Basic Format Elements

There are certain elements that are common to all formats. These can be thought of as building blocks. Programmers blend different types and amounts of music, news, public affairs, features, public service announcements, commercials, contests, promotions, jingles, and announcing styles to attract audiences. This combination of elements is called a format. Different formats and different combinations of elements within formats attract different audiences. Each of those building blocks is vital in its own way.


Music is perhaps the most obvious and most important part of any format, with the exception of news, talk and sports. Even with these formats music plays an important part of helping the station establish an identity. More goes into programming music than the average listener suspects. Program Directors, Consultants and Music Directors don’t just grab a stack of a particular type of CDs and play them randomly throughout the day. Programmers analyze trade magazines such as Billboard and Radio and Records, they perform auditorium tests and run focus groups before adding selections to their playlists.


After programmers assemble their playlists they then decide when certain songs will be heard on the air. Some songs are morning songs and best played at 8 a.m. Others work best during midday or during evening hours. The general rule is that uptempo songs tend to be favored during the day, while softer slow tempo songs are favored during the evening hours. Mid-tempo songs may be played throughout the day to give a station’s sound balance. For example it’s not uncommon for an Adult Contemporary station to feature songs which sound nearly Top 40 during the day and feature “loves songs” during evening hours.

Programmers use various categories when building a coding scheme. For example tempo might be one category, arrangement might be another. These categories are assigned codes. An uptempo song may be coded with a “U” while a slow song will receive an “S”. Likewise, a song with a single instrument such as a guitar might receive a “1” while one with a full orchestra will receive a “3”.

Songs are often further coded according to gender of the artist, and lyrical mood. A bluesy lyric might receive a “B” while a cheerful lyric would receive a “C”. An “M” or an “F” would be used to designate the artist’s gender or perhaps a “D” for a male/female duet.

Thus a fully orchestrated uptempo song performed by a female artist with a cheerful lyric might be coded U/3/C/F . The “U” represents the tempo. In this case it is uptempo The “3” represents the degree of orchestration. In this case it is full orchestra. The “C” represents lyrical mood. In this case cheerful. The “F” represents the artist’s gender, female.

Likewise a blues song performed by a male guitarist might receive a code of S/1/B/M. In this case the “S” represents slow tempo; the “1” represents single instrument; the “B” represents bluesy lyric and the “M” represents the performer’s gender, male.

Once the programmer determines codes, he/she is ready to put the selections into rotation.


Rotation is used to establish a hierarchy by which programmers determine when and how often selections will be played on the station. The goal is to play popular songs frequently enough to entertain the audience but not so often as to bore them. At one time programmers used index cards and rotation sheets that gave the air-staff rules for determining the next acceptable piece of music. Programmers now use computerized scheduling tools such as Selector and MusicMaster (Detailed Selector Info).

Rotation categories differ from station to station but the purpose of the categories is to allow the programmer to determine how often songs are heard. These rotation categories are placed on a wheel or hot clock. The hot clock gives the air-staff a visual representation of when the categories of songs are to be played during the station’s rotation. Programmers construct hot clocks to reflect dayparts and audience demographics. It is not uncommon for stations to have many hot clocks depending upon time of day.

Programmers now place their predefined categories into programs like Selector and MusicMaster which then provide them with playlists. Some stations are run entirely by computer. (see Tiesseci).

Common categories at a station might include:

  • Power Cuts: The most popular songs appearing in current surveys. Played in Ultra rotation.
  • Super Cuts: Songs appearing in the remaining playlist slots. Played in High rotation.
  • Recurrents: Songs recently appearing on the charts. Played in Moderate rotation.
  • Golds: Former hits. Classic songs that the audience wants to hear again-and-again. Played in Level rotation.
  • Bronze: Former hit of a novelty, regional or special-interest nature. Played in Light rotation.

Rotation categories are combined with codes to create the format scheme. For example a slow female vocal with guitar accompaniment that is number two on the charts might be classified as follows: S/1/B/F/PC. This indicates that the song has a slow tempo, simple accompaniment, bluesy lyrics, female vocalist and is a power cut played in ultra rotation.


At one time news accounted for the second largest amount of airtime at the average station. This has changed at most music stations since deregulation in the 1980s. It has changed even more since the passage of the Communication Act of 1996. Prior to deregulation, radio stations were required to provide a certain percentage of non-entertainment programming news and public affairs. News at many station is now limited to drive-time and contains a heavy emphasis on entertainment or lifestyle features. The Radio and Television News Directors Association RTNDA monitors the effects of deregulation on radio news and on employment of news personnel.

Public Affairs

Public Affairs programming has suffered even more than news since deregulation. Public Affairs programming often called “talk, interview or issue” has traditionally been heard during the early Sunday morning time slot. Some stations have eliminated public affairs programs all together.


At one time Sports programming was a special feature at many stations. It is now the entire format at some stations. Stations bid heavily for the privilege of carrying games from nearby professional or college teams. Most stations experience a ratings increase during game time. At one time Sports programming was the province of AM radio. Other stations, notably Classic Rock stations have begun carrying sports programming.


Radio listeners depend upon radio to provide them with information regarding the best route to take to and from work. Drive times are radio’s most listened to day parts. As grid lock and congestion become the rule in city after city, traffic becomes a more important format element. Organizations such as Metro Traffic and Shadow Networks now provide traffic at many radio stations (and now TV stations) throughout the country.


Weather is one of the primary reasons people listen to radio. It is a program element that is of interest to everyone. When people rise in the morning it is one of the first things they want to know. Stations use weather as a way of positioning themselves against the competition. Weather services such as the weather channel, color weather radar or featuring a local TV weather person are now staples at many stations. School closings during storms are an important service in many areas of the country.


The announcer, DJ, or air personality sets the tone for the station. With the exception of stars, most radio announcing is tightly controlled. Announcing styles can be broken into three major categories: heavy, medium, and light.

Heavy The term “heavy” refers to the type of announcer that is allowed to express his/her personality. At many radio stations this is limited to drive time air personalities, particularly the morning drive announcer. These personalities are allowed to do more than just read liners. On occasion they are allowed to “break” format.

Medium This term refers to announcers who are allowed to show some personality but function within the format. Most of their announcing is limited to reading liners and expressing comments about the music, major topics of interest or the weather.

Light Announcers using a “light” announcing style function entirely within the boundaries of the format. They read liners and sound generic. One announcer is easily substituted for another.

Announcing style also varies according to format. DJs at youth-oriented stations take a more upbeat approach than do DJs working at adult-oriented stations. Day part also effects announcing style. The morning drive announcer tends to be the most upbeat followed by the afternoon drive announcer. Midday announcers take a more background approach. Evening announcers at adult-oriented stations use an even more relaxing approach.


Commercials pay the bills and generate revenue. Program Directors and Sales Managers work out a delicate balance. Too many commercials and the ratings go down. Too few commercials sold at too low a spot rate and the station makes no money. Both Program Directors and Sales Managers work to ensure that spots fit the station’s sound.

Stations use several strategies with regard to scheduling spots and maintaining audience. Spot clusters or stop sets are the most common. In addition stations often schedule commercial free hours. On the positive side, this increases the station’s ratings. As a result the station can raise the spot rate. On the negative side, it sends a message to the advertisers that their commercials are not very important.

Public Service Announcements

Public Service Announcements are spots that a station schedules free of charge. They can take the form of bulletin board announcements for upcoming community events or they can be more general in nature. Stations often choose the causes they are going to support. For example a station may take an issue such as child welfare and devote all of its public service time to that issue for a year. The station would produce spots highlighting the issue as well as promoting agencies in the community that support the issue.

Other stations take a more general approach but tailor their PSAs to meet the needs of their specific demographic. Announcements are used as a way to further identify with the community. Stations often distinguish their public service announcements by adding a tag line such as “because station ’XYZ cares about the community.”

A recent trend with public service announcements is for stations to find a major sponsor for community organizations. This allows stations to “sell the time”, while still providing a free service to community groups. An example of this trend is a bank or utility company sponsoring the station’s community calendar.

Contests and Promotions

Contests and promotions have been a staple in radio from the beginning. Early broadcasters gave things away just to find out if anyone was listening. Effective contests are simple and take both actives (those who participate) and passives (those who do not) into consideration. Simple and or amusing contests are also the rule of the day.

The most common type of radio contest is one where you merely have to call the station to enter. Stations use these to involve the listening audience. The telephone calls are taped and the station has one more recording of someone proclaiming it their favorite radio station. These contests involve actives but passives often hear them as yet another screaming fan saying it’s his/her favorite station because he/she wanted to win. Stations persist with these contests because they are easy.

Contests should promote the format. It makes no sense to give away tickets to a rock concert on a classical music station. Giving away money works for all formats and has become the most common on-air contest. Other common contests include ticket giveaways, trips, cars, even houses. Stations offering to paying listener’s credit card bills, and shopping sprees are also popular.

Stations promote themselves in a variety of ways. Among the most common is the remote broadcast . Appearing at an event or in a location popular with your listeners is an excellent way to gain visibility. Listeners are curious to see what their favorite air personalities look like. Stations also promote themselves by having air personalities host concerts and other public events.

The competitive 1990s have seen the development of “Guerrilla Promotions” where one station will show up at another station’s event and hand out promotional material. They also offer prizes to listeners who show up at the competing station’s event wearing clothing or carrying banners promoting their station. Stations have even gone so far as to charter airplanes towing their banner to fly above the competition’s event.

Simple yet effective warm weather promotions involve having station spotters give listeners prizes for listening to the station in public locations such as on the beach, at a picnic or on an inner city basketball court.


Jingles are immensely popular and easily remembered. One simple way to prove just how effective jingles are is to ask someone who was alive when tobacco companies were allowed to advertise on radio and TV to sing a cigarette jingle that they remember. These ads have not been heard on radio or TV for more than 25 years, yet people remember them.

People remember their favorite radio jingles for years. Jingles can be used for a variety of purposes. One of the more common is as a transition between songs. Different tempos are used to change the pace of the program. If the DJ is going from an uptempo piece to a slow piece a jingle can be used to smooth the transition. Some stations will even have 12 versions of the same jingle recorded so that they can match the key of the next musical selection. Even news and talk stations uses jingles. News stations such as KYW in Philadelphia and KNX in Los Angeles, promote their jingles.

PAMS located in Dallas, Texas was the most popular jingle house during the 1960s and 1970s. Many of the classic jingles from the era are being re-released by JAM productions a jingle house founded by one of the old PAMS employees.

Other Transitions

Other transitions used like jingles include: voice overs, stingers and bumpers. These devices help give a station personality.


A voice recorded without a music bed that can be played over the intro to a song or an instrumental break. Voice-overs often feature a macho male voice or a seductive female voice saying the station’s call letters.


Lazers and other futuristic sounds are often used to create a mood or ease a transition. They are often used in conjunction with voice-overs and jingles.


Bumpers are used to get into and out of breaks in the program. They are particularly popular with talk radio and often are brief pieces of the programs theme song. Music formats use bumpers as well during programs of love songs where the host is allowed to establish a mood and wants to make a clear differentiation between the program and commercials elements of the show.

Call letters

Radio stations work long and hard to come up with “a great set of calls.” Call letters are required by the FCC. They are a basic part of a station’s identity. (Station ID is call letters immediately followed by city of license.) Stations choose call letters that work well as slogans or clearly identify where they are located. For example: WILM is located in Wilmington. WDEL, also in Wilmington identifies itself as being in Delaware. WVUD stands for The Voice of the University of Delaware. WJBR is named after the station’s first owner, John B. Reynolds.

It has become customary for stations to incorporate their call letters into slogans or use them with their dial positions. For example, Power 99, B-101, Kiss 101.7. This is done to distinguish the station so that listeners will remember it during ratings time. It also helps listeners remember to come back to a particular dial position.


Features add depth to formats by helping to further shape a station’s image. In addition, features provide the sales department with additional items to sell. Examples of features include: Casey Kasem’s top 20 countdown, John Tesh’s love songs, Walt “Baby” Love and Doug Banks’ urban music countdowns and Rick Dees’ Top 40 countdown.

Music station’s produce local features such as countdown shows of the day’s top requests or lunch time blocks of oldies. Talks stations often produce arts features or review shows. News stations may develop a series of political profiles. Anything of interest to a station’s target demographic can make a good feature.

Quarter Hour Maintenance

To the untrained listener radio programming can sound pretty random. Music, ids, and commercials all seem to run together. According to (Keith, 1987) Rating surveys count listeners each quarter hour if they are tuned in for at least five minutes during that time. Thus, stations are inclined to sweep, or “hot track,” the quarter hour to retain listeners until they have been counted. This is called quarter-hour maintenance.

Most stations avoid taking breaks at the :15, :30, and :45. By placing program material across these time periods they improve their ratings. A listener can be tuned to a station for as little as 10 minutes yet be counted as listening for two quarter hours. For example listeners who tune in at :10 after the hour, and listen to three of their favorite songs until :20 after the hour, have listened across two quarter hours. Even though they have listened for only 10 minutes the station is credited with 30 minutes of listening time. If the same listeners tune in at :05 after the hour and listen until the station takes a commercial break at :15 after the hour, the station receives credit for only one quarter hour. The amount of time spent listening is the same, yet the effect on the station’s ratings is vastly different.

Stations use other tricks to improve their quarter hour maintenance. Among them are commercial free hours and contests that have listeners count the number of songs heard during a given time period.


Keith, M. C. (1987). Radio programming: Consultancy and formatics. Focal Press: Boston.

Keith, M. C. and Krause, J. M. (1989). The Radio Station Focal Press: Boston.


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