Songwriting Part 23 - Essential Ingredients of Radio-Friendly Songs

by SaskMusic

July 31, 2009 in Songwriting & Copyright

Continued from "The Realities of Radio Play".

Note: This article focuses on "commercial songs", which will not be of interest to everyone!

Hearing a song you have written on the radio is definitely one of life's great highs! In fact, in the rich fantasy life of most aspiring songwriters, hearing your song on the radio ranks right up there with fantasies of winning the lottery or swinging from the chandelier with your favourite movie star.

As we have been learning, however, radio play is a "reality-based" medium. Program directors are constantly trying to capture as many listeners as possible to drive up their ratings and, consequently, their advertising income. So songwriters who have more than just fantasies about hearing their songs on the radio must learn to write from the listener's point of view and to understand the listener's mind. In this article we will examine some simple but essential ingredients that will help you – the songwriter – to create such "listener-friendly" songs that radio decision-makers will select your songs for airplay.

Radio Songs are Hook-Driven. The word ‘hook' is an important one in the vocabulary of either a songwriter or a radio executive because it summarizes the goal of each. Radio and the songs it plays are all about hooking and keeping the listeners' attention. To a songwriter, the hook is the most memorable musical and lyrical element of a song. It is the thesis statement – that one-phrase summary of the whole creation – that line you want the listener to be singing long after the song is over. It is like the punchline of a joke – the payoff – the "Eureka Moment" when everything else in the song suddenly has meaning in the light of that one "diamond-on-velvet" line.

The hook is usually also the title and must be strategically placed at the beginning or ending of the chorus…or at the first or last line of the A sections in an AAA or AABA song…where the listener subconsciously expects the payoff line to appear. A well-written hook/title will be so clear and obvious that listeners will know it from the first time they hear the song, and will be able to name the song BY TITLE when they call the radio station to request it.

If a radio listener cannot accurately identify the title of a song after one hearing, the songwriter has not mastered the effective use of the hook. It's time to go back to the drawing board and polish that all-essential skill before you can hope that your song will be attractive to radio – or to the listeners that are the heart and soul of both radio and hit songs.

Radio Songs are Simple. We flaky right-brained songwriters love to hang out with other flaky right-brained songwriters. We love to compare chord progressions, and innovative melody lines. We pride ourselves on our creativity and poetic abstractions. But remember – we flaky right-brained songwriters are definitely a minority group. The vast numbers of radio listeners are NOT songwriters. They are ordinary people caught in rush-hour traffic who are trying to find something on the radio dial that will "touch them" emotionally and allow them to sing along. Don't believe me? Just take a few moments to look at the drivers in the lanes on both sides of you on your next commute. If they have found a song they like on the radio, they almost seem to be oblivious to the "audience" of other drivers on the highway. Watch them as they sing along with the radio…playing air-guitars or beating a rhythm on the steering wheel in their mobile studio. These are not music theory majors. They are ordinary people who purchase records, request songs and create hits.

Next time you are channel surfing, analyze the most popular of the songs you hear. I can almost guarantee that the melodies and the lyrics will be SIMPLE! Why? Because ordinary people can "get" simple songs – they remember them because they can sing them!

Now, let me hasten to say that simple does not mean simplistic or predictable and it certainly cannot mean boring! Songs must be fresh and interesting to listen to. But remember – songs have four main elements: melody, lyrics, harmony and rhythm. If the melody and lyrics are simple, singable and memorable – added interest and freshness can be added in the harmonies and rhythm used to arrange the song.

Radio Songs Are Time-Conscious. Nowhere is the clock more a part of the action than in radio and television. Programs are timed to the second and within a certain segment, a specific number of time slots must be allotted for advertisers. This simply means that you as the songwriter must also be very time-conscious if you hope to hear your song on the radio. While there is no hard and fast rule for song length, most radio-friendly songs run from 3 to 3½ minutes. If the song goes over 4½ minutes, it is usually too long.

Think about the clock as you write and record your songs and be a ruthless editor of your work. You may have to shorten or even eliminate that killer instrumental bridge that goes on for a solid minute. You will have to watch the intro length of your song as well – both because of the total time consideration as well as the fact that long intros often lose the listener's interest. Even jazz numbers that contain lots of improv and instrumental solos usually will need a "radio edition" if they are to be considered for airplay. Remember…less is usually more when it comes to radio songs.

Radio Songs Are Genre-Specific. Most radio listeners realize that mainstream stations are very genre-specific – that is, they play ONLY songs that are consistent with the musical style they represent. While it's true that a good song is a good song no matter the style, it is the wise songwriter who thinks before he/she writes (and records) about which stations might play this particular style of song. If your song is recorded with a jazz/pop arrangement, for example, it probably will not be considered for a country station. Sometimes it is possible to straddle the fence and arrange the music so that it is acceptable to two different formats, but this requires very savvy production skills by someone in-the-know about radio and about song production. It is always wise to consider these factors before you begin approaching radio stations with your next creation.

Radio Songs are Discreet. While we songwriters have the right to say almost anything we want in our creative works, it is usually not that smart to send your most uncensored song to radio. If your song contains offensive lyrics or profanity…if the subject matter is too controversial or politically charged…if it is too far to the Right or to the Left, you will probably find it difficult to get airplay. It is wise to gain radio's attention – not by being controversial, but by being absolutely excellent at what you do.

Songwriters and Radio live in a symbiotic relationship – in other words, we need each other! Songwriters need Radio to bring their songs to the world and Radio needs great songs to attract the all-important listeners. As in any relationship that is mutually beneficial, each partner must consider the other's needs and interests. If we as songwriters are conscious of what is important to Radio, Radio will usually be open and interested in what we are writing.

As Pam Shane of Shane Media Radio Consultants has written:
"...the individual song has become the key to (radio) can't have a great year without lots of great songs."


If you've seen the movie Coal Miner's Daughter, you've probably been inspired by the story of the undiscovered young country singer, Loretta Lynn, and her #1 fan and husband, Mooney. After Loretta's first single, I'm a Honky Tonk Girl, was recorded in 1960, the couple literally drove from radio station to radio station all across the country - meeting DJs and convincing them to play the song. Their tenacity paid off and the song started climbing the charts, eventually reaching #14 and taking Loretta Lynn from obscurity to instant fame.

But that was then…and this is now! Many things have changed in music since the days of Loretta and Mooney, but one unchanging fact is that radio play is an essential ingredient for any singer or songwriter who hopes to become a household name.

Up to this point in this series, we have been concentrating on the importance of the simple, hooky radio-friendly song. Until you have written a song like that…until you can evaluate your song objectively and still know beyond the shadow of a doubt that it is a hit, you really can't go any further. But when you've written that song, and you know that it's a winner - then what? Well, before you quit your day job and start trucking around the country like Mooney and Loretta, you need to be aware of the way radio works today.

(United States) The 1996 Telecommunications Act literally revolutionized the laws of competition and regulation throughout the communications industry. In radio, the law allowed for large corporations to purchase up to eight radio stations per market. Today, almost 66% of the 12,000 radio stations in the country are owned by radio groups. Programming is done by consultants and group programmers who distribute syndicated playlists to the individual stations, thereby controlling which songs are played nationwide.

For you as a songwriter this means that even if a local DJ loves your song and wants to play it, the chances are that he/she may not make that decision. Everything that is played on the station must pass through the investor-controlled programmers who may or may not have any knowledge of music at all! This doesn't mean that the DJ has NO decision-making power; it simply means that he/she REALLY has to love your song in order to usher it through all the layers of three-piece suits and bean counters that stand between your song and the all-powerful playlist!

Another reality is that in recent years most radio strategists have targeted the youth market as the most lucrative. Hence, younger and younger artists are emerging with songs written to appeal to the high school and college set. If your songs appeal to an older age group - even the 25-35 set - the chances diminish considerably that they will be able to penetrate the controlled playlists of radio networks.

Are you depressed yet? If so, please don't be - just keep reading!! What all this information on corporate radio simply means for the independent artist/songwriter is that we have to become as creative in promoting our songs as we are in writing them.

In my opinion, the path to success is marked with two fail-proof directional markers. The first road sign reads: AIM FOR EXCELLENCE. Many aspiring songwriters and artists indulge themselves by entertaining what I call the Destiny Fantasy. In other words, they equate success in music with some mystical stroke of luck. The Destiny Fantasy has two sides. On the upside of the fantasy is the belief that if I just happen to be in the right place at the right time, Destiny will somehow intervene. My talent will be discovered and I will become an instant star. Stories of "overnight successes" fuel this fantasy and cause many aspiring musicians to live in a state of unrealistic expectations. If their dreams do not come true – if they are not suddenly and magically successful, the downside of the Destiny Fantasy kicks in, which says that some people are just unlucky and I happen to be one of them – it is simply not my Destiny to "make it" in music.

Living in the Destiny Fantasy is about as effective as dreaming of winning the lottery. You can squander a lot of emotional and psychological energy dreaming, when you could be investing that energy in becoming The Best in your craft. Most Destiny Dreamers dabble at their music rather than disciplining themselves to really work at it. Don't make that mistake! If you are serious about getting your songs played on the radio, I would suggest that you spend at least fourteen hours a week polishing and honing your craft. Read books on songwriting…then write some songs…go to workshops...then write more songs…join your local songwriters' association…then write still more songs.

Just like an Olympic athlete in training, keep stretching and pushing yourself. Compare your songs not just to the many mediocre songs that you hear on the radio, but to the Very Best – the Cole Porters, Billy Joels and Elton Johns of the songwriting world. Remember, mediocre songs were probably written by people who have an "inside advantage" in the music industry – relatives and friends of record executives or songwriters who may have a staff positions that ensure the placement of their songs on commercial recordings. As an independent and an outsider, your songs have to be far more remarkable and faultlessly crafted in order to compete and be recognized. As A&R Specialist, Tom Vickers says: "Songs that make it have to be bulletproof!"

Like cream that always rises to the top, excellence will eventually become evident to everyone who encounters it. Excellence transcends fads and trends in music and, sooner or later, excellence inevitably attracts listeners. And - remember - those listeners are the ones the stations are trying to attract. If people begin to demand your music, the stations will accommodate them!

The second guidepost says BLOOM WHERE YOU ARE PLANTED. Start where you are with what you have. "Growing into business is always more successful than going into business." Learn your local music scene and learn it well! You have far more access to the music community in your own city or town – and far more opportunities for exposure and success - than you would have LA, New York or Nashville.

Become familiar with smaller local stations. (It is often much easier to get airplay on those.) Your local DJs are still your first point of contact with the world of radio. Get to know them - check out the radio station's website and learn as much as you can about each personality. Use all that creativity you use in your songwriting to "make opportunities" for yourself and your music.

Kevin James, a country artist on my record label, is a master at promoting himself. (He used to sell vacuum cleaners – is there a connection there?) At any rate, he never lets a holiday slip by without using the occasion to send greetings to the local radio personalities. On Valentine's Day the lady DJs receive chocolate covered strawberries. At Christmas, he sends cute promotional gifts along with his photo, a Christmas card – and always a friendly personal note. And he never just mails his CDs to radio! The CD is always packaged in a gift basket stuffed with creative "goodies" and yummy things to eat. Believe me, DJs (just like anyone else) love to receive surprises and they will remember the person who sends them! Kevin's efforts have paid him handsomely and he is receiving opportunities for airplay that are considered "unheard of" for most local artists.

As you learn to know your local radio personalities, you will also learn about the centralized programming systems that serve the various stations. Several years ago during the Gulf War, a co-writer and I wrote a song called Long Distance Christmas. We dedicated it to the thousands of families who were separated by the Mid-East Conflict during that Holiday Season. Through contact with one radio disc jockey, we discovered that Christmas is a time when radio syndicators are desperately seeking new material to send to all the local stations in their networks. We took our song to a local satellite broadcasting syndicator who – in turn – included it on their Christmas compilation CD that went out to over 1400 stations nationwide. In the space of just a few weeks our song was being played all over the country and was even being broadcast into the Middle East.

Whatever you do, gently but consistently promote yourself! Be professional and considerate - yet tenacious - in your approach. Use email. Send press releases and updates on your activities. Send complimentary tickets to your gigs. Volunteer to help with radio station community activities and charities. Put on your creative hat and find unique ways to woo and win local radio. Once your foot is in the door, you are half way home!

Where there is a will -->
For more information on Mary Dawson or CQK Music email or contact 972-317-2760.
© 2002 CQK Music. All rights reserved, used by permission.

By Mary Dawson (CQK Music). Originally published August 2003.

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