A radio format or programming format (not to be confused with broadcast programming) describes the overall content broadcast on a radio station. 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. Since then, the formula has spread as a reference for commercial radio programming worldwide.
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.
Except News/Talk, All-Talk or Sports formats, most programming formats are based on commercial music. However the term also includes the news, bulletins, DJ talk, jingles, commercials, competitions, traffic news, sports, weather and community announcements between the tracks.
Throughout its historical development, the American radio industry has changed its formats not only to contend against the newer and more competitive forms of entertainment media – such as television –, as well to pleasure the contemporary tastes of the American audience and earn profits by meeting the entertainment demands more sufficiently to the benefit of all parties affected. Indeed, the same phenomena has happened in other parts of the world.
Even before World War II, radio stations in North America and Europe almost always adopted a generalist radio format.
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. American television had more financial resources to produce generalist programs that provoked the migration of countless talents radio networks to the new medium. Under this context, the radio was pressured to seek alternatives to maintain its audience and cultural relevance.
As a consequence, AM radios stations began to emerge in the United States and Canada – many of which "independents", that is not affiliated with the network – developed a format which targeted audiences with programming consisted of music, news, charismatic disc jockeys to directly attract a certain audience.
For example by the 1960s, the 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] – 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, 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. Soon, playlists became central to programming and radio formats, 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. This resulted in huge competition between radio stations in the AM and FM spectrum to differentiate themselves for both audiences and advertisers. At that time, it proliferated many radio formats, which included presentation, schedule and target audience, as well as repertoire. 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.
During the 1970s and 1980s, radio programming formats expand into commercially successful variations, 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.
Over time, FM radio came to dominate music programming, while AM radio switched to news and talk formats.
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".
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.
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.