What Are Radio Formats and Why Do They Matter?

Stations use formats to target audiences and advertisers

A DJ at a radio station control board.

Inti St. Clair / Getty Images

Flip on the radio and you can immediately tell if the station you're hearing plays rock and roll. In the radio industry, radio formats aren't that simple. Popular music is divided into formats that radio stations use to design playlists to appeal to certain audiences.

Every radio station has its own personality, through the music it plays, its on-air talent and even its jingles. But most stations fall under specific radio format categories that are used to track audiences and attract advertisers so the station can build its media brand.

What Is Radio Format?

Radio format, sometimes called programming format, refers to the overall content of the station. Some stations run multiple genres, but most have a signature tone and style. Radio formats are selected to appeal to particular demographics and niches, such as a particular age group or ethnicity. 

Common formats include:

  • News, talk, and sports: These stations feature news and conversation, rather than music. They typically announce local, regional and national news items along with sports coverage. They also will regularly post traffic updates, one of the main reasons why audiences tune in. 
  • Country: Country stations play a mix of recent hits and classic songs in their genre. These stations have broad appeal in age demographics. 
  • Contemporary: Contemporary stations usually focus on the top 40 hits of the moment, including pop music, hip-hop and more. These stations target younger crowds, such as teenagers. 
  • Rock and alternative: Classic rock is one of the most popular formats; metropolitan areas often have multiple classic rock stations. Rock and alternative stations play a mix of modern rock, classic rock, punk and metal music. 
  • Urban: Urban stations, often referred to as rhythm and blues (R&B) stations, tend to cater to a younger audience. They highlight artists in R&B, soul, hip-hop, and rap. 
  • Classical: Classical music is usually geared towards older audiences and is not as common. They feature works by composers like Beethoven, Chopin, and Bach. 
  • Religious: Religious programming is popular in certain areas, particularly in the southern states. From youth-focused music to talk radio, these stations highlight spiritual content. Stations target different demographics with programming at different times. 
  • College: Many colleges and universities have their own radio stations, featuring music from up and coming artists. Run by volunteers, these stations tend to have smaller broadcast ranges. The audiences tend to be very niche, such as college students at that particular university. 

    Radio Format and Advertisers

    Arbitron is the company that publishes the ratings of radio stations. It has a list of radio station formats that it uses as a barometer for measuring radio station audiences.

    When advertisers look to place commercials on the radio, they need to know whether a station is playing country music or hip-hop. That helps them decide how to pinpoint their message to reach a specific audience.

    Radio station programmers constantly tweak their formats to respond to changing tastes in music. A Top 40 station may evolve toward classic rock or adult contemporary to hit a slightly older audience, which advertisers may prefer.