Music radio is a radio format in which music is the main broadcast content. After television replaced old time radio's dramatic content, music formats became dominant in many countries. Radio drama and comedy continue, often on public radio.
The radio station provides programming to attract listeners, and profits by selling advertising. Young people are targeted by advertisers because their product preferences can be changed more easily. Therefore, the most commercially successful stations target young audiences.
The programming usually cycles from the least attractive item, to most attractive, followed by commercials. The purpose of this plan is to build listener interest during the programming.
Because dead air does not attract listeners, the station tries to fill its broadcast day with sound. Audiences will only tolerate a certain number of commercials before tuning away. In some regions, government regulators specify how many commercials can be played in a given hour.
Music is the main program item. There are several standard ways of selecting the music, such as free-form, top-40, album-oriented rock, and Jack. These can be applied to all types of music.
Jingles are radio's equivalent of neon signs. Jingles are brief, bright pieces of choral music that promote the station's call letters, frequency and sometimes disc-jockey or program segment. Jingles are produced for radio stations by commercial specialty services such as JAM, in Texas.
Jingles are often replaced by recorded voiceovers (called "stingers").
In order to build station loyalty, the station announces time, station call letters and frequency as often as six times per hour. Jingles and stingers help give 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.
News, time-checks, real-time travel advice and weather reports are often valuable to listeners. The news headlines and station identification are therefore 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).
These segments are less valued by the most targeted market, young people, so many stations shorten or omit these segments in favor of music.
While most music stations that offer news reports simply "tear and read" news items (from the newswires or the Internet), larger stations (generally those affiliated with news/talk stations) may employ an editor to rewrite headlines, and provide summaries of local news. Summaries fit more news in less air-time. Some stations 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 headlined on the air. Many stations contract with agencies such as Smartraveler and AccuWeather for their weather and traffic reports instead of using in-house staff.
Most radio stations maintain a call-in telephone line for promotions and gags, or to take record requests. DJs generally answer the phone and edit the call during music plays. Some stations take requests by e-mail and online chat.
The value of a station's advertising is set by the number, age and wealth of its listeners. Arbitron, a commercial statistical service, historically used listener diaries to statistically measure the number of listeners. Arbitron diaries were 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. Arbitron contractually prevents mention of its name on the air.
Promotions are 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 run several lotteries per month of vacations, automobiles and other prizes. Lottery items are often bartered from advertisers, allowing both companies to charge full prices at wholesale costs. For example, cruising companies often have unused capacity, and when given the choice, prefer to pay their bills by bartering cruise vacations. Since the ship will sail in any case, bartered vacations cost the cruise company little or nothing. The promotion itself advertises the company providing the prize.
Most music stations have DJs that play music from a playlist determined by the program director, arranged by blocks of time. Though practices differ by region and format, what follows is a typical arrangement in a North American urban commercial radio station.
The first block of the day is the "drive-time" block in the early morning (typically 5 or 6AM) to midmorning (9 to 11AM). This block usually includes news bulletins and traffic and weather advisories for commuters, as well as light comedy from the morning DJ team (many shock jocks started as or still work on drive-time radio). Some stations emphasize music, and reduce gags and call-ins in this period.
The midday block is mostly music. For a period around noon a station may play nonstop music or go to an all-request format for people eating lunch.
In the early evening, the evening rush-hour programming resembles the midday programming, but adds traffic and weather advisories for commuters. Some stations insert a short snippet of standup comedy around 5 o'clock when commuters leave work.
The evening block, if present, returns to music.
The overnight programming is generally low-key music with quiet announcing. Some stations play documentaries or even infomercials, while some others play syndicated DJs like Delilah It is not uncommon to play more adventurous selections during late night programming blocks, since late night is generally not considered significant for ratings.
Weekends, especially Sundays, often 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 may carry shows with different genres of music such as blues or jazz. Community affairs and religious programming is often on Sunday mornings. In addition, weekend evenings are particularly specialized; a dance station might have a sponsored dance party at a local club, or a classical station may play an opera.
Many music stations in the United States perform news and timechecks only sparingly, preferring to put more music on the air. News is often restricted to the talk-heavy commuting hours. The BBC and ABC take a different approach, with all of its stations giving news updates (BBC 1xtra produces its own news segments under the name TX.)
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. The way stations advertise themselves is not standardized. Some critical interpretation is needed to recognize classic formulas in the midst of the commercial glitz.
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.
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 invented Top 40 radio. Bill Drake and Rick Sklar have had a lasting modern influence. This is an excellent, brief history of the format.
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 CBS Corporation. Top 40 tends to be underrepresented on the Internet, being mostly the domain of commercial broadcasters such as Virgin Radio UK.
A later development was freeform radio, later commercially developed as progressive rock radio, and still later even more commercially developed as AOR (Album-Oriented Rock), in which selections from an album would be played together, with an appropriate introduction.
Traditional freeform 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 stations could lack predictability, and listeners' loyalty could then be put at risk. Progressive rock radio (not to be confused with the progressive rock music genre) was freeform in style but constrained so that some kind of rock music was what was always or almost always played.
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. WNEW-FM in New York during the 1970s exemplified this approach to progressive rock radio.
At their best, freeform stations have never been equaled 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 variety hits, 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) developed as a commercial compromise between top-forties-style formulas and progressive rock radio/freeform. 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 useful, relatively safe compromise with the artistic freedom of the jocks is that a few times each hour, usually in the least commercially 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. The freedom to introduce new artists can help a station develop its library.
Classic rock or oldies formats have been described as having the weakness of not playing new artists. This is true in a creative sense, but not a commercial one. Stations will not get good ratings or revenue 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 changed over the years. This is why many oldies stations, like WCBS-FM in New York City and WJMK in Chicago, have switched over to the younger-orientated Jack FM format in recent years — although WCBS-FM reverted back to its oldies format on July 12, 2007, and the "Jack FM" format was moved to its HD2 subchannel.
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.
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. internet classical 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 internet 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) internet streaming combined with Big Band music and more modern performers in the same style such as Céline 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. Perhaps the best-known Adult Contemporary station currently in operation is WLTW in New York City, better known as 106.7 Lite FM
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. California State University Long Beach sponsors KJAZZ 88.1, which has a fairly significant online listenership as well. Two very well-known smooth jazz stations are WNUA in Chicago and 94.7 The Wave in Los Angeles, both of which were introduced in 1987, and still continue to enjoy tremendous success in the format today.
Dance music is 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 are a large number of dance music stations available both on the internet and on satellite radio, mostly specializing in various forms of electronica. Both major US satellite radio services include disco stations.
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" cliché. 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, broken down into genres such as punk, metal, classic rock, indie music, and the like. There is a general feeling among radio connoisseurs that rock radio is becoming badly watered down by big corporate ownership, leading to a considerable do-it-yourself spirit.
While stereotyped as rural music, the Country music 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. Country stations play a mix of music from Classic country to Hot Country and anywhere in between.
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 R&B music (with the exception of classic R&B such as Motown, which is as often as not the province of Oldies stations). This format is popular among all ethnic groups and social classes.
Music radio stations pay music-licensing fees to licensing agencies such as ASCAP and BMI. Commercial stations often get their CDs free, but still pay royalties to play it on air. Some small neighborhood stations play unlisted locally-produced music, and avoid these fees.
Licensing issues nearly destroyed early Internet radio. In the U.S., Congress intervened with a royalty structure that was expensive to small independent operators, but easier than the RIAA's standard scale. Both XM and Sirius provide commercial packages allowing exclusive license-free use (though not rebroadcast) of their music programming by businesses.
Commercial stations program the format of the station to gain as large a slice of the demographic audience as possible.
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.
Market share is not always a consideration, because not all radio stations are commercial. Public radio is funded by government and private donors. Since most public broadcasting operations don't have to make a profit, no commercials are necessary.
Also, satellite radio either charges subscribers or is operated by a public broadcasting service. Therefore, satellite radio rarely carries commercials or tries to raise money from donors. The lack of commercial interruptions in satellite radio is an important advantage. Often the only breaks in a satellite music station's programming are for station identification and DJ introductions.
Internet radio stations exist that follow all of these plans.
Much early commercial radio was completely freeform; this changed drastically with the payola scandals of the 1950s. As a result, DJs seldom have complete programming freedom. Occasionally a special situation or highly respected, long established personality is given such freedom. Most programming is done by the program director. Program directors may work for the station or at a central location run by a corporate network. The DJ's function is generally reduced to introducing and playing songs. Many stations target younger listeners, because advertisers believe that advertising can change a younger person's product choice. Older people are thought to be less hard to change. Music radio has several possible arrangements. Originally, it had blocks of sponsored airtime that played music from a live orchestra. In the 1930s, phonograph records, especially the single, let a disc jockey introduce individual songs, or introduce blocks of songs. Since then, the program has been arranged so that commercials are followed by the content that is most valuable to the audience.
Programming is different for non-traditional broadcasting. The Jack FM format eliminates DJs entirely, as do many internet radio stations. The music is simply played. If it is announced, it is by RDS (for FM broadcast) or ID3 tags (for Internet broadcast). Satellite radio usually uses DJs, but their programming blocks are longer and not distinguished much by the time of day. In addition, receivers usually display song titles, so announcing them is not needed.
Internet and satellite broadcasting are not considered public media, so treaties and statutes concerning obscenity, transmission of ciphers and public order do not apply to those formats. So, satellite and internet radio are free to provide sexually explicit, coarse and political material. Typical providers include Playboy Radio, uncensored rap and hard rock stations, and "outlaw" country music stations.
The wide reach and selective, non-broadcast usage of the internet allows programmers access to special interest audiences. As a result, both mainstream and narrow-interest webcasts flourish; in particular, electronic music stations are much more common on the Internet than they are in satellite or broadcast media.
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. It was enjoyed mostly by rural blacks, with notable exposure in Memphis, Tennessee due to the all African American programming of WDIA. Rock music entered the mainstream during the 1950s because of controversial white DJs such as Dewey Phillips and Wolfman Jack with an appreciation for black music.
For many years, many listeners have been dissatisfied 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 of 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.