Airplay, please. How (your) music gets on the radio

We give tips on how to ensure that your songs don't end up in the bin in the first place

You have produced your music and it can now go on to see the light of day. Of course you can Upload on Spotify and Co. But what about listening to your own music on the radio? Have you ever dared to send your song to the radio? Maybe it didn't work out and you are left with question marks. Or you generally want to understand how your song could get on the radio. So let's shed some light on that now. We spoke to Katharina about this: She was the music editor for six different radio stations for 14 years and has gained experience with both public and private broadcasters. In this interview, you can find out how you can get airplay with or without a record deal.

What interests you especially?

Hey Katharina. Let's start with the basics: How does music get on the radio?

Let's say a song is a good fit for the radio station's programme. What happens then?

In the first step, we music editors check whether all the necessary song data is available. If this is the case, we enter the song file into the programs of the music editors so that we can schedule and play it. We also consider where it is best placed on the station's "playlist". There are certain categories, depending on the station. These also determine how often it is played. In radio-speak we call that rotating and the "playlist" is the rotation.

What if a song is not suitable?

In fact, given the sheer volume of songs that reach a music desk, that's actually pretty common. Because we don't have unlimited space on the playlist and playing it once is not worth it.

But back to the question: Some songs don't fit right away and the playlist is currently full. But then we don't discard them immediately, we put them on hold. This means that we will reevaluate them at a later date and assess whether we can accommodate them after all.

But there are also tracks that do not meet the criteria of the station or the respective music programme at all. For example, don't even try to send a pop song to a rock station. We can't do anything about it and don't take it into account any further. A little sidebar:

I have already discovered gems for myself privately. Just because a song is not right for the radio station doesn't mean it's bad per se.

How does the music get to a music editor?

The sources of a music editor are diverse. When songs or entire albums reach a music editorial office on behalf of record companies, this is called sampling. But there are other ways. I'll weigh them by frequency and volume:

  • The greatest input is provided by radio promoters. They either work for big record companies (major labels) or have music from smaller (indie) labels. The radio promoters know the dates of the (inter)national single releases and have an overview of the individual release strategies of the artists and bands. They regularly inform the music editors about new songs. Most of the time they call or send an email. The songs are then available on a digital sampling platform. The music editors can easily access them and immediately receive all relevant information song data as well as the song file.
  • Music editors – of course – love music. You can discover appropriate music for the radio station, for example, on Spotify playlists, in series, in commercials, at concerts / festivals, on international channels. Or they stumble on the internet over songs that make you sit up and take notice. Sometimes recommendations come from your own circle of friends. While radio promoters usually send along all the important data for playing the tracks, this way requires research: When was the specific song released? Is it current or older? Is there a label behind it, if so, which one? How do I get the song legally so that the radio staff can add it to the music database? And so forth. Sounds like a bit of effort? But worth it if the music adds value to the station.
  • The smallest part is (unknown) bands that send their own music to the radio station. There were more of them a few years ago. This is probably due to streaming. I've always liked listening to them because I think it's important to know what unknown bands and musicians sound like. Yes, ok, maybe I dreamed a little bit about discovering the next big thing.

GEMA is an important tool. It ensures that music is remunerated and copyrights are protected. The GEMA data is comparable to an interface between the playing of a song on the radio and the resulting remuneration for musicians and bands. The same applies to events. For this you have register your music with GEMA. In order for GEMA to be billed correctly, music editors need the following information:

  • Song title and band/artist name – that's pretty obvious.
  • Composer text and composer music – Which one of you wrote the song, who is the author of the music?
  • Label and label code – Do you have a label and a label code? If not, you can do without it.
  • ISRC code – clearly identifies the track. There is even a ISCR search.
  • EAN Code – Identification number or barcode for the specific product (single, CD, EP, etc.).
  • Release year – is self-explanatory.

How do radio stations choose what to play? What are the criteria? Do we need a record deal?

I can say this in advance: In the vast majority of cases, (only) the music editors choose the songs that are played. Why? Because we are qualified and experienced employees who know exactly what is important.

A music editor is not an untouchable ivory tower. They just follows rules to make the best music program possible.

Even if we develop a good gut feeling over the years, we don't make our decisions completely at random. On the contrary. We often include the following considerations in the selection of music:

  • Is the artist or band one of the most popular (core artists) of the broadcaster or the listeners?
  • How does the song sound? Does it fit into the music programme (rotation) of the broadcaster?
  • What's up with the song or the band/artist? Will an album be released soon or will other promotions accompany the release?
  • Are all relevant data and the song available in playable quality?

On the subject record deal: It doesn't matter whether a band has a record deal or not. You can take it easy there. This is definitely not an exclusion criterion.

Oh, I always thought that the moderators decide for themselves which songs are played – one of many myths.

There are things I have heard over and over again from listeners and even colleagues over the years as a music editor. The following three assertions are false and I would like to clarify them:

  1. Moderators choose the songs for their programmes themselves. This can already be the case with special interest programmes. They usually run in the evening or at the weekend. In general, however, a music editor is responsible for this. With its music planning tool, it has a better overview of which songs are played when, what the composition of the rotation is and what is appropriate for the station. This means that moderators can fully concentrate on the content of their programme(s) and prepare them. Of course, moderators can also contact the music editors with music tips.
  2. Music editors listen to (new) music all day long. That would be a dream. As you have read, our tasks are more complex. There are also things like: writing CD reviews, getting information about acts/bands, preparing interviews, briefing moderators about songs or artists and much more. I had a full-time job and was always busy. This means that in the daily routine there is unfortunately little time to listen to music at leisure and to discover new things.
  3. Radio stations only play the charts. There is a rumour that broadcasters are paid for it. That is not the case. Music editors go to great lengths to ensure rotation is diverse and varied, and operate independently of the charts. Depending on the musical orientation (pop, rock, oldies, etc.), however, the impression can be amplified. I have the feeling that pop stations in particular have tended to "play it safe" in recent years and mostly play more established and well-known artists/bands.

They used to be braver. Newcomers were given more chances. You have to know that for radio stations, similar to TV stations, ratings or listenership is calculated. The more listeners a station has, the higher the advertising rates it can charge and thus generate more revenue. Profitability is something that private broadcasters in particular cannot ignore in order to secure their existence.

What happens when music from unknown artists/bands ends up on the music desk?

We listen to them too, just like all the other songs.

Why is there radio at all?

How many times have I heard that radio will soon be gone. And, of course, I also listen to a lot of music on Spotify myself. But in the morning while brushing their teeth, in the shower, at breakfast, in the car, on the way to work or maybe while working or cooking in the evening – people listen to the radio everywhere, and they listen to it quite a bit:

We've tried so many times to get our music on the radio, but it hasn't worked out so far.

Don't be discouraged! There may be various reasons. There are strong release periods like spring before festival or tour season. There are also a lot of releases in autumn and at Christmas. We sometimes didn't know what to play first but had no space on our rotation.

Or …

  • your track does not meet the criteria mentioned either,
  • there is no data for your songs,
  • there is currently no space on the rotation list.

In addition, unfortunately we have less time to listen to everything than you might think. Let's be brief: I really listened to well-known and unknown music on a regular basis. But I sometimes had things on the table that had been there for three months and I just didn't get around to it. It's like, I have another tab open here that interests me, and another one there, and another one here. At some point you have 30 tabs open and you have to admit that it makes no sense and close the page with all the tabs.

Because at some point release dates are outdated, a tour is long over or a new single is coming up. That's why music editors figuratively set the "counter" to zero from time to time.

Definitely don't take it personally!

Why doesn't the broadcaster write us a rejection note or explain why we don't fit into the programme?

Again, it's the time factor. Let's assume that in one week 60 songs reach a music department in a variety of ways. From opening the mail or the envelope to listening to checking the relevant information, it takes 5 minutes. Then that's 300 minutes and therefore 5 hours net. If, on top of that, I had to deal with refusals with explanations, I would hardly be able to do anything else as a music editor. Please forgive us.

Why can't we be played at least once?

I've heard the question many times and it's perfectly understandable. Here, the effort is simply too great: we set up the song, we import it and enter the song data into the various technical programmes of the music editors. In addition, "deadbeats" are created when a title runs only once. This makes the programmes more confusing.



It's no good if a song is only played once. Neither for you nor the broadcaster.

On top of that songs have to be 'warmed up'". I don't like that word, but it describes it quite well. Because the more often listeners hear a song, the more familiar they become with it. They like it more and more as it gains popularity. We're talking about a period of four to six weeks. So if you're sick of a song, think about how the music editors feel. Because they are with the song from the beginning.

What tips can you give musicians and bands so that we don't get weeded out straight away?

I advise you: Use the little time and attention the music editors have as effectively as possible:

  • Avoid lengthy cover letters and get to the point quickly. The fact that Aunt Erna gave away a tambourine in 1993, which someone then found in volume number one in 2012 at the flea market and then today's volume number five was formed across eight corners and there have been 15 line-up changes in the meantime and in the appendix 20 pages with musical influences, chronologically sorted, are not of interest at first.
  • Your music should speak for you and be convincing. A direct link to the song is helpful. Be sure that the music editors don't take ages to click through to the song. If you work with password protection, communicate the password clearly and prominently to the music editors.

And check to see if the links are active and don't take you anywhere or to an error message.

Tip: Use the opportunity and send your own music digitally to (a) radio station. This saves you money that you can invest in new equipment and undoubtedly produces less waste.

  • Provide all GEMA and song data, if available. This makes it easier for the music editors and eliminates the need for further inquiries.

  • Write important key points very briefly in the cover letter.

    • Is there a tour coming up?
    • Do you play support for a more famous band?
    • Were you able to win over a producer who has already worked with big names in the music business?
    • Or is that the case with your mastering?

Be honest, only mention relevant points, but don't undersell yourself.

  • Familiarise yourself with the radio station and its music profile beforehand. It's not the masses you contact that count, it's that your sound really fits into the programme.
  • Don't overwhelm a music editor with inquiries or constant requests. Be patient even if it's hard. If a music editor chooses your song, they will contact you. It's better that way than for them to dismiss you altogether, completely annoyed.

What are the chances that we'll be on the radio?

You see that different things influence your chances and a few years ago it was even easier to get your music on the radio. Newcomer programmes can be a good start and reference for you, but they are also more rare.

There are longer release periods on the radio than on streaming platforms.

While songs appear at short intervals on the internet, radio stations take longer to get the songs „to warm up“. So if you already know that you want to release three singles in the next two weeks, choose the best one and send only that one to the radio.

Thanks Katharina. What is your conclusion about the radio airplay of (unknown) bands and artists?


It is very important for me to emphasise once again: do not despair! As you can see, there are many reasons why it might not work. Always remember: Unfortunately, radio is also a tough business and the music market and rotation positions are highly competitive. Don't get discouraged and just stay relaxed.

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