How I generate a weekly radio program

By Ian Beabout, Online Editor

Every Sunday night, I go on-air at 6 p.m. and talk and play music for people on a station called House of Prog. Over the years, many people have asked me how I do it. How do I manage to assemble a three hour playlist, weekly, and keep it ‘fresh’? Well, I’m not going to give away all of my secrets, but I hope to shed some light on what is a simple question with quite a number of answers.

Before I go more in depth, first I’d like to provide a little backstory. I’ve been involved with radio since my sophomore year of high school, roughly 2008. My freeform radio experience began when, tired of being required to play the ‘hits,’ I decided to start my own program on the school’s station, designed around my own music collection.

Around summer of 2013, I began volunteering for a couple of internet radio stations which afforded me a lot more flexibility. With no FCC rules in place, I could play whatever I chose without having to bother with things like censoring my songs or playing commercials every 20 minutes (this may not seem like such a big deal, but when you venture beyond traditional pop music, into jazz, classical and even rock – many pieces can push past the 20 minute mark!).

So, with the background info out of the way, I should mention that radio, though fun – is not the easiest venture. It requires a lot of commitment and thought, even beyond the three hour ‘on-air’ window. Firstly, I’m almost always listening to music. In the car, at home, even at school – I never go anywhere without my iPod.

I’m also constantly actively seeking and listening to ‘new’ music, whether it be something I’ve bought or someone has linked me online, or something that I’ve received in the mail. The important thing is to be open-minded, but also to remember that your time is valuable. One of my friends ‘in the business’ talks about the stoplight test. If the CD isn’t grabbing your attention by the first stoplight, it’s probably not going to be appropriate for the radio program.

I’m also constantly re-listening to my existing collection. With over 120 shows under my belt and well over 2000 discs in my collection, there are things that I haven’t heard or played in awhile – or simply have neglected to play on the show for one reason or another.

It’s of utmost importance to keep track of new releases, as these will be requested and it makes me feel like the show is relevant. I like to give my audience a chance to hear new things before they buy it – and hopefully help out some of the bands that I like and care about while I’m at it.

I pay close attention to the news, too, as any media person will undoubtedly tell you.  Artists have birthdays, important anniversaries and unfortunately – sometimes someone will pass away and these can provide inspiration on what you want to feature. For instance, when we lost David Bowie earlier this year, I got plenty of requests for his songs and I had to go back and discover a lot of his music just to keep up.

On the subject of requests, requests are an invaluable method of playlisting. I’ve been known to reach out to my audience on a number of occasions for help and it give the listeners a chance to hear their voice. All-request shows effectively give you a break and they also clue you in to what your listeners want to hear. Both are highly important! Just don’t do these too often as it can begin to feel like you aren’t having any input in your own show, or that you aren’t expressing your true feelings through the music.

This is another important point – how do I feel? Often I’ll playlist based on events that have affected me during the week (either positively or negatively) and current events beyond music can help and will make the show feel contemporary.

It’s also helpful to bring in guests. Guests will breathe life into the program by playing music I would never play myself and maybe even turn me onto some new music in the process. With modern technology it is incredibly easy to have guests on via Skype, who add an entirely new dimension to the proceedings.

The final part of this is really only a personal preference thing, but it’s a question I’m asked a lot. Do I actually playlist (as in go through excruciating steps to plan) or ‘wing it’? The answer is, a little bit of both. With these things in mind, I tend to add tracks into an iTunes playlist folder over the course of the week and build a selection of songs that are hopefully varied.

 I want as many different kinds of songs and genres represented, with varying song lengths and as many different eras as I can too. Nobody wants a show of purely ‘new’ music, whereas shows based entirely in the 1970s or 80s can feel a bit too ‘classic rock’ to me. I prefer to couch discovery in familiarity and will play the classics right next to some young band from Boston you’ve never heard of (but wish you had).

From here, I hope to generate about six to nine hours of music so there’s a lot to choose from and I don’t have to think fast on-air and risk panicking. When the show goes live, I go with my gut – I will probably have an opening tune preselected (you know what they say about first impressions), but from here it’s all improvisation.

I pick songs as the spirit moves me and will even add new things on the fly or take inspiration from the chat room or on-air discussions. The key is to be as spontaneous as possible; I have more fun when I don’t know what’s coming and I think the listeners respond to that as well, but to also have that safety net of predetermined tracks or themes.

I hope this clears up some questions on how I do what I do and perhaps even provides some background information on why I do what I do. For those of you with an interest in trying out radio on your own, I encourage you to do so – with the knowledge that it takes a lot of work and thought to make a program that, hopefully, other people will enjoy as much as you do.

Photo by Natasha Muhametzyanova