Radio Edits are a fascinating concept when you take a step back and think about it. If you, like me, listened to Top 40 radio while in high school, you likely heard loads of alternate mixes songs played, with segments, lyrics, and even language changes for various reasons.
Growing up and now working in music industry has led me to track down the answers to different questions I asked myself about the radio edit machine over the years, and how you, an independent artists not on commercial radio (yet) can take queues from what major label singles do and use it for success in the streaming age.
Who Actually Mixes The Radio Edit?
Contrary to popular belief, the radio station is not the one who mixes the radio edit… for the most part. It’s the label and/or original studio that creates multiple versions of the same song, knowing which stations have which rules across territories.
Do the Top 40 stations need a version without the long intro? Do the soccer mom stations need a version without the swearing? Do the really lame stations need a version without the guest rapper?
True Story: I once turned on pop radio in rural Virginia, USA to hear a version of Katy Perry’s “California Gurls” where they took Snoop Dogg’s guest verse out, but just left the instrumental beat to play for an awkwardly long time. Yes, Katy Perry’s producer had clear instructions to create this white bread monstrosity.
This feat is made slightly easier in these last few years by the fact that most radio stations are owned by the same major telecommunications companies, so the rules are rather consistent (the downside to these conglomerates is that it’s much harder for an indie artist to get on regular rotation).
On rare occasions, some edits are made to be specifically played for that station/territory. Whether it be getting the singer to shoutout the station name, or this extremely interesting story from 2019:
Lizzo’s 2019 single “Truth Hurts” was edited locally in June 2019 by the market-leading Top 40 station WIXX in Green Bay, Wisconsin, not because of inappropriate content, but due to Lizzo’s reference in a lyric to an unsaid new player on the Minnesota Vikings. As WIXX is one of three flagship stations for the Green Bay Packers’ radio network and features wraparound content involving the Packers, the station determined that referencing their hometown football team’s closest rival in a positive manner would be jarring to local listeners. – Wikipedia
What Words Are Banned On Radio?
Now, the most common (and audible) radio edits you’re likely to hear on the daily are replacements for profanity. They can have the artist record and alternate vocal take that replaces the swear, muting the word, replacing it with a sound effect, scrambling the word, adding an autotune pitch drop, or copying and pasting another line from the song in.
There are famously seven words banned on commercial radio in the United States (I’m sure you can guess them, but fun fact, “piss” is included). Due to the strong Christian culture in that country, religious swearing (also known as “taking the Lord’s name in vain” by your great-aunt Gertrude) can be hit or miss. So, you can say “damn,” but not “Goddamn.”
More than one artist has had their fun reacting to or working with the censors. My personal favourite story is the one of artist Wheeler Walker Jr., who, upon hearing the sound of modern Country Music and realizing that his more traditional production would never fit in, he decided that if Music Row weren’t going to give him the time of day anyway, he didn’t need to play by their rules… and subsequently released several independent albums of fouled mouthed county music with some of the most skilled instrumentalists and producer in town (the albums charted in the Billboard Top 10).
What’s Up With Those Bilingual Versions of Hits?
I live in Ottawa, Ontario, just across the river from the French-speaking province of Quebec. When I turn on French radio, it’s not uncommon to hear a pop song by an Anglophone Canadian artist with the catchy chorus in English, but the verses in French!
Sometimes the original act sings the new verses, and other times a native-French speaker will. But either way, it’s an interesting phenomenon that stuns my American musician friends when I bring it up. A few months ago, I finally got to the bottom of this mysterious case of the bilingual radio edits.
While radio is famously always last to the party when it comes to adding a new, buzzing artist to their rotation, cinching a coveted rotation slot is the key to making a “star.” Radio Programmers, afraid of taking the risk of removing a popular staple artist for an emerging upstart, are much more likely to be swayed if the song is already received numerous radio plans and listener requests in other markets.
Can you see the strategy these artists are using? They record a Bilingual radio edit, pitch it to the smaller Francophone market in North America. It gets popular there (and fulfill’s Quebec Telecommunications regulation that say stations must play a certain amount of both Canadian content, and French language content to keep their licence). As the bilingual version rockets up the charts and collects those radio spins like a casino jackpot raining tokens, the artist then pitches the original, English-only version to English radio across North America. The first Program Directors sees the play stats, and decides this song is a much safer bet to add to their playlist. The rest of the stations scramble to add it too, and the pop song catches like wildfire.
What About Length-Related Edits?
It’s no secret that in the age of social media and instant gratification, music listeners have the attention spans of goldfish, often skipping tracks that take a longer time to build musical momentum. This has arguably led to the death of guitar solos, long intros and fade outs in pop music, all for the famous 3:30 “radio length”.
In fact, YouTuber Harrison Renshaw even goes so far as to theorize that the record breaking phenomenon of Lil’ Was X’s “Old Town Road” can be credited to its short length. According to him, the catchy song ends too early, tricking the listener’s brain into wanting to listen to it again, or perhaps follow it right up with one of its many remixes in order for it to feel like a full-length song, satisfying the pop music fan’s ear..
Knowing what your purpose and plans, and who your audience for this song are can further bolster its success.
Fun Story: I once worked in a children’s clothing store, and their corporate radio system would cut third verses out of songs, in order to make them shorter and keep the attention of their young goldfish audience.
When Ariel Hyatt interviewed Spotify guru Mike Warner on her Cyber PR Music Podcast, he dropped this nugget of solid gold: splitting his songs with long, artsy intros into two tracks: intro (1) and song (2) with zero gap of silence between them. This way, the song with a poppier opening fit easily on playlists and caught the ear of tastemakers by jumping straight to the hook, all while his fans who listened to the album from start to finish would still get the full, artistic experience.
What Can I Do With My Songs?
So, while you may not be being played on commercial radio (yet), more than several of these ideas can apply to the world of playlists too. Being able to adapt to different audiences while still being true to your artist self is nothing but an asset. Here are some of them:
Asking your audio engineer to give you the individual stems from your recording, like that you can re-record vocals tracks down the line with the original instrumental already there.
If you are fluent in another language, try translating your original songs (or hiring someone who could do it even better). If you only speak/sing in English, look for emerging vocalists from other countries who would make sense as collaborators.
Ask your producer to cut alternate versions of your song that separate the intro, or shorten it to 2-3 minutes.
Thank you for reading! I hope this article inspired you.