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The Changing World of Radio Promotion

As record labels and the media landscape evolve, pitching songs to radio has too. Seven executives break down how they do their jobs.

When Glass Animals released their single “Heat Waves” in June 2020, the band’s label Republic had a plan: They would work the song to alternative radio, then get started on campaigns at Top 40 and Hot AC. And, for a while, it worked. “Heat Waves” hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Alternative Airplay chart in March 2021, and had begun climbing the Pop Airplay and Adult Pop Airplay charts at the same time. But by that July, the song had seemingly run out of steam, having reached the top 20 on both pop airplay charts before falling off entirely.

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“In years past, this would have been the end of the campaign,” says Lucas Romeo, senior vp promotion at Republic Records. “But ever since the streaming revolution and the massive influence of social media there have been many roads to success in the modern industry.”

Soon, fate — and new metrics — intervened. Towards the end of August, the song began to explode on TikTok thanks to the #AllIThinkAboutIsYou challenge, which in turn meant it rocketed up Billboard’s consumption-based charts, reaching No. 1 on Hot Rock & Alternative Songs in mid-September. By the first week in November, “Heat Waves” had again cracked both pop airplay charts, eventually reaching No. 1 on each last month, “roughly 81 weeks after its initial release,” Romeo notes. “This would never have happened in the past and was actually only the second time in chart history it had happened.”

Such is the life of a label promotions person in recent years: constantly reacting to changing metrics and new data from many more sources than had been available just five or 10 years ago. In the past, a radio campaign for a lead single would herald the release of an artist’s album, with promotions people going market by market to convince individual program directors and DJs to add particular records to a playlist ahead of an album’s release to try to drum up sales interest. Today, however, radio campaigns are much more variable, with data from streaming and social media often fueling what gets worked to radio, rather than vice versa.

“There was a time when radio was the leader out of everything — you put it on the radio, sales would follow, marketing would follow, so on and so forth,” says Lionel Ridenour, a major-label radio promo veteran formerly at Capitol, Arista and Virgin who is currently the founder/CEO of Anchor Promotions. “That now has changed, and we have to take our cues from streaming or ticket sales or something breaking on TikTok, other sources now, and then do what we do.”

Which is not to say that radio has become less important: As with almost everything in the music business over the past couple decades, the function of radio, and in turn radio promotions, has shifted dramatically, even as the core tenet remains the same. “The job is to get hit songs played on the radio and to expose them to the widest audience possible for the longest amount of time,” says Columbia Records vp promotion Samantha Brenner. “That hasn’t really changed that much.”

As control over radio playlists has consolidated among fewer programmers and the ways in which people listen to music — and the data to measure it — are increasingly widespread, radio promotions now involves more data, incorporates more parts of the label and is has made relationships and shaping a narrative an even larger factor.

“The art of storytelling, I think, is more important now than ever, because every week there is an onslaught of these records that have tremendous consumption and a programmer’s gonna look at that every week,” says Nick Petropoulos, senior vp/head of promotion at Arista Records. “So you need that artist proposition for people to buy in, and you need to be patient and stick with it if we’re going to break careers in this business.”

In an ongoing series examining how record labels are changing, Billboard spoke to seven different promotions executives about how they do their jobs, what it takes and how things have shifted — both in the recent past and moving into the future. (Find the first installment in this series, on A&R, here.)

“To this day, the promotion department is tied to every department at a label — marketing, sales, digital — because we take all that information and filter it to tell a story to radio,” says Petropoulos. “And the records and artists that have the best probability of success are those that have some success or momentum at all those different departments.”

The Job

A lot of times, the promotions role is associated with working and breaking particular songs, and that is, ultimately, the main focus of the job. But what it means to be “working” records is about breaking artists as a whole, too: getting programmers to believe in an artist’s story, their journey, their vision and what they’re trying to achieve, and helping radio see how it can be a part of that overall picture.

That starts, first and foremost, with relationships. “Any and all time not spent coordinating the campaign internally or with management is spent talking to radio programmers,” says Romeo. “[Republic chairman/CEO] Monte Lipman has always told our team: ‘When in doubt, call radio.’ There is always information to gather, records to work and relationships to grow. Relationships with program directors, managers, artists and fellow executives are all essential to success.”

That has often meant hitting the road, both to visit programmers in particular markets but also to bring young, developing acts out to meet those programmers, play records, perform in-studio concerts that can be broadcast live on air or bring station employees backstage at a show in a local market. It’s often why most traditional promotions structures incorporate a regional approach, with many reps on the road for a lot of the time.

“When we were first rolling out Doja Cat, I was in the rental car driving her to Oklahoma City, to Providence, to Boston, to Hartford — all the markets, just building up the relationship between the artist and radio,” says Kevin Valentini, senior vp promotions at RCA Records, who has helped Doja to five No. 1 records on Billboard’s Rhythmic Radio chart. “For radio, that’s what’s most special to them — to feel like they’re included, that they’re part of the growth of these artists, they helped to break them. That’s why little things like plaques for programmers, even though we do them less and less now, it’s so meaningful — they’re a sign of their participation and inclusion in a project that was successful.”

But relationships, much as they may help, don’t break a record, or an artist, on their own. For years, radio stations have relied on internal research metrics and rankings based on surveys from local listeners to identify which songs are making an impact within their market, and how listeners are responding. Now, with so much data available from external sources, too, parsing it has become as essential a part of the job for promotions people as for the radio programmers themselves.

“When I first started it was more about just straight album sales in the market and station research, when they would get that data direct from their listeners,” says Tyson Haller, senior vp/head of promotion at Concord. “Now there are so many things out there for stations to look at and I think some of them are still trying to figure out which is most important. They’re looking at physical album sales, streams, Shazams, internal research, socials, TikTok, Instagram followers, ticket sales. There are so many things to pay attention to that it’s important for us as promoters to make sure we’re highlighting the strengths of the records that we have out there.”

Still, “If you rely on only the data to tell the full story, you’re going to have a tough time breaking an artist,” says Petropoulos. “The thing that I always discuss with my team is the high importance of the storytelling and the buy-in on an artist’s vision. Because anyone can look at a chart like Spotify’s Top 50 and say, ‘Oh, that one’s doing pretty well, I should play that’ — but what happens two weeks later when there’s natural decay on the consumption?”

“I think the biggest thing people don’t understand is how much of a grind it is — it’s hand-to-hand combat at all times,” Romeo says. “Working a record at radio is often nothing more than a series of small successes that ultimately end up looking like one giant win, or loss if the record doesn’t hit our goals.”

How It’s Changing

There is how promotions has evolved, with increased data, the importance of Shazam and the upside-down effect of streaming changing how the job is conducted on a day-to-day basis. But there is also change in response to the industry with which promotions was set up to interface: radio, specifically the consolidation of station ownership that has meant more top-down national programming and a lessened ability for local DJs and program directors to influence what gets heard by listeners each day.

That’s played out concretely in the past month at Warner Music Nashville, where senior vp promotions Kristen Williams restructured the label’s promo department to supplement the traditional regional approach to promotions with an account-based structure, meant to better reflect the changes and evolution in traditional radio.

“Radio is consolidating, and it isn’t a surprise if you talk to anybody about this,” says Williams, who notes another change has been a shift away from the “boys’ club” that promo was when she got her start in 2003, adding that her department is now 65% female. “There’s more top-down programming than ever before, there’s more national syndication than ever before, and there aren’t as many radio stations across America that have as much autonomy as they used to. We used to have 150 radio stations that we could call on to impact change; that number has significantly reduced in size. The relationships with those format captains have become even more important, and relationships with people who are programming these national playlists are more important than they ever have been before.”

As much as data has changed the metrics and research required to do the job of a label promotions person, the changes that have hit radio in terms of downsizing and consolidation have changed the landscape, too. With that has come a reciprocal re-allocation of resources at times, based simply on the amount of people required to do a particular job.

“At Arista, we have six people covering the whole country for different formats,” says Petropoulos. “For bigger labels, they have double that in some cases — they have a lot more releases working to radio — but to have six people covering the whole country and have success at all formats, 10 years ago that would be unheard of. And because of the way radio is programmed centrally there are less people to speak to.”

Still, that centralization hasn’t completely eradicated local programming, while if anything, the growth of streaming and social media has accelerated what is possible for a song to take off.

“In the past, in order for a record to get added to a radio station or for a DJ to play it more, you would have to have a buzz on the record in the street — it was a slower growth period,” says Valentini. “Whereas now, records take off immediately on TikTok or any other social media, Shazam, streaming. It gives us a better gauge on what we should be chasing or verifies, ‘This is the correct single, this is what kids are streaming, so we should pursue this on the radio side.’”

Of all departments at a record label, promotions may have been hit hardest by the pandemic. For a business built on in-person interaction, direct connection, live performance and travel for both reps and for artists, things were much more difficult: “Without people listening in their cars radio ratings were down big, and without live events in markets it was tough for radio to engage locally with their audience,” Romeo says.

But it also made the process of breaking new artists less straightforward, with that essential tool of introduction and familiarity harder over a computer screen than in person. “The Kid LAROI hadn’t been able to do a proper promo tour as a new artist during the pandemic,” says Brenner. “We spent months making sure he connected with as many multi-format radio stations as possible via Zoom to build the relationship and familiarity with the audience so that radio felt invested in him as an artist.”

The pandemic, to some degree, also helped accelerate a trend that was already happening in the space: with radio stations building up their web and social presence to connect with their listeners in an increasing number of mediums, and label promotion reps finding ways to meet them there beyond the traditional meet and greet.

“Particularly in the pandemic when there were no bands on the road visiting stations, presenting content to them directly became a really big value,” says Haller. “It was a way for not only us to showcase the artists that we were working, but a way for the artists to connect directly to their listeners, whether that be through an Instagram Live, a Zoom or providing stations with a recorded performance that can be exclusive content to their website that maybe is paired with an interview, as well.”

The Future

That extra content seems likely to stick around, even after the long-expected — and much-desired — return to the road and in-person contact resumes, even if it’s not as widespread as before.

“Now we can provide this to those markets that maybe a band is not touring in and still have some fan event or promotion, whether that be a Zoom meet and greet or performance that couldn’t happen if they were in a small market that may not get these tours,” says Haller. And that helps break records like any new or existing format. “There are more places for consumers to get their music than in the past, but radio continues to be the leading format for new music, so I think it’s always going to be a big part of the expanding reach and exposure of a record in the biggest way.”

And several promotions execs also believe that radio consolidation, and the resulting smaller team that emerge from that, may also continue. But even as a younger generation of potential promotions execs gets drawn towards the Spotify’s or TikTok’s of the world, rather than the relatively ancient medium of radio, the importance of each may shift, but not disappear. And each medium has its own significance.

“Radio is a way to build up longevity,” says Ridenour. “It still helps when you want to take something from just being a hot song or the TikTok of the moment to cement that artist as someone who is career-based.”

Ultimately, if the goal is to help break a hit, any way will do.

“We talk as much about TikTok and other discoverable platforms as we do the DSPs at this point,” says Williams. “It’s all welcomed — if anything as an industry we need to realize that we’re all in this together and that the more that we can break new artists and expose new music, the better off we all are from every angle.”


What Makes A Song a Fit For Radio?

Samantha Brenner: Local metrics is one of the factors; research is another. But how it sounds on the radio is a big factor, too, and having programmers be excited about a song. It starts with the song, but having radio feel a genuine connection with the artist, as well as their audience feeling connected with the artist, that’s everything.

Tyson Haller: It has to fit the station. I think every station has their own personality and their own place in the market and you need to make sure that you’re presenting them with something that you think will work for them and their audience. It can also be something that we already see having a presence in the market, whether it be by sales and streaming numbers or Shazam searches. An artist’s tour schedule can also have an effect.

Nick Petropoulos: Does the song have the potential to reach the widest audience possible? And is it exciting? That doesn’t mean it has to be uptempo. Like that Giveon song last year, “Heartbreak Anniversary,” to me that was an exciting song, a voice that really stood out. Måneskin, Tai Verdes, there was excitement behind these artists and records. Something that has the potential to stand out when it’s heard on air.

Lionel Ridenour: I think what makes a good song for radio is one that connects strongly with their female audiences. Research that radio lives by is female-first at its core.

Lucas Romeo: There’s no real formula for what makes a record a hit, but programmers will tell you that tempo never hurts. Honestly, I think what makes something fit best is when the feedback from programmers matches that of the data coming from the audience. Those are always the biggest records.

Kevin Valentini: The traditional answer would probably be research. But now, with the rise of TikTok and streaming numbers, we tend to follow these metrics as well. We’ve had markets that weren’t playing a song on radio, but it was a top five Shazam record in that market. So when a programmer sees that and they’re like, wait, no one on radio in this market is playing that, but it’s top five in Shazam’s, you kind of have to start playing that record.

Kristen Williams: I’d like to say I have that answer but there’s certainly not a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to a hit and I think that’s important to realize. You can feel it in your bones when you hear a song and just know it’s gonna be a hit. We’ve talked about, is it tempo that drives a hit? Well, some of the biggest songs at our format are ballads. Is it a strong hook? Well, that certainly helps. But at the end of the day, I really don’t believe that there is one true equation that determines what a hit is.