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Radio Airplay 101 - Commercial Formats

Commercial radio has a word for what music people call "genre"'s called a "format". A format is like a category of automobiles... trucks, cars, SUV's, station wagons, etc; each category is made up of different makes from different manufacturers, but no matter where in the country you go, everyone understands what you mean when you say "truck"... you simply have to specify what make and model you are referring to.

Same with radio. A commercial radio format is a collection of types of music that are similar, from different artists. Most of the broadcast day will stick to the format, and every station in the country that is of that particular format will play the same types of artists. The purpose of a format (on a commercial station) has to do with how a station sells advertising, but we won't go into that now. Note: Formats do not really apply to non-commercial radio, and especially not to college radio.

Below are the main new-music formats in the United States; most U.S. cities will have a station for each one. Canada is similar but smaller, and with many French stations too. The formats below are sorted (roughly) by the number of stations in each group. Note, however, that this does not correspond to the number of LISTENERS. The number of listeners (or "ratings") of a format or station will be covered at a later time. Also, these formats are broad groups; you most likely would only promote your music to a portion of a particular group. The formats are...

COUNTRY: 2,300 stations. Country is the real "top 40" of the U.S. because of the number of stations. "Young Country" and "Hot Country" appeal to the younger listeners, using newer artists, younger DJs, and a more energetic approach. The whole "new" approach really took hold about the time Garth started gaining popularity. More traditional country stations (sometimes known as "Heritage" stations) are sort of the "oldies" of country radio... but they also are specific in which new artists they play.

One special sub-category of Country is the "Americana" format. It is a more roots-based country, and it has about 100 stations, most of which are small. Americana is an interesting new format, with some really eclectic artists and new labels supporting it.

RELIGIOUS: 1,900 stations. Includes Christian in several music styles, Gospel in many styles, Praise and Worship, and Ministry. Although a big format, hundreds of these stations offer less chance for new music because of the large amounts of talk, satellite programming, and older songs that they play. There is no absolute number of religious stations which play new music; instead it is a variable, and a particular station can play anywhere from one to 24 hours of new music.

ADULT CONTEMPORARY: 1,500 stations. Also called "AC". Includes "mainstream AC", "modern AC", "hot AC" and "soft AC". More people listen to AC than any other format. AC is similar to Religious, in that hundreds of the stations have limited capacity for new music because of the talk, satellite or sports programming they carry. Nevertheless, AC still remains as one of the melding pots for new artists on small labels. By this I mean that there are enough small AC stations (which play new music) for a new artist to stand a chance... if promoted correctly.

ROCK: 800 stations. Includes "modern rock", "alternative", and straight-ahead rock. Most people know of these stations. Problem is, they are tougher for independent artists to get played on. One thing saves the day, however... their specialty shows.

SPANISH: 600 stations. All variations included.

TOP 40: 400 stations. Called Contemporary Hit Radio (CHR), it includes "rhythmic crossover" stations; i.e., Top 40 with a beat. A very difficult format for indie artists. But again, specialty shows (and mixshows) save the day.

URBAN: 300 stations. Includes Urban, R&B, Hip Hop, and Urban AC. Also very difficult for new artists, but thankfully it also offers mixshow support.

CLASSICAL: 150 stations.

JAZZ: 150 stations. Includes "straight" Jazz (i.e., traditional), and "smooth" Jazz. Straight Jazz is a viable format for an indie artist. Smooth, however, will take some serious promotion.

KIDS: 50 stations. These mostly are your Radio Disney stations, and they are all programmed from the Disney home office.

Next topic: Morning Shows.

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