The Realities of Radioplay: Part III
by Mary DawsonEssential Ingredients of Radio-Friendly Songs
Hearing a song that 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 favorite movie star -- clad only in loin cloths!
As we have been learning, however, radioplay 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 (Part I) and to understand the listener's mind (Part II). 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 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 hearing and will be able to request 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, it is clear that 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. (For a more extensive examination of the concept of the hook/title, please see my article in the January 2000 IWJ -- Build-A-Song II, From the Idea to the Hook)
- 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 out a rhythm on the
steering wheel in their mobile "studio" as they sit in
bumper-to-bumper gridlock. These are not music theory majors.
They are ordinary people who purchase records, request songs and
Next time you are channel surfing, analyze the most popular of the songs you hear. I can almost "gar-awn-tee" 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 the 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 listener interest. Even jazz numbers that contain lots of improv sections 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 today are very genre-specific --
that is, they play ONLY songs that are consistent with the musical
style they represent. While it is 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
- Radio Songs are Discreet - While we as American songwriters are protected by the First Amendment and 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) success...you can't have a great year without lots of great songs.1
Songwriters.......Start your engines!
1Pam Shane, "Looking Back," January 11, 2001, http://www.shanemedia.com/news.asp
**From her earliest childhood years writing simple songs and poems with her father, through her twelve years as an overseas missionary, to her present, multi-faceted career as an author, lyricist/songwriter and conference speaker, Mary has always been adept at using words to communicate her heart to others. She is the President of CQK Records & Music of Dallas, Texas, a company which creates and produces songs in a panorama of musical styles for a variety of audiences, She is also the host of "I Write the Songs," a nationally syndicated radio talk show, especially created to inspire and instruct the more than 25 million aspiring songwriters in the U.S. "I Write the Songs" is broadcast over the Internet. Mary is a frequent public speaker and seminar lecturer on songwriting. She is a regular columnist for Independent Songwriter Web Magazine. Mary's commitment to discovering and mentoring talented new songwriters has given her extensive experience in song analysis through adjudicating songwriting competitions and conducting songwriting workshops across the country and around the world. Because of her role as president of an independent music company, she is also well qualified to instruct aspiring songwriters on the various business aspects of the music industry. She is married and a mother of four. She resides in the Dallas area.