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
dont 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 stations
sound balance. For example its 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 artists 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 artists 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 performers gender,
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
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
stations 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
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
- 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
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 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
Radio listeners depend upon radio to provide them with
information regarding the best route to take to and from
work. Drive times are radios 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
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
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 stations 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 stations 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
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
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 stations community
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 its 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 listeners 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 stations event and hand out promotional
material. They also offer prizes to listeners who show up at
the competing stations 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 competitions 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
Other transitions used like jingles include: voice overs,
stingers and bumpers. These devices help give a station
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 stations call
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.
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 stations 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 stations first owner, John B.
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 stations image. In addition, features provide the
sales department with additional items to sell. Examples of
features include: Casey
Kasems top 20 countdown, John
Teshs love songs, Walt Baby Love and
Banks urban music countdowns and Rick Dees
Top 40 countdown.
Music stations produce local features such as
countdown shows of the days 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 stations
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 stations ratings is
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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