequently listening to the radio) is comparatively small.
Because fewer people are listening in, and because most advertisers are consequently less interested in pushing their products, late night radio hosts typically have more freedom to break from station norms in terms of tone, style, genre, and how “clean” material is.
Most late night specialty shows are one or two hours in length, and are often dedicated to a certain genre, which is often outside “the norm” for that station. Genres like electronica, blues, and jazz are popular choices for late night programming. Because late night shows are often more flexible than the shows which air during peak hours, they can be a great place for emerging artists to get their foot in the door.
It only makes sense that you can’t have “specialty” shows without “regular” shows by contrast. To help flesh out an understanding of what makes specialty shows — well, special — let’s spend some time talking about what commercial and non-commercial stations play during their regular hours.
At non-commercial stations, daytime programming is usually something of a free-for-all. Of course, the format varies from station to station — but in general, daytime hours at non-comms are filled by rotating DJs. These DJs can essentially choose the music they like, although even non-commercial stations will typically stick to at least a loose format. Usually, this consists of either AAA (Adult Album Alternative), or Alternative.
Nonetheless, even within an Alternative block, non-commercial DJs will frequently pepper in cuts from other genres, such as jazz, world music, or blues. In fact, program diversity is one of the cherished hallmarks of the AAA radio format. Triple-A tracks occasionally cross over to the more mainstream, commercial world, like the Adult Top 40 chart.
At commercial stations, daytime programming is the station bread-and-butter. Commercial daytime programming may be introduced or commented on by a live DJ on on-air personality, but there are also many commercial stations which simply play automated, predetermined playlists. While browsing commercial radio stations, you have probably noticed a blend of “actual” DJs and pre-recorded voices talking about the tracks.
While the daytime playlists at commercial stations may incorporate a mix of genres, shifting from pop to alt country to R&B ballads, all of the songs have one thing in common: they were made by established artists, with the intent of becoming radio hits.
There are a lot of variables to consider. Maybe your music is a little too edgy for morning shows, which have lots of young listeners riding in the car with their parents. Maybe you don’t have a lot of extra money to spend on aggressive promotional efforts toward getting a coveted morning show interview. Maybe you play within a genre that can’t find a home on commercial radio specialty shows. There are strengths and weaknesses to both commercial and noncommercial specialty shows, and one may be a better home for your music than the other. The key is finding which niche is best-suited for your act.