Why non-commercial radio matters to a musician’s career

Illustration: Jordan Moss

With the advent and increasing popularity of streaming, there’s no denying that the world of radio has changed.

However, non-commercial radio continues to offer unique opportunities to reach new fans and connect with communities across North America and beyond.

Non-commercial radio is made by music lovers for music lovers (and culture and news lovers alike). Non-commercial radio stations don’t accept on-air advertisements, as defined in the United States by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and can be a variety of formats including public (like NPR stations), community, college, online, or freeform.

Not accepting on-air advertisements provides these stations with the freedom to design their programming however they want. As long as DJs operate within certain station guidelines, values, or parameters, they have full reign over what they air.

This creates a landscape for unfiltered curation, which leads to strong fandom among listeners. The people who tune in see their favorite DJs as taste-makers they trust. This is a broad, sweeping generalization but it feels fair to say that folks who tune in to non-commercial radio are listening more actively than someone who listens to mainstream radio while in their car, for example.

What does this mean for your career as a musician? Let’s explore.

Radio is still a top music discovery platform today

Nielsen’s 2017 Music 260 Report revealed that radio was still the number-one way people were discovering new music. The group’s Radio’s All Dimension Audience Research reports how the percentage of Americans aged 12 and older listening to broadcast radio on a weekly basis stayed relatively steady from 1970 to 2017.

In a Quartz article, Larry Miller, director of the music business program at New York University’s Steinhardt School said, “For many people, the availability of so much music has led to what some academics and analysts call the tyranny of choice.” He added that in his experience, “You’re confronted with all the music in the world, but what the hell are you supposed to listen to? Somebody tell me! What’s good?”

Although streaming platforms like Spotify have begun modeling a radio-like structure with their rotating, curated playlists such as Discover Weekly, Release Radar, and Fresh Finds, there are music fans who’ll always prefer human-curated selections and commentary over those selected by an algorithm. They want to hear thoughts on the liner notes or what about that music is special to the DJ. There will be a place for the passionate curator in music discovery for the foreseeable future.

Jeff Conklin, host of The Avant Ghetto, airing on New York’s freeform station WFMU at 10 pm ET on Sundays (with archives available for streaming), shared a few anecdotes from his years as a DJ. For one, Maine-based artist Lisa/Liza went on her first West Coast tour last year and shared with Conklin that at nearly every show, a new fan approached her saying they first heard her music on The Avant Ghetto. This is especially striking because the show airs from Jersey City.

Another story he shared comes from Texas. He recently aired the music of Michael C. Sharp, who doesn’t have much of an online presence. A listener from Austin happened to catch Sharp’s live concert a couple of days after hearing it on Conklin’s show and messaged him to thank him and share that Sharp has a new fan.

Conklin added, “The music itself is number one, of course, but there’s so much music flying around everywhere. I want background information. I want liner notes. It’s wild that Spotify doesn’t share who played on a record. It’s seeing who they are and what else they’ve created or played on—that’s how you discover great music. It’s hearing a DJ talk about why they love the oboe playing on a record.”

Additionally, non-commercial radio is a free way for people in more rural and less populated places to learn about and connect with your music. It’s a vehicle for building a fanbase in a place you may not have reached otherwise. This can be especially useful in mapping out stops on a cross-country tour or identifying record stores to build relationships with, for example.

A magnet for industry leaders and hardcore music lovers

You never truly know who’s tuning into or streaming a non-commercial radio station. However, based on experience and chatting with people, I can say with relative confidence that a lot of them are people who buy music and / or who work in music. I’ve spoken with a number of music supervisors, sync agents, and label runners who often turn to their favorite DJs to discover their new favorite band or music to use in a future project. But of course, it’s one of many sources of discovery for them.

We took this Jim Jarmusch quote from WFMU’s website, but we feel it sums up a popular sentiment toward non-commercial radio: “No commercials, no playlists, and no evil corporate overlords. It’s ‘free-form’ in the best sense, and 100% listener-supported. WFMU celebrates the imagination and reclaims the gifts of expression often left lying around in the attics, basements, and ditches of our force-fed culture.”

Conklin and I agreed (based on anecdotal and personal experience) that the person tuning into non-commercial radio is more likely to buy music than the one picking a random playlist and hitting play. He reflected, “Hearing a voice on air share how much they love a particular artist is going to get someone out of their seat and to a show or record store more than an algorithm.” He added, “WFMU’s listenership opens up their wallets to support the station twice a year. They happily pay for the service to be exposed to music.”

When deciding where to share your music, consider who the audience is and why they’re tuning into that particular channel. If it’s super music fans you’re after, consider non-commercial radio.

A catalyst for community connections

Thanks to the internet, you can listen to almost any non-commercial radio station from across the globe. However, there’s something to be said about the impact stations have on their local communities. They provide an opportunity to connect not only with listeners in a more intimate and curated way, but also with other artists and music industry or music-loving folks.

Drew Riekman from the band Blessed said they’ve been involved with their local college station in various capacities for nearly a decade. Blessed comes from a smaller community centered around three cities (Abbotsford, Mission, and Chilliwack) built on either side of the Fraser River just an hour outside of Vancouver, British Columbia. He shared, “We’re lucky to have people who were determined and driven enough to create a college radio station on the local university campus, CIVL Radio. For any North American band, campus radio can be one of the lowest barrier portals to your local music / arts community. Campus radio stations and other community media platforms are a pathway to discovering and connecting with people and like-minded artists who exist and create in your neighborhood.”

CIVIL has played an immense and important role in Blessed’s trajectory, not only for the band but also as individuals in providing places for community members to gather around music. Riekman said, “CIVL has been instrumental in finding and creating spaces to host a myriad of events that engage an oft-forgotten piece of culture in the Fraser Valley. Municipal politicians and the major demographics of the area traditionally haven’t been interested in engaging with progressive artists in the community—a void that could’ve been deeper and wider without the support of college radio. At first, CIVL was booking, promoting, and organizing shows at one-off venues. Now, they help us connect with people using their homes as a makeshift venue so touring bands can stop in Abbotsford, a market that for a long time was ignored due to our lack of venues and spaces.”

CIVL has also helped Blessed in a business capacity. Riekman added, “They’ve helped our project prosper through advice and consultation on grant writing, writing letters of support for juried grant applications and festival opportunities, promoting local shows via on-air ads, social media, poster distribution, and production—and again, fostering unique opportunities to play live in the Fraser Valley.”

There’s also a camaraderie that’s often built around community and college radio stations. Conklin shared that one of his listeners was once in line for a concert, “a King Crimson show or something like that,” wearing a shirt for The Avant Ghetto and another listener approached them and they got to talking. It’s those small experiences that can help someone feel less isolated in where they live.

Conklin remembers seeing the band Oneida play 18 years ago at a venue called Mighty Robot, an abandoned auto shop under the Williamsburg Bridge. He learned about it because he was a regular listener of WNYU when he was living in Long Island, where he’s from. He had never even heard of Williamsburg, Brooklyn at that point and is still friends with people he met at that show today.

A shaper of cultural identity

It’s expensive for artists to live in major metropolitan areas like New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, London, etc. Some find it easier to live in smaller cities and towns in order to create their art and sustain their lives. But, they still crave a connection to culture. They want to see people engaging with art—not only theirs, but also art created throughout the community. They want other creatives to be attracted to where they are rather than feeling like they need to leave to be successful.

Non-commercial radio plays an active role in building a community’s cultural identity. Riekman said, “The community we’re from is far from a mecca of arts, culture, understanding, or limitless opportunities to grow and expand. But what CIVL provides is space and community for people to feel welcomed for who they are and what they enjoy. It’s allowed us to grow into a network of artists without having to escape to a bigger Canadian metropolis, which is often the narrative for young creatives growing up in cities of 150,000 or less.”

Conklin added, “Culture is so homogenized now. Everyone has access to everything. Music doesn’t sound like it’s from somewhere anymore, like Seattle in the ’90s or LA in the ’70s. That bums me out, but I don’t think the local flavor is completely gone yet. It’s still there and that’s what I want to hear—something being played in Brunswick, Maine that’s not being played in all 50 states. I think that’s what’s important and interesting. Listeners want something you can’t find everywhere.”

Including non-commercial radio in your promo cycle

It feels especially important for new and emerging artists to be reaching out to non-commercial stations when promoting their new music or scheduling a tour.

Conklin says that even if you’re past DIY and looking to hire a PR person to consider where their focus is, if they’re going to reach out to non-commercial radio stations. He added, “Everyone wants to be on KCRW or KEXP because they’re well known and respected. Yes, I want to get people on those too. But don’t shrug on a DJ who’s interested in your music in Allentown, PA when you’re on a tour stop. It’s the domino effect; you never know who’s listening and what will happen.”

Getting 100 CDs pressed for radio promo is likely worth the investment in the long run. It doesn’t have to be a vinyl; those are expensive. But, a CD with a link to a Bandcamp page printed on a piece of paper, maybe with a download code, will get the attention of a passionate station director or DJ. When planning your press cycle, try to think holistically about who might buy your music and go to your shows.

Do you have a non-commercial radio story to share with us? Leave it in the comments below!

September 1, 2021

Shannon Byrne Shannon Lee Byrne is a freelance writer focused on the music industry, creativity, entrepreneurship, culture, and mental health. She's also a copywriter, marketing strategist, and podcaster.