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A radio format or programming format (not to be confused with broadcast programming) describes the overall content broadcast on a radio station. [1] The radio format emerged mainly in the United States in the 1950s, at a time when radio was compelled to develop new and exclusive ways to programming by competition with television. [2] The formula has since spread as a reference for commercial radio programming worldwide. [1]

A radio format aims to reach a more or less specific audience according to a certain type of programming, which can be thematic or general, more informative or more musical, among other possibilities. [nb 1] Radio formats are often used as a marketing tool and are subject to frequent changes, [3] including temporary changes called " stunting."

Except for talk radio or sports radio formats, most programming formats are based on commercial music. [1] However the term also includes the news, bulletins, DJ talk, jingles, commercials, competitions, traffic news, sports, weather and community announcements between the tracks. [1]


Even before World War II, radio stations in North America and Europe almost always adopted a generalist radio format.[ citation needed]

However, the United States witnessed the growing strengthening of television over the radio as the major mass media in the country by the late 1940s. [2] American television had more financial resources to produce generalist programs that provoked the migration of countless talents from radio networks to the new medium. Under this context, the radio was pressured to seek alternatives to maintain its audience and cultural relevance. [2]

As a consequence, AM radios stations—many of which were "independent", that is not affiliated with the network—began to emerge in the United States and Canada. They developed a format with programming consisting of music, news, and charismatic disc jockeys to directly attract a certain audience. [2]

For example, by the 1960s, easy listening obtained a stable position on FM radio – a spectrum considered ideal for good music and high fidelity listening as it grew in popularity during that period [nb 2][ citation needed] – and the middle of the road (MOR) rose as a radio industry term to discern radio stations that played mainstream pop songs from radio stations whose programming was geared towards teenagers and was dominated by rock and roll, [4] the most popular musical genre of the period in the United States and which held the first successful radio format called Top-40. In reality, the Top-40 format was conscientiously prepared to attract the young audience, who was the main consumer of the records sold by the American record industry at that time. [2] Soon, playlists became central to programming and radio formats, [5] although the number of records in a playlist really depends on the format. [nb 3]

By the mid-1960s, American FM radio's penetration began achieving balance with AM radio since the Federal Communications Commission required that co-owned AM and FM stations be programmed independently from each other. [2] This resulted in huge competition between radio stations in the AM and FM spectrum to differentiate themselves for both audiences and advertisers. [4] At that time, it caused a proliferation of many radio formats, which included presentation, schedule and target audience, as well as repertoire. [4] Within a few years, FM radio stations were supplying program formats completely analogous to their AM stations counterparts, increased to more than 50% in 1970 and reached 95% in 1980. [4]

During the 1970s and 1980s, radio programming formats expanded into commercially successful variations, including, for example, adult contemporary (AC), album-oriented rock (AOR) and urban contemporary (UC), among others, which spread to most AM and FM radio stations in the United States. [2]

Over time, FM radio came to dominate music programming, while AM radio switched to news and talk formats. [6]


In some countries such as the UK, licences to broadcast on radio frequencies are regulated by the government, and may take account of social and cultural factors including format type, local content, and language, as well as the price available to pay for the spectrum use. This may be done to ensure a balance of available public content in each area, and in particular to enable non-profit local community radio to exist alongside larger and richer national companies. On occasions format regulation may lead to difficult legal challenges when government accuses a station of changing its format, for example arguing in court over whether a particular song or group of songs is "pop" or "rock".[ citation needed]

List of formats

United States and Canada

Formats constantly evolve and each format can often be sub-divided into many specialty formats. Some of the following formats are available only regionally or through specialized venues such as satellite radio or Internet radio. [7]

Pop/adult contemporary
Easy listening/New Age
  • Folk music

Seasonal formats typically celebrate a particular holiday and thus, with the notable exception of Christmas music (which is usually played throughout Advent), stations going to a holiday-themed format usually only do so for a short time, typically a day or a weekend.

Spoken word formats

United Kingdom


The UK has several formats that often overlap with one another. The American terms for formats are not always used to describe British stations or fully set specified by RAJAR. [8] [9]


See also


  1. ^ Music radio, old time radio, all-news radio, sports radio, talk radio and weather radio describe the operation of different genres of radio format and each format can often be sub-divided into many specialty formats.
  2. ^ At that time, there were several American FM stations that belonged to owners of AM stations, so the programming of the AM station was broadcast simultaneously with the station FM. Owners who programmed FM stations independently often did so using avant-garde, underground, jazz or highbrow (generally, classical music) program formats as a form to attract the few listeners who owned FM receivers and who were specific about signal quality they heard. [2]
  3. ^ The figure 40 was established by Todd Storz and Bill Stewart n their station KOWH-AM in Omaha, Nebraska, inspired by the fact that there were 40 records in a bar jukebox. In the 1960s, some radio formats reduced the figure to 30 records, or even just 10. [5]


  1. ^ a b c d Shepherd, John; Horn, David; Laing, Dave, eds. (2003). "Programming". Continuum Encyclopedia of Popular Music of the World. p. 499. ISBN  9781501329234.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Margaret A., ed. (2013). "Radio Entertainment". History of the Mass Media in the United States: An Encyclopedia. p. 564. ISBN  9781135917494. Archived from the original on 24 March 2022. Retrieved 4 December 2021.
  3. ^ "What is a radio format?" Archived 2010-01-02 at the Wayback Machine Retrieved 16 April 2012.
  4. ^ a b c d "7.3 Radio Station Formats". The University of Minnesota Libraries. 1 May 2019. Archived from the original on 28 November 2020. Retrieved 16 December 2020.
  5. ^ a b Shepherd, John; Horn, David; Laing, Dave, eds. (2003). "Playlist". Continuum Encyclopedia of Popular Music of the World. p. 499. ISBN  9781501329234.
  6. ^ Beisbier, Paul F Frank, ed. (2019). The Value of History: Values and Beliefs. ISBN  9781645446378.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa "New York Radio Guide: Radio Format Guide",, 2009-01-12, webpage: NYRadio-formats Archived 27 March 2006 at the Wayback Machine.
  8. ^ Stewart, Peter (29 May 2010). Essential Radio Skills: How to Present a Radio Show. A&C Black. ISBN  978-1-4081-2179-5.
  9. ^ "Radio stations in the UK, by format". Archived from the original on 16 August 2022. Retrieved 5 July 2022.
  10. ^ "Heart FM London 106.2 live". Archived from the original on 5 July 2022. Retrieved 5 July 2022.
  11. ^ "Smooth Radio London". Archived from the original on 5 July 2022. Retrieved 5 July 2022.
  12. ^ "BBC radio 1Xtra - listen live". Archived from the original on 22 May 2022. Retrieved 5 July 2022.
  13. ^ "How the King of Breakfast is waking up Asian Britain". The Independent. 28 June 2009. Archived from the original on 5 July 2022. Retrieved 5 July 2022.
  14. ^ Aujla-Sidhu, Gurvinder (July 2019). Delivering a Public Service? The BBC Asian Network and British Asian audiences (PDF) (PhD). De Montfort University. Archived (PDF) from the original on 5 July 2022. Retrieved 5 July 2022.
  15. ^ "Celebrations for Britain's First-Ever Licensed Ethnic Radio Station | LGR 103.3 FM". Retrieved 5 July 2022.

External links