The independent music market is more saturated than ever. That’s why I favor marketing strategies that are specific and targeted. They’re often more effective than casting a wide net.
I’ve worked alongside hundreds of artists over the years, and seen how much more beneficial it is for a band to have a couple hundred real, dedicated fans who buy t-shirts and tickets to shows than it is to get millions of passive streams on Spotify from listeners who might not even notice the name of the artist they’re listening to.
For this reason, and many others, college radio is my favorite promotional method.
What you should know about college radio promo
This article is intended to be a crash-course in how college radio works. I’ll cover the technical ins-and-outs of college radio promotion, but more importantly, how to think strategically about college radio promotion.
Why does college radio matter?
Before I get into how immensely valuable college radio promotion is, it’s important to mention that promoting music on college radio is a strategy used widely by independent labels and artists across many genres.
It’s important and valuable because of its audience, which I’ll get into shortly. But also because there are hundreds of college radio stations across the country that play independent music. This stands in stark contrast to commercial terrestrial stations, that, outside of some specialty shows, only play records backed by six-figure-plus promotional campaigns. There are a couple of other kinds of radio that new, up-and-coming artists might be able to secure, but college radio is the biggest pool.
As a college radio promoter, I often say that the most valuable new fans you can get are the DJs themselves.
Most college radio DJs fall into two categories:
1. College students
But not just any college students. These are students who are so passionate about music that they dedicate their precious time to discovering and sharing new music. They are kids who go to shows, buy records, grow music scenes, book festivals, and they’re the kind of people who will go on to work in the music industry once they graduate. They’re hungry for new music. They’re defining their taste, much of which will last a lifetime.
2. Community volunteers
Many stations, especially bigger ones, have community volunteers who DJ and help run the station. Importantly, they’re the ones who keep things running when college students are home for the summer and holidays. These are people who love music so much that they volunteer their time to share it with their communities.
Of course, both these types of people are also all active on social media like anyone else. But instead of you just putting your music up on the internet and hoping high-value fans stumble across it, you’re putting it directly into their hands at a time when they’ve already agreed to sit down and pay specific attention to brand new music from artists they’ve never heard of, with the intent to then share it with others. It’s hard to imagine a better set of people to be promoting your music to directly.
And this is to say nothing of the wonderful music nerds all over the world who invest time and energy in music discovery by LISTENING to college and community radio.
Challenges with college radio
Hopefully, by now you agree that college radio is a great place to promote your music.
However, unless you’re actively touring, it can be hard to turn periodic radio plays into fans and meaningful opportunities. Even if you’re showing up on the national college radio charts.
With conventional press, you get a link (or screenshot) you can share to get your fans excited about high-profile coverage. This helps demonstrate to industry people that you’re serious and getting noticed. College radio promotion doesn’t yield links or easy social proof in the same way. So it requires some extra attention and work to make the most of these valuable connections.
Getting radio play is like making it rain (this is a metaphor, stay with me here), but if you don’t put out buckets to collect the rainwater, it’ll just soak into the ground and dissipate. I’ll discuss “capturing the rainwater” in detail later on in this article. But first, some practical information about submitting music to college radio.
What even is college radio?
Most of the time, when we talk about college radio, we’re talking about terrestrial radio stations owned and operated by colleges. These stations are run by college students and volunteers. But in order to understand college radio promotion, it helps to get the bigger picture of how radio play is measured.
NACC (North American College & Community) is a non-profit organization that compiles and publishes weekly and monthly charts based on data collected from college, community, and internet radio stations. When people talk about college radio charts, they’re almost certainly talking about the NACC charts, even though NACC also accepts reporting from some internet and community stations.
For the purposes of this article, I’m going to use the term “college radio” to refer to stations that report to the NACC. It’s good to know that some stations that report to NACC aren’t exactly college stations. But they are important if you want to rank on what is essentially the college radio charts.
Stations that report to the NACC are ranked 1-5, 5 being the heaviest, or most important. Station weight is determined by a number of factors. But generally the heavily weighted stations are the ones you’ve heard of like KEXP and KCRW.
Whereas stations with a 1 or 2 ranking are tiny college stations you probably haven’t heard of. They have a smaller listenership, but are likely awesome nonetheless.
Now before I tell you HOW to submit to stations, here’s a quick video where I summarize three of the reasons I love college radio promotion:
How to submit your music to college radio
What to submit to radio
Most stations still prefer to receive CDs, though many now accept digital submissions. Figuring out which stations are which can be a big project, so do your research and keep good notes!
Some things to keep in mind:
- If you’re sending out physical CDs, you want to make sure the jewel-case or digipak has a spine so DJs can easily find them on a CD shelf
- Be sure to indicate which songs are the focus tracks, which is just another way of saying, the most radio-friendly ones you think they should play
- It’s a great idea to send a one-sheet with your social handles and maybe even a picture and genre information
- It’s also a great idea to send stickers and a hand-written note if you have the time, or anything you can to make sure your submission stands out. At Little Red Radio Promotion, we use shiny red envelopes when we send out CDs so that whoever opens it knows they’re about to discover something excellent. Whatever you do, make it your own!
College stations have to adhere to FCC regulations, so if your songs have naughty words, make sure that’s marked visibly, or better yet, only submit clean versions of your songs to radio.
Who to submit to
Address packages and emails to the station’s music director.
College station websites often have up-to-date information about the music director and their submission guidelines. It’s also good to send an email along with your physical submission with an EPK where they can easily download your record and photos, read your bio, and check out your social and streaming links.
We do weekly follow-ups with stations for the ten weeks following submissions.
This means calling or emailing stations to ask if they’ve had a chance to check it out yet. If they’ve played it already, we thank them.
Keeping track of who has added and/or played a record is essential. Staying organized is an absolute must.
What other info to share
It’s also good to share relevant information both when you reach out and follow up.
For instance, tell them if you’re local to the same market as a station, or if you’re coming through on tour soon.
additional college radio opportunities:
- offer a ticket giveaway for listeners
- provide free tickets for the station DJs
- ask about doing an in-studio performance if you see that’s something the station routinely does
Tracking radio airplay
College radio promoters track and report airplay on a regular basis throughout your campaign. How do you find out which stations have added music to their library, or which DJs are playing the tracks?
3 ways to get info on college radio activity:
- Phone Calls are essential if you want to stay on a music director’s radar and get your music played on the radio. We call stations and ask if they received our submission, then if they got a chance to listen to it, if they’ll add it to their library, and finally if they’ll give it some spins. The email and the services listed below are helpful, but truly no match for picking up the phone.
- NACC compiles and posts charts that show the albums that are getting the most radio play and getting added to rotation on a given week. You can sign up to access this information on their website. They have a basic free offering and a more robust paid tier where you have access to more information.
- Spinitron is a service where you can track individual spins. That’s a helpful way to keep track of where and when you’ve gotten radioplay.
Both NACC and Spinitron memberships cost between $100 and $150/month.
How to get the most out of college radio airplay
As discussed earlier in this article, getting radio play is great, but what’s just as important is what you do with it.
Here are some ideas for how to put those college radio spins to good use:
Send a thank you email
DJs love hearing directly from artists they’re playing.
Record station IDs
It’s best to keep them short and sweet like, “Hi, it’s [ARTIST] and you’re listening to [STATION].” You can do this for stations and even individual shows that play your music. That’s a super nice thing to throw in with a thank you email.
Send thank you snail mail
Again, the goal here is to build a connection with the DJs and music directors. And who doesn’t get excited receiving hand-written notes and stickers? If you don’t believe me, go hang out on college radio TikTok and watch how cute and excited DJs get opening all the different packages.
Follow the stations and DJs
If the people and stations that play your music have a presence on social, follow them!
This is easy to do and can be a great way to connect and learn more about the DJs who like what you do and continue to build the relationship. Do they post pics of themselves in different band shirts every Friday? Send them a t-shirt! Remember, college radio DJs are music super fans. They’re the kind of people who follow artists for decades. Linking up on social media takes virtually no effort and it can be worth its weight in gold.
Get into nearby stores
If you’re getting significant airplay on a given station (say 25 spins in a week), it’s worth connecting to local record stores in that market to see about having them carry your music. Or, if you’re lucky enough to work with a physical distributor, this is great information to pass along to them.
Learn more about the scene
Wherever you’re at in your release/touring cycle, promoting to college radio can help you get a sense of what markets you should be traveling to and investing energy in. I can’t overstate the importance of connecting with DJs who are sharing your music. These people can help you get plugged into local music scenes, find out about where you should be playing, and even book shows.
Create related content
Finally, we create shareable IG/TikTok content for our clients that let people know about radio play. It’s super easy to make a little animated reel in Canva with the artist’s picture and the song title, station, and chart ranking or any other relevant info. We encourage our artists to post it on IG and tag the station and/or individual DJs as collaborators. This is a great way to get in front of people who follow the station, but who might have missed your song. It also shows so much appreciation because you’re directing your own fans to check out the station’s page.
I’m sure there are a million more ways to build friendships and community with college radio DJs. For my money, promoting to college radio is an incredible thing to do, but don’t count on spins alone to move the needle for your project. Your people are out there waiting for you to connect with them!
Should I do my own college radio promotion?
As someone who does college radio promotion, I can tell you that it’s doable to go the DIY route. Especially if you’re someone who can handle the research and managing large data sets.
Probably the biggest challenge when we started our agency was just building an actual list of all the stations and their physical addresses.
WARNING: There are a bunch of things that are marketed as “college radio contact lists” you can buy online. But none of them are very usable, and they’re all out of date and incomplete. The best way to build your college radio contact list is to put in the hours researching station contacts and building your own list.
Doing send-outs isn’t all that labor-intensive, but following up every week for months is! Likewise, staying on top of who’s played your music can be difficult and time-consuming. So you’re going to need air-tight systems to keep track of it all.
I think that there’s a misconception that promoters are people that built relationships with outlets by schmoozing and being in-the-know. but in my almost two decades of releasing and promoting music, I’ve found that the best promoters are just polite, organized people who make life easy for the DJs and writers they submit to.
How much does college radio promotion cost?
If you decide you’re not equipped to handle your own promotion, you can seek to hire a reputable college radio promoter. You can get a national radio campaign done for a few thousand dollars. Some agencies charge way more, some charge less.
In addition to budget, you’ll also want to consider:
- Does the agency or promoter have as a record of success, a professional website, and client testimonials?
- Is their current roster of clients selective enough that they’ll be able to properly promote YOUR music?
- Are they communicative and transparent?
- Do they set realistic expectations? Do they outline their expectations of you, the artist?
If so, it might be worth reaching out to them.
And then remember, just because you’re willing to pay a promoter doesn’t mean the promoter will say yes. Their reputation is built on repping music they believe in.
Whether a campaign was successful or not depends on who you ask. Getting an album to chart in the NACC’s top 200 is a great and often achievable goal for a national college radio campaign.
But, as you already know, my focus in determining the success of an album has more to do with how many new fans you’re actually engaging with, selling records to, and adding to your email list. Plus, how well you’re able to use the strategies discussed above in “How To Get The Most Out Of Airplay”.
College radio is an amazing, and frankly under-leveraged resource artists can use to create strong communities around their music.
Thanks so much for reading, and please feel free to reach out directly with any technical or more specific questions. As you can probably tell, I love talking about this stuff.