Does airplay still matter?


Jordan Osterman


There’s a scene in the 1996 film, That Thing You Do, where the protagonists, an up-and-coming band called The Oneders, hear their song on the radio for the first time in 1964. The lead singer’s girlfriend freezes mid-stamp lick as she hears “That Thing You Do” begin on a local station, immediately starting a screaming run through Erie, Pennsylvania’s downtown. Along the way she spots the band’s bassist, crashing into him with a, “We’re on the radio!” They continue their screaming-run together to the appliance store where the band’s drummer is working, and as the three freak out together and turn on all the store’s radios on to blast their song, bewildered customers and workers just stop and stare. Soon the lead singer and guitarist come to a screeching stop in a car on the street outside, bolting into the store to celebrate, too. At one point the guitarist scoops up a cardboard cutout in the store’s window and kisses it. The scene ends with the drummer pumping his arms and yelling, “I am Spartacus!”

It’s a fictional band’s first time on the radio, but the moment it depicts is incredibly real for many Minnesota musicians. For those who experience it, there’s something deeply validating about hearing your music on the radio the first, or really any, time.

“It’s very satisfying,” said Daniel Groll, lead singer of the Northfield-based band The Counterfactuals. “Any art, you’re in your head a lot or talking to each other a lot. You think what you’re doing is good and (you) like it, but when it gets played on the radio it’s like, ‘OK, It’s not just us, our spouses and friends that say it’s good. Someone has affirmed us.’”

Cobey Rouse of the Lakeville-based band batteryboy was told ahead of time a song of theirs would be played on The Local Show on Minnesota Public Radio’s The Current’s, but the excitement of that first experience and others still sticks with him.

“There was one time, recently, I was driving my daughter to my friend’s house and our song came on the radio, which was the one time I’ve been surprised by it. That was fucking cool,” Rouse said. “Your teenage daughter is in the car and your song comes on the radio, you’re like instantly cool dad.”

“No one can deny the magic of that moment (of hearing your music on the radio),” said Jessica Paxton, a DJ at KYMN radio in Northfield.

Radio, it turns out, is alive and well.

With so many digital platforms now available for music sharing, from public streaming services like Spotify or Pandora, or artist-centric online services like Bandcamp, it’s worth considering for every up-and-coming artist whether radio remains the pinnacle of getting your music out to audiences.

“The first thing to say is that radio just has a very basic appeal to someone making music. It’s very exciting to hear something you’ve done on the radio,” Groll said. “That’s before you have any thought about how you get music out to people … it’s just a real thrill to be on the radio.”

That thrill of hearing your music over the airwaves is built up over decades of radio being the premier spot for artists to catch their break, and that can very much still be the case. A large part of radio’s continued significance in validating music as “good” is the fact human beings still find the music, listen to it and decide whether it’s the kind of thing they want on their airwaves.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Our review process is the same, still music coming in and people trying to make the best decisions possible about quality music,” said Teri Tenseth Market, program director for KQAL in Winona, an FM station run through Winona State University.

Those decision-makers represent an important role, both to the artists trying to get their attention and to the listeners who understand the music they’re hearing was put on air intentionally.

“What’s rewarding is the fact that someone else saw value in your art to share with other people. The internet, you choose to put it there,” Rouse said. “Whenever someone else chooses to place it out there, that’s more meaningful to you as an artist.”

“There’s definitely still a gatekeeping function to radio. It’s exciting to make it through the gate,” Groll said. “The streaming services don’t have that; literally anyone can upload onto Spotify.”

Of course, that radio gateway looks different and has different protocol depending on what kind of station it is – independent or commercial – and what size it is. Most FM stations are run by large corporations (think Clear Channel) and choose what music they play based on a complicated system of charts, promoter relationships and playlists created for stations across the country. For the vast majority of artists in Minnesota, college radio and independent stations like KYMN, KQAL and The Current in St. Paul are the gateways they’re looking to clear. That means having to get your music in front of their programmers, which can come in any number of forms: putting your music on Bandcamp, social media and on stage and hoping to be found; subscribing to distribution services that send your music to college radio and independent stations around the state and country; paying promoters to in general do what their name implies; or personally making relationships or sending music to DJs.

For Minneapolis artists Vicky Emerson and Sarah Morris, the path to on-air success was by undertaking a huge, cross-country radio campaign completely on their own. Most station employees Emerson spoke with couldn’t believe she was doing all her promotional work herself, Emerson said, but as she gained stations’ attention and climbed the Americana Airplay chart, the momentum took over and she started being played all over.

“Sometimes for an artist, the most important thing is to get an ally from a radio station. That can change everything for them,” Emerson said. “That seems so outdated and old school, but it’s exactly right. It doesn’t take much to have someone stand out above the fray when you have an ally at a prominent radio station. That makes a huge difference.”

For the music-loving DJs who get to become those allies, the excitement of playing music by artists they enjoy is mutual.

“I love getting to do that. I can’t tell you how many times, especially someone live in studio … that I find myself with this huge grin on my face. I’m so excited about the fact I’m sitting here in the studio hearing this live inches from me, and I’m broadcasting out to the masses. … I’m presenting them live, right there, and local audiences are getting to hear that. The first time I hear it is the first time they’re hearing it,” Paxton said. “I’m not a musician myself, but I get that same thrill when I can get a musician whose music I really love come and perform. It’s just magic. It’s absolutely incredible. There’s no better experience than that.”


Jordan Osterman is a freelance writer who once claimed the title of SouthernMinn Scene Beer Correspondent. We're thrilled to have him back in the fold. Contact him at