The Radio Life of a Song

The following is a sort of transcript from an informative speech I did in college on how songs make it on the radio. Some radio friends may find that not all the info is here, but it was enough for my listeners in speech class.

How many of you have ever called a radio station to request a song … only to never hear it?

How many of you think that radio DJ’s get to play whatever they want?

How many of you ever wished that radio stations would play other songs from your favorite CD?

How many of you think radio stations play the same songs over and over and over….every hour, every day!

Prior to college, I worked as a radio personality and programmer for over 20 years.  The questions I pose to you, are similar to those asked of me by people who learn of my background. For my informative speech, I will answer those questions by explaining what a song must go through to get on the radio, and what happens to it when it gets on the air.

First things first – this speech wouldn’t be anything if the artist didn’t record a song!

Once a song is recorded by your favorite artist, and the album is complete, record executives decide which songs on the CD are “radio friendly.”  In other words, these are the people who decide what songs will be released to be played on the radio.  Some of your favorite album cuts, won’t ever make it to the radio.

The first song released from an artist’s new CD is always the one that record companies hope will make music lovers like you and me, run to the store, or surf to iTunes.  The hope is that based on that one song – you’ll pick up the whole CD. Hit records mean record sales and money for the record company … and the artist.

But as you will see, it is extremely difficult for a song to get played on the radio.

On average, a radio station will receive 10-20 songs looking for play on the radio.   At the same time, a radio station only has room to add 1 or 2 songs to their playlist each week. 

You do the math! The song had better be very good to make it to the playlist!

Two people are essentially responsible for deciding which songs are added to the station play list:

The Program Director and the Music Director

The PD

* The program director is the leader of the station.

*They put together the talent and program schedules. 

*The program director oversees music, promotions, and any production that goes on-air.

The MD

*The music director interacts with record company reps.

*They listen to new music.

* They work closely with the program director to decide which songs get airplay.

Once a song is chosen as one that should be on the playlist, there is a series of steps that it will go through which I’d like to call, the song’s “radio life”.

In order to understand the playlist, we first must understand what it is.

  • The playlist consists of every song, to be played on a certain day at a certain time.
  • Music is scheduled ahead of time
  • Each song is assigned a certain category, which in turn determines how often it is played.

This is an actual hour’s worth of music from a local station.  It shows you the songs that  played in the 5pm hour this past Tuesday (in 2010).

Notice that each song has a category.

A’s are current songs in Heavy Rotation

B’s are current songs in Medium Rotation

D’s and E’s are former current hits, that are now referred to as reccurents.

G’s, H’s and I’s are oldies, which are called “gold” songs.

L’s are Lunars, which I will explain in a minute.

Notice that Lady Antebellum’s “Need You Now” is in a “Heavy Rotation”.  It didn’t start there.  There were a series of steps that it went through to get there.

It first enters a Current “Light” Rotation:

• This is the song’s first spot on the play list

• It usually only plays after 7pm and overnight

• It usually plays one time approx. every 12 hours

• Programmers wait for listener feedback

•Positive feedback moves the song up in rotation

Current “Medium” Rotation

• This is a song that is getting good feedback from listeners, is researching well, and is climbing the charts

• This song plays once approximately every 6 hours

Current “Heavy” Rotation

• If a song makes it to Heavy rotation, it’s usually considered a “HIT”

• This song will play approximately every 2 ½ to 4 hours, depending on the format of the station.


With that in mind – let me put something in perspective for you….

Here is another playlist from another station, this time a country station:

Notice the two songs highlighted in purple.  Kenny Chesney and Taylor Swift.  Both of these are in a “Heavy rotation” and rotate every 3 to 4 hours.

Here’s what I want you to think about. Let’s say Megan loves Kenny Chesney, but hates Taylor Swift.

She can’t get enough of Kenny – as a matter of fact, they are not playing it enough!  Taylor Swift, however, is played just way too much for her.

The truth of the matter is that they both play at the same rotation – but Megan’s perspective , and personal taste influence how she thinks about the songs….

Does that make sense?

What Next?

So after a song becomes a hit and is played to death in the “Heavy” category, what happens to it?

Many radio stations have what is called a “Recurrent” category, which may or may not be divided up into sub categories (Power Recurrent, Medium Recurrent, etc…). Now that the song is a hit and familiar to the audience, it moves into this category. People are still requesting it and it is familiar to the audience.

A song can stay in that recurrent category for some time before it eventually moves into one of three places….

The Gold Category

The “Oldie” or “Gold” category.  This insures that it will play at least once a day. This category also has divisions to it. A Power Gold will play more than a Secondary Gold. (See above – G’s play more than H’s, and H’s play more than I’s)

If it doesn’t go there, it may end up in a Lunar Category.

Yes, technically the song was a hit, but maybe it has a novelty feel to it, so stations may not want to play it too often. I asked a PD why they called it a Lunar, and he said, “It plays once in a blue moon.”

So, if it doesn’t go to either one of those categories…..sadly, the song goes away …….


So, now you know…

• The reason why your request doesn’t get played – because all music is scheduled.

•Because the music is scheduled – DJ’s are never playing whatever they want to

• The reason some songs on your favorite CD will never get played on the radio – radio stations are told what songs to play by record labels

• When you think you are hearing a song over and over again – it is merely based on your perception

I hope this answers your questions …. got any more? Ask away….

17 thoughts on “The Radio Life of a Song

  1. I miss the days of on-air personalities and AOR. I also miss hearing local bands. Here in NC, I remember the days in the 1990s when talent from Raleigh, Durham & Chapel Hill got lots of rotation on G105.

    When I was a kid, my dad was friends with one of the local cops that moonlighted as a DJ, a guy named Kirk Puckett. Our local station at the time was WBAG. I got to hang out with Kirk while he was on the air. I remember him playing Donny Osmond’s Puppy Love and me singing with the record. My dad told me to hush but, Kirk told him that no one could hear me. And, yes…WBAG is where John “John-Boy” Isley got started:
    His on-air personality back then was John Van Pelt. He is from my home county.

    Goodness. Your description of the rotation functions is mind-boggling. It’s a damn shame that our musical tastes are shaped by suits with fat wallets. Hm…how apropos for today.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. As music director, we’d always get asked in December by trade magazines “What song from the past year SHOULD have been a hit, but wasn’t?”

      Many of those songs never got a good amount of airplay because managers played it “safe” and keep pounding songs from big names (that weren’t necessary good songs) on air. Believe me, there have been many singers who could have been huge successes if people went with their gut and took a chance on them instead of just playing the “hits”

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That breaks my heart. There is SO much talent out there and with assistance, they languish.

        I got to hear a lot of neat stuff from a college radio station with the the University of Texas/Austin when I was living in Round Rock, TX.

        Liked by 2 people

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