Published Jan 01, 2006Campus and community radio is frequently misunderstood as just a stepping stone to commercial radio success. But because campus and community programming isn't uniform, there is a far greater appreciation for music that is decidely un-slick, pushes boundaries or doesn't fit distinct categories. Campus radio geeks are passionate about music, and tend to champion records they love to dedicated music fans, which is why major labels inundate grassroots radio with commercial releases. At any given time, the desks of campus radio Music Directors (MDs) are buried under a few hundred new CDs, which is why you have to be strategic (and you have to be good) to get noticed.
Do your homework first. Check program grids of various stations, and tune in to a few shows online. Read the profiles of programmers that appear monthly in !earshot. Look up a station's weekly charts, or ask to be on their mailing list. Observe whether they chart more independent or major label releases. If your tastes are in sync with what they chart, chances are you'll find a receptive ear.
Artwork is an important first step to getting noticed. Fans of Alien8 Records and Blocks Recording Club swoon over packaging as much as music, and their irregular sizes stand out on the shelf. Zinester aesthetics like hand-sewn cases and silk-screened covers are increasingly pervasive, and radio geeks are notoriously appreciative. "I liked the Elliott Brood disc from earlier this year," says Derek McEwen, MD at Calgary's CJSW. "Three-inch discs often get overlooked, but the packaging was smart-looking black cardboard casing, hand-screened, with a photo inside as though it was a photo album. The music was lo-fi and engaging, and the whole thing really stuck out." Good presentation is often the antithesis of overly slick. Be indie. We like that.
Have a Spine.
Slip cases and slim cases are the devil, ensuring your CD gets lost in a pile of new releases. What initially seems a smart way to save cash could mean your CD never makes it to the playbox. "If you must, take a jewel case of your own, remove the artwork and lay it on the desk in front of you," says McEwen. "Imagine if you bought CDs like this. That would suck. Imagine if that disc came with absolutely nothing but a white paper envelope. That would suck even more. I can tell you, it does. A lot."
"Anyone who tells you to send an 8 x 10 glossy photo and a report cover with ten pages of press clippings that date back three years is lying to you," says McEwen. "It is a waste of your time and money. The standard is a one-sheet a bio that includes contact information, selected quotes from press (if any), and a photo, all on one page. Anything more is ignored or discarded." If you're spending more than 98 cents mailing to Canadian stations, you're sending too much!
Go South, Young Band.
The truth is there are many more college radio stations in the States. A chart presence at American radio can help hugely if you plan to tour there. And they're pretty hot for Canadians these days. Again, research is key. Subscribe to charts, and go on what you know about particular music scenes. There is a perception that American college radio is a farm team for commercial stations (and many stations are completely beholden to promotion companies), but there are also groundbreaking freeform stations like WFMU in Jersey City, NJ and WCBN in Ann Arbor, MI. If your town has a campus station, ask the MD for an older copy of CMJ that lists American stations' mailing addresses and charts. If your CD has a lot in common with releases on, say, K Records, then the stations that chart K stuff should be your priority. Keep in mind that there is a much higher turnover of Music Directors in the States, and most of them aren't even paid.
Track it Down.
The station's website will probably indicate their tracking day, so look it up, and call on that day. "Phone the MDs once. Once," advises Luke Meat at Vancouver's CITR. "Keep an eye on each station's weekly charts. If you're not charting, you're probably not being played too much. If your CD has been passed over, don't call and ask what we didn't like about it. If we heard it and didn't like it, we most likely will not remember." Tastes will vary widely from one station to the next, and your energies are better spent booking shows in towns where you are charting.
Save it for Much On Demand.
"What I find insulting to my intelligence is when you have all your friends email me requesting the band you're in. It's so obvious," says Bryndis Ogmundson of Prince George's CFUR. You're talking to fellow music fans, so be sincere. Comically overwritten bios tend to get circulated amongst campus radio people. Humility can go places hyperbole can never reach.
Helen Spitzer is Music Co-ordinatrix at CFRU 93.3 FM in Guelph, ON.
Frequently Asked Questions
Should I call ahead first?
Unless you're sending a large package from overseas, it makes little sense. "Don't email with a description of your band and your CD. Send it or don't send it!" says Jessica Whyte. "I can't tell by an email. If you're trying to gauge interest, do some research."
What is this thing they call tracking?
Tracking is following up to see if your CD's being played. If you follow charts closely, you can do it without becoming a pest. "Do send an email a few weeks after you send your CD," advise Ian Cooke and Bryce Colenbrander of CHUO. "This is effective and not too pushy."
How often should I engage in this consensual tracking?
Most campus radio heads spend a full day of their work week on the phone with indie labels, publicists and promotion companies. If you leave a message, you probably won't hear back. "We have a two-week period where a CD is in review, then it rotates up to the play box," explains Steve Marlow of CFBX. "A lot of artists don't really understand that when I say I'll know more in two weeks,' I really mean two weeks. If you call next week, I won't have anything new to tell you."
Is it key to be the most legible bachelor in town?
It's mind-boggling how many packages arrive without the artist's name on the outside, or how many CDs have miniscule lettering on the spine. Rendering yourself invisible might be the only thing stopping your CD from being noticed. "It's amazing how much an orange spine with clear lettering stands out among a sea of black and white," says CJSW's Derek McEwen. Same with envelopes: mark them extra legibly, and put the band name on the return address.
If I'm persistent, I'll eventually get played, right?
"There was this band from Vancouver that emailed me every day for five weeks, and called every second day," says McEwen. "No exaggeration." Calling daily is harassment, and you should stop. One Music Director is particularly peeved by "bands that subscribe to charts, and then send a bitchy email every week that they're not on them. I have physically removed CDs because of this." Ouch!