Music radio

From Academic Kids

Music radio is a radio format where music is the primary source of broadcast content on both commercial and non-commercial stations. After the rise of television brought about the decline of old time radio and its dramatic content, music formats became one of the dominant forms of radio in many countries, though radio drama and comedy continues, often on public radio. Music has been one of the driving factors in the advancement of radio technology, from the adoption of wide-band FM to the current upswing in digital media. See: List of Music Radio formats.



Cost of programming

The primary reason that a station has for adopting a music format is to gain the greatest number of listeners for least amount of expense. This factor applies to both commercial and non-commercial stations. Since the programming content has already been produced, all that a station has to provide is the low-cost on-air linking between records. Most music radio stations, however, with the exception of small neighborhood-sized stations that can get away with playing locally-produced music, are required to pay licensing fees to licensing agencies such as ASCAP or BMI, as do most commercial businesses that wish to use music as part of their business. As a result, while most commercial stations might get their music for free, they still have to pay royalties to actually play it.

Licensing issues nearly destroyed Internet radio during the first years of the 21th century; in the United States, Congress intervened to create a royalty structure that, while expensive to independent operators running on a shoestring, was far less onerous than the scale demanded by the RIAA. Currently, one service provider, Live365, provides programs that handle licensing issues; in addition, both XM and Sirius provide commercial packages that allow the exclusive use (though not rebroadcast) of their music programming by businesses license-free.

Commercial radio

The low-cost of programming factor has tremendous appeal to commercial radio stations whose management companies are in business to maximize their return in profits against their original investment and ongoing cost of doing business. To do this it is necessary to format the station to gain as large a slice of the demographic audience that the station can take from its competitiors: the larger the audience, the higher their rate card for commercial advertising.

This is not a consideration for some other forms of music radio. Public radio is funded by government and private underwriting, allowing a certain amount of independence and lack of worry about ratings; since most public broadcasting operations are run as non-profits, no commercials are necessary. Satellite radio operates either as on a subscriber model or as an adjunct to a government-run public broadcaster; commercial satellite radio operations as a result generally don't carry commercials or private sponsorships, being subsidized by their subscribers. Due to many people's annoyance with commercial advertising, lack of commercial interruptions has become a major driving force for satellite radio adoption, and the only breaks in a satellite music station's programming are often for station identification and for DJ introductions.

Internet radio is a special case -- while many internet radio stations are run as a labor of love by their creators, others are either listener-supported in the manner of public broadcasters or are operated in a manner similar to a commercial broadcaster, selling sponsorships to pay for hosting fees. In addition, many commercial broadcasters run their over-the-air feeds over the Internet, including commercials.

Much early commercial radio was completely freeform; this changed drastically with the payola scandals of the 1960s. As a result, DJs seldom have complete programming freedom except in certain tightly controlled situations or for certain highly respected, long established personalities in a specific market. Most of the programming work is done by the program director, either for the station itself or increasingly often from a central location run by the corporate owner, and the DJ's function is generally reduced to introducing and playing songs.


Programming of music radio has evolved from blocks of sponsored airtime, to play by play record introductions from a disc jockey, back announcing several recordings. Blocks of recordings have been followed by a trend to program blocks of commercials, using the hook of constantly promoting something of primary interest to the audience that will follow immediately after those commercials.

Because dead air is not commercial airtime and because silence causes audiences to tune elsewhere, the station tries to fill its broadcast day with sound. There is a limit to the number of commercials that an audience will endure before it drifts away and in some instances government regulators specify how many commercials can be played in any given hour.

Most music stations have DJs that play music from a playlist determined by the program director, arranged in time blocks. Though practices differ throughout the world and from format to format, generally the first block of the day is the "drive time" block from early morning (typically 5 or 6AM) to midmorning (9 to 11AM); this block usually includes news bulletins and traffic and weather advisories for commuters, and is often but not always devoted as much to light comedy and call-ins from listeners as much as it is music (this is not universal though). The midday block is usually mostly music, with a period around the noontime hour often devoted to nonstop music for people eating lunch at work. Around mid-afternoon to early evening, the evening rush hour programming is similar to the midday programming, but with the traffic and weather advisories added back in for those driving home. (A common but not universal practice is to insert a short snippet of standup comedy around the 5 o'clock hour.) The evening block, if there is one, returns to primarily music, though special programming is common on weekends -- a dance station might have a sponsored dance party at a local club, for example, while a classical station may play an opera. The overnight programming is generally low-key music with quieter announcing; some stations play documentaries or even infomercials, while some others play syndicated DJs like Delilah (

Weekends, especially Sundays, commonly carry different programming; common syndicated programming includes music countdown shows from DJs such as Rick Dees and Casey Kasem, retrospective shows, and world music such as the Putumayo World Music Hour. Stations also often carry shows specializing in different genres of music such as blues or jazz, and community affairs programming is often shoehorned into early morning hours on Sunday.

Programming is somewhat different for non-traditional broadcasting. The Jack FM format eliminates DJs entirely, as do many internet radio stations. The music is simply played, and if it is announced at all it is done so by using RDS (for FM broadcast) or ID3 tags (for Internet broadcast). Satellite radio usually uses DJs, but their programming blocks are often substantially longer and not distinguished much by daypart; in addition, the announcing of song titles is not necessary as there is usually a screen on the receiver that shows the song title.

One key difference between over-the-air broadcast on the one hand and internet and satellite broadcasting on the other (at least in the United States) is that due to the fact that internet and satellite broadcasting are not considered publicly owned resources, decency statutes applied to broadcast media do not apply to those formats (this is not so much an issue in countries, particularly in Europe, where broadcast media are not as widely censored as in the US). As a result, satellite and internet radio are free to provide whatever programming they wish, including sexually explicit material such as Playboy Radio on satellite and KSEX (porn industry talk radio) and fluffertraX (porn music) on the internet, and material with coarse language as often appears in rap, hard rock, and "outlaw" country music. In addition, the open model of the internet allows people programming internet stations more freedom to program narrow-interest formats such as porn music, retrospectives of various sorts, and narrow specialties of electronica and eclectic music.

Song picking

Music radio has been helped by the development of semi-automated song-picker programs. Basically, these present the disc-jockey with a list of commercially-acceptable music selections, and other items for the current time slot. These give the disc-jockey some artistic freedom to select songs, promotions, jingles, etc., and yet still assure a cohesive station "sound" and good audience satisfaction. They also reduce a disc-jockey's workload, allowing him or her to develop news items, run the station, prepare gags, or take call-ins while a song is playing. The employer may as a result reduce staffing levels and thus trim overhead costs.

Market share

A station's value is usually measured as a percentage of market share in a market of a certain size. The measurement in U.S. markets has historically been by Arbitron, a commercial statistical service that uses listener diaries. Arbitron diaries were historically collected on Thursdays, and for this reason, most radio stations have run special promotions on Thursdays, hoping to persuade last-minute Arbitron diarists to give them a larger market-share. Stations are contractually prohibited from mentioning Arbitron on the air.

Music radio and culture

Music radio, particularly top 40, has often acted as both a barometer and an arbiter of musical taste, and radio airplay is one of the defining measures of success in the mainstream musical world. In fact, the rise of rock music to popularity is intimately tied to the history of music radio; early forms of rock had languished in poor areas of the South, the province largely of rural blacks, but the genre was mainstreamed rapidly during the 1950s due to the controversial efforts of mostly white DJs such as Wolfman Jack and Alan Freed with an appreciation for black music.

There has been for many years a general dissatisfaction with the content of radio programming since the decline of early free form rock radio; the popularity of offshore pirate radio stations in the United Kingdom was an early symptom of frustration with the often overly safe and occasionally politicized playlists associated with commercial radio. The growth of Internet radio from a small experimenter's toy in the mid-90s to a huge phenomenon allowing both small do-it-yourselfers and large commercial stations to make their offerings available worldwide was seen as a threat to over-the-air music broadcasting, and was nearly shut down by onerous licensing demands made by the recording industry. Meanwhile, the rise of satellite radio services as a major competitor have brought many of the advantages of Internet radio to an increasingly mobile listening public, including lack of censorship, greater choice, a more eclectic approach to format programming, and static-free digital sound quality. Indeed, one-size-fits-all programming is no longer seen as tenable by some, as the diversity of musical tastes among the listening public have created a proliferation of radio formats in what some might call a form of narrowcasting.

Types of program segment

The classic item of music is a "single." This originally referred to a small phonograph disk played at 45RPM, with sufficient capacity to hold five minutes of music at good quality. This format determined the standard size of a song for popular music. Singles today are generally distributed on compact disc or as compressed digital files in such formats as MP3 or Windows Media.

Jingles are the musical equivalent of neon signs, and they can be remarkably beautiful. Jingles are brief, bright pieces of choral music that promote the station's call letters, frequency and sometimes disc-jockey or program segment. Jingles were produced for radio stations by commercial speciality services. The most famous jingle service was called PAMS (External link) (, based in Texas.

News, time-checks, real-time travel advice and weather reports are often quite valuable to listeners. The news headlines and station identification are often given just before a commercial. Time, traffic and weather are given just after. The engineer typically sets the station clocks to standard local time each day, by listening to WWV or WWVH (see atomic clock).

The station will usually have a policy of announcing time, station call letters and frequency as often as six times per hour, in order to build station loyalty. Jingles can very useful for giving the station a branded sound in a pleasant, minimal amount of air-time. The legal requirement for station identification in the U.S. is once per hour, approximately at the top of the hour, or at the conclusion of a transmission.

While most music stations may simply "tear and read" news items (from the newswires or the Internet), larger stations (generally news/talk stations) may employ an editor to rewrite headlines, and provide summaries of local news. The summaries allow more news to fit in less air-time. Some stations can share news collection with TV or newspapers in the same media conglomerate. An emerging trend is to use the radio station's web site to provide in-depth coverage of news and advertisers head-lined on the air. Similarly, many stations contract with agencies such as Smartraveler and AccuWeather for their weather and traffic reports instead of having in-house staff to do the job.

Most radio stations maintain a call-in telephone line for use during promotions and gags, or to take record requests. Jocks generally answer the phone and edit the call during music plays. It is also not uncommon for stations to take requests by email or (in the case of some Internet and college stations) online chat.

Promotions are usually the on-air equivalent of lotteries for listeners. Promotional budgets usually run about $1 per listener per year. In a large market, a successful radio station can pay a full time director of promotions, and several lotteries per month of vacations, automobiles and other prizes. Lottery items are often bartered from advertisers, allowing both companies to charge full prices while incurring wholesale costs. For example, consider a cruise vacation. Cruising companies often have unused capacity, and when given the choice, prefer to pay their bills by bartering vacations. Since the ship will sail in any case, bartered vacations cost the cruise company little or nothing. The promotion is itself advertising for the company providing the prize.


While music radio, like all radio, started out on AM, it is somewhat unusual, at least in developed countries, to have a music station on AM due to the relatively poor sound bandwidth available in a 9 or 10KHz channel. As a result, since the late 60s and early 70s there has been a wholesale shift to using FM stereo for maximum sound quality. The 200 KHz bands assigned in most countries to FM radio stations are more than adequate to carry a two-channeled stereo audio signal, along with several subcarriers that serve various purposes. Nevertheless, up through the early 90s a large number of stations still programmed substantial amounts of music on the AM bands, a practice that still continues for some limited formats; AM stereo, in fact, though rarely supported on consumer equipment outside of Japan, can provide near-FM quality sound, and is required for many stations operating in what in the United States is known as the X-band (1620-1710 KHz). Some FM stations also broadcast SCA programming such as multilingual translations and leased content using a subcarrier.

Music radio has progressed behind the microphone over the years -- originally the disk jockeys were just that, people who announced and spun vinyl records. High-fidelity tape ("carts", from cartridges) was the standard through much of the 70s and 80s, phased out in favor of compact disc and eventually computer-controlled MP3 jukeboxes in some newer studios. Computer technology looms large in the future of broadcast radio -- in addition to the obvious use for in-studio automation and Internet radio, it is already widely used for satellite radio to transmit static-free programming, and iBiquity digital IBOC (sometimes referred to as HD Radio) subcarrier transmissions and Digital Audio Broadcasting are both in use (in the Western hemisphere and Europe respectively) primarily for transmitting high-quality digital music. RDS information is often broadcast on a subcarrier in the FM bands to transmit station identification and song information, as well as information used by regional carriers in some parts of the world to allow automatic frequency hopping between multiple frequencies used by the same station.

High-fidelity music programming is expected to be deployed on the world airwaves using the currently experimental Digital Radio Mondiale system, but has yet to see wide acceptance outside of a couple of major European broadcasters such as Deutsche Welle. No international music stations using the technology have yet been launched.

Music formats

Some well-known music-radio formats are Top 40, Freeform Rock and AOR (Album Oriented Rock). It turns out that most other stations (such as Rhythm & Blues) use a variation of one of these formats with a different playlist.

See List of Music Radio formats for further details, and note that there is a great deal of format evolution as music tastes and commercial conditions change. For example, the Beautiful music format that developed into today's Easy listening and Soft rock formats is nearly extinct due to a lack of interest from younger generations, whereas classic rock has become popular over the last 20 years or so and Jack FM has arisen only since 2000 or so.

Top 40

The original formulaic music radio format was Top 40. In this format, disc-jockeys would select one of a set of the forty best-selling singles (usually in a rack) as rated by Billboard magazine or from the station's own chart of the local top selling songs. In general, the more aggressive "Top 40" stations could sometimes be better described as "Top 20" stations. They would aggressively skirt listener boredom to play only the most popular singles.

Top 40 radio would punctuate the music with jingles, promotions, gags, call-ins, and requests, brief news, time and weather announcements and most importantly, advertising. The distinguishing mark of a traditional top-40 station was the use of a hyperexcited disc-jockey, and high tempo jingles. The format was invented in the US and today can be heard world wide. Todd Storz and Gordon McLendon have been recognized as the inventors of Top 40 radio. In the modern era Bill Drake and Rick Sklar have been recognized for their important and lasting influence. An excellent brief history of the format may be found here [1] (

Variants and hybrids include the freeform-like Jack FM (mentioned below under Freeform Rock) and the "Mix" formats mentioned below under Oldies. Top 40 music is heavily criticized by some music fans as being repetitive and of low quality, and is almost exclusively dominated by large media conglomerates such as Clear Channel Communications and Viacom. Top 40 tends to be underrepresented on the Internet, being mostly the domain of commercial broadcasters such as Virgin Radio UK.

Some of the most famous Top 40 stations of the era were Musicradio 77 ( WABC/New York, Boss Radio 93 ( KHJ-AM/Los Angeles Musicradio 89 ( WLS/Chicago and The Big 68 ( WRKO/Boston.

Freeform rock

A later development was "freeform" Rock, later commercially developed as AOR (Album-Oriented Rock), in which selections from an album would be played together, with an appropriate introduction.

Traditional freeform rock stations prided themselves on offering their disc-jockeys freedom to play significant music and make significant social commentary and humor. This approach developed commercial problems because disc-jockeys attracted to this freedom often had tastes substantially different from the audience, and lost audience share. Also, freeform rock stations could lack predictability, and listeners' loyalty could then be put at risk.

Responsible jocks would realize their responsibility to the audience to produce a pleasant show, and try to keep the station sound predictable by listening to other jocks, and repeating some of their music selections.

At their best, freeform stations have never been equalled for their degree of social activism, programmatic freedom, and listener involvement. However, to succeed, the approach requires genius jocks, totally in-tune with their audience, who are also committed to the commercial success of the radio station. This is a rare combination of traits. Even if such people are available, they often command extremely high salaries. However, this may be an effective approach for a new station, if talented jocks can be recruited and motivated at low salaries.

Freeform radio is particularly popular as a college radio format; offshoots include the recent (and somewhat controversial, due to its lack of on-air personalities) eclectic-pop format known as Jack FM from its first practitioner, which plays a wide assortment of mostly top-40 music from a span of several decades; and podcast radio, a mostly-talk format pioneered by Infinity Broadcasting's KYOU station in California and Adam Curry's Podcast show on Sirius satellite radio.

AOR (Album-Oriented Rock)

AOR (Album Oriented Rock) developed as a commercial compromise between top-forties-style formulas and freeform rock. A program director or music consultant would select some set of music "standards" and require the playlist to be followed, perhaps in an order selected by the jock. The jock would still introduce each selection, but the jock would have available a scripted introduction to use if he was not personally familiar with a particular piece of music and its artist. Obviously a computer helps a lot in this process.

A wonderful, relatively safe compromise with the artistic freedom of the jocks is that a few times each hour, usually in the least commecially valuable slots of the hour, the disc-jockey can highlight new tracks that he or she thinks might interest the audience. The audience is encouraged to comment on the new tracks, allowing the station to track audience tastes.

Significant AOR offshoots include Classic rock radio and Adult Album Alternative.

Oldies, Standards, and Classic rock

Not playing new artists has been described as a weakness of classic rock or oldies formats. This is true in a creative but not a commercial sense. One of the unwritten "rules" of commercial radio is to get a big share of ratings and revenue. Stations will not get these if they frequently play songs unfamiliar to their audience. This is why "Top 40" stations played only the biggest hits and why oldies and classic rock formats do the same for the eras they cover. Nevertheless, there seems to be a cottage industry of Internet stations specializing in specific forms of classic rock and oldies, particularly psychedelic rock and progressive rock.

The oldies and classic rock formats have a strong niche market, but as the audience becomes older the station becomes less attractive to advertisers. Advertisers perceive older listeners as set in their brand choices and not as responsive to advertising as younger, more impulsive listeners. Oldies stations must occasionally change to more youthful music formats; as a result, the definition of what constitutes an "oldies" station has gradually expanded over the years.

This preference for younger listeners caused the decline of the "Big Band" or "Standards" music formats that covered music from the 1930s to the 1950s. As the audience grew too old for advertisers, the radio stations that carried these formats saw a sharp loss of ratings and revenue. This left them with no choice but to adopt more youthful formats, though the Standards format (also known as the Great American Songbook from the series of albums produced by rocker Rod Stewart) has undergone something of an off-air revival, with artists such as Stewart, Tony Bennett and Queen Latifah putting their own interpretation on the music.

During the mid to late 90s, the "Mix" format -- a loosely defined mixture of Top-40 and classic rock with something of an emphasis on adult contemporary music -- began to appear across the country. While the format has no particular standard identity, most "mix" stations have rotations consisting largely of pop and rock music from the 80s and 90s (and often the 70s), with some current material mixed in. In addition, stations devoted to the pop music of the 70s, 80s, and 90s on their own have developed as the audiences that grew up with that music grew older and nostalgic for the sounds of their youth.

Classical, pop, easy-listening, jazz, dance

These formats all have small but very loyal audiences in the largest markets. Most follow formats similar to the above (Top 40s, Freeform, AOR and Oldies), except with a different playlist. Public service stations following these formats tend to be "freeform" stations.

Classical music radio is just as it sounds -- radio designed to appeal to the listener of classical music. Most classical stations specialize primarily in instrumental classical music and chamber music, though there are more special interest classical stations (often found through media such as satellite radio or web radio) that carry classical pop music or operatic music.

Easy listening and Adult Contemporary are related formats that play largely down-tempo pop music of various styles. The difference is mostly in the era and styles covered -- Easy Listening is mostly older music done in the style of standards from the early 20th century (typical artists include Johnny Mathis and Frank Sinatra) combined with Big Band music and more modern performers in the same style such as Celine Dion and Josh Groban, while Adult Contemporary focuses more on newer pop music from the 1970s on. An ancestor to the easy listening format is Beautiful Music, a now-rare format (though XM features one channel of it, called Sunny) focusing mostly on smooth jazz or classical arrangements of pop music and original compositions in a similar vein.

Jazz stations generally play either traditional jazz forms or smooth jazz. The jazz station, more than any other except the college station, is stereotyped as having a small listenership and a somewhat overly highbrow on-air personality, and many are college-run stations.

Dance music is somewhat of a niche, and so-called "rhythmic pop" stations have had a fierce but not always commercially sustainable following. There was a wide spectrum of disco-format radio stations during the late 70s, but virtually all of them died out during the disco backlash; WXKS in Boston is one of the few notable survivors, now a Clear Channel Communications-owned top-40 station of considerable influence. Nevertheless there is a large number of dance music stations available both on the internet and on satellite radio, mostly specializing in various forms of electronica, and both major US satellite radio services include disco stations.

Alternative and Modern Rock

Rock music has a long and honorable radio tradition going back to DJs like Wolfman Jack and Alan Freed, and as a result variations on rock radio are fairly common. The Classic rock and oldies formats are discussed above; in addition to those, however, there are several genres of music radio devoted to different aspects of modern rock music. Alternative rock grew out of the grunge scene of the late 80s and early 90s and is particularly favored by college radio and Adult Album Alternative stations; there is a strong focus on songwriters and bands with an outsider sound or a more sophisticated sound than the "three chord wonder" cliche. Meanwhile, other stations focus on heavy metal, punk rock, or the various post-punk and pop-influenced sounds known collectively as "modern rock".

Narrow-interest rock stations are particularly common on the Internet and satellite radio scenes (particularly Sirius); there is a general feeling among radio conoisseurs that rock radio is becoming badly watered down by big corporate ownership, leading to a considerable do-it-yourself spirit.

Country Music

While stereotyped as rural music, the Country format is common and popular throughout the United States and in some other countries. Emphasis is generally on current pop country, though stations specializing in older country music have popped up here and there. Country has been a popular radio format since the early days of music radio.

Urban (Hip-Hop/R&B)

The explosive rise in popularity during the 1980s of rap music has led to a large number of radio stations specializing in rap, hip-hop, and rhythm and blues music (with the exception of classic R&B such as Motown, which is as often as not the province of Oldies stations). The genre is euphemistically referred to as "urban" due to the fact that the styles it represents are largely developed from the street and underground music of urban American blacks in the 1970s, though the music itself has considerable popularity (and controversy, due to its often nihilistic and hedonistic themes) among all ethnic groups and social classes.

Public Radio formats

Some music radio is broadcast by public service organizations, such as NPR or the BBC. These usually resemble freeform stations, with particular programs for different types of music. More popular formats get more popular hours. The Avant-garde programs tend to be pushed to the late night and early morning slots.

There is a vast variety in the formats used in public broadcasting; while the American form (represented largely by National Public Radio and Public Radio International is generally thought of being dry and academic, public broadcasters in other countries have more variety in their programming; the BBC, for example, has eleven national or international radio stations in English alone (five of which are devoted primarily to music), with roughly another fifty regional and local stations. Public radio music formats tend to be grouped into broad genres, with most public broadcasters offering at least a pop station (such as Ireland's RTE 2fm) and a classical/jazz station.

Promotional usages

Music radio is also a means of promoting other enterprises, such as a record label or ad-hoc music events in which the broadcaster(s) have a commercial interest. The majority of music radio stations in the United States and Canada are commercial stations that sell advertising to pay for their facilities and transmitters; in addition, many of the larger stations run promotional events such as dance nights, concerts, and even (in the case of some larger stations) entire music festivals. On-air contests and giveaways are common features, as are philanthropic programs (usually charitable promotions run during holiday seasons).

See also


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