What’s the deal with radio station formats? Are they still useful or worth considering?

In today’s post, you’ll see:

  • What are radio formats?
  • A short history of radio formats.
  • Types of radio formats, target audience, music charts, and examples.

It’s an actionable guide. A super easy read. And if you’re launching any new radio station, or attempting a radio station format change — let’s dive right in.

CHAPTER 1 - What are radio formats?

The station’s format describes the type of content it mainly broadcasts.

For instance:

Is 75% of its content talk and news?

Probably, it defines itself as a news/talk show radio.

Is it a hip-hop radio station?

You’re bound to hear lots of hip-hop tracks oppose to a jazz radio station.

In summary:

The format outlines the overall content on the station.

Radio formats are selected to appeal to particular demographics and niches, such as a particular age group or ethnicity.

But where did all start?

Formats have not always existed. So, let's find out how they arose:

History of Radio Formats

Let’s rewind the radio clock a few decades…

We’re in the golden era of radio. A period spanning from the 1930s to the 1940s.

Most families own radio sets. In the evenings, they gather around their wireless for their radio dramas, talent shows, soap operas, comedies, panel discussions, weather reports, quiz shows, orchestras, and other variety shows.

Radio is the number one medium.

Time flies, and we’re now in the 1950s. TV sets have become cheaper & accessible. Color TV is also making a debut. And cable television becomes widespread in the US. The visual medium is dethroning radio as American’s favorite past time.

The radio industry faces a huge disruption: Adapt or die.

Todd Storz comes up with the first radio format. In a bar, he notes that patrons like requesting the same songs from the jukebox.

So he plays popular songs over and over. In 1960, this new format becomes known as "The Top 40." You can read more about its origins here.

And that's the short story of how radio transition from a mass media into niche media.

What drives a radio station change?

Radio stations undergo multiple radio station format changes over its life course.

Re-branding occurs due to several reasons:

  • Demographic changes
  • Consistent low ratings and persistent underperformance in the target market
  • New trends and marketplaces
  • Changing tastes of the audience

CHAPTER 2 - Types of Radio Formats

Here are ten of the most popular radio formats based 2018 rankings by Nielsen.

  1. News and talk
  2. Adult Contemporary
  3. Country
  4. Pop CHR
  5. Classic Hits
  6. Hot AC
  7. Classic Rock
  8. Urban AC
  9. All Sports
  10. Urban Contemporary

Let's go all the way, and exhaustively look at all the radio formats.

1) Pop/Adult Contemporary Radio Category

a) Contemporary hit radio (CHR)

CHR –you’ll also encounter its synonyms: Top 40, CHR-pop, or Hots Hits. Hot hits stations play current music from diverse genres including Rock, R&B, Pop, Dance, etc.

The mood is upbeat; so if you’re Hot Hits presenter, you must be dynamic, fun, exude crazy high energy; and even ads and promotions should be upbeat.

Top 40 stations also run contests and are particularly known for free-money giveaways.

Target Audience:

Men and women (18 – 34 years)

Examples (Listen Live)

KHKS (106.1 FM, 106.1 KISS-FM)


Music Charts

Top 100 Song - The Billboard Hot 100 Chart


b) Adult contemporary music (AC)

As one of the top formats, AC has ranked as the number one format and sometimes comes second after News/Talk radio.

Stations play mainstream soft-rock, soft-pop, light-rock, but no hip-hop, dance, teen pop, or hard-rock music.

It's also a very competitive format to tackle.

Target Audience:

Adults (18-34) comprise the most AC listeners.

Examples (Listen Live)

101.5 FM Today Radio

https://c player.cloudradionetwork.com/mikefm/

Music Charts

Adult Contemporary Music Chart Billboard


Adult/variety hits

So, how will you tell you’re listening to a variety hits station?

Easy, the station plays pop hits from bygone eras such as the ’90s, ’80s, and ’70s, along with current hits.

Stations operating this radio format have “Male First Names” for instance, Jack FM, Mike FM, Bob FM, although it’s been dubbed a dying format.

Target Audience:

35 to 44 year-olds

Examples (Listen Live)

Mike FM


c) Classic hits

On a Classic Hits station expect songs that topped the 40 Music Charts from the ’60s, '70s, '80s through to the ’90s.

Some Classic Hits stations also play holiday music from Thanksgiving to Christmas. Others will play limited current tracks their listeners might have heard and liked

Target Audience:

The millennial generation has caught up with Classic Hits, but most listenership comes from adults 35+.

Examples (Listen Live)



Music Charts

Greatest of All Time Hot 100 Singles : Billboard


d) Hot adult contemporary (Hot AC)

HOT AC stations play hits for their adult audience minus rap or hard rock tracks.

So what’s played?

Recent hits in pop, indie, rock, alternative rock, pop-rock, are kept in rotation. You'll hear tracks from Ed Sheeran, Bruno Mars, Katy Perry, Adele, etc.

Target Audience:

Adults mostly,18-54 year-olds.

Examples (Listen Live)

CHUM FM Canadian radio station


Music Charts

Hot AC Charts - AT40


2) Rock/Alternative/Indie

a) Album rock / album-oriented rock (AAA or Triple-A)

Born in the 1990s, the “Triple A” radio format is a spin-off of the older Album-oriented rock format. AAA stations playlist is more varied than that of mainstream rock or pop stations.

You'll hear alternative rock, jazz, world music, blues, alternative country, pop-rock, folk and indie rock. but you not bound to hear rap music or hard rock tracks.

Stations also promote independent & local stations. So they accept submissions.

Target Audience:

Anyone tired of hit commercial stations that require a different taste. Generally, adults 35+

Examples (Listen Live)

92.3 WTTS


Music Charts

Triple A Radio Song Chart


b) Alternative rock

In the 1980s, the underground rock scene blossomed giving rise to alternative rock stations. Music included single releases and album cuts.

Alternative rock is now popular, and you can tell an alternative track because it will sound different from the mainstream stuff.

Target Audience:

Broad demographic: from students as young as 14 years to adults in their late 50's.

Examples (Listen Live)

Alt 923


Music Charts

Alternative Songs: Top Alternative Songs Chart | Billboard


c) Classic rock

Rock songs released in the ’60s, '70s, '80s, '90s and early 2000s feature heavily on classic rock stations.

There is a crossover of music between classic rock, oldies, and classic hits stations. The station's playlist will also have recent releases with care taken not to pollute the general style.

Target Audience:

Anyone who grew up listening to rock and might want the nostalgia of the ‘good times.' So 30 to 64 year-olds.

Examples (Listen Live)

Philadelphia's Classic Rock 102.9 WMGK


Music Charts

Top 100 Classic Rock Songs - Ultimate Classic Rock


d) Soft rock

Soft rock music have you singing with the easy lyrics or humming to the melody. It’s not the case with hard rock.

Some artists whose songs are on soft rock stations include Elton John, Cod Play, Fall Out Boy, Linkin Park, etc.

Target Audience:

Women outnumber men on lite rock stations. The prime demographic is 30-40 year-olds.

Examples (Listen Live)

Lite 100.5 WRCH


Music Charts

Top Rock Songs Chart | Billboard


3) Country

a) Bluegrass

Bluegrass music has its origin in American roots music. You’ll bound to hear plenty of acoustic stringed instruments such as the guitar, string bass, fiddle, and five-string banjo. Bluegrass musicians sing gospel songs.

Target Audience:

The target listeners are between the ages of 25-54, and may also be fans of contemporary Christian stations.

Examples (Listen Live)

WNRV The Ridge AM 990/FM 97.3


Music Charts

Bluegrass Music: Top Bluegrass Albums Chart | Billboard


c) Americana

Stations target adults than teens. Also, some country fans have heard the term "Americana" and may seek out Americana stations.

Target Audience:

The target listeners are between the ages of 25-54, and may also be fans of contemporary Christian stations.

Examples (Listen Live)

KNBT Radio station


Music Charts

Official Americana Albums Chart Top 40


d) Classic country

Classic country radios play country songs released from the 1950s to the 1990s. The tracks are mainstream and western hits. Artists include Hank Williams, Shania Twain, Time McGraw to Johnny Cash.

Target Audience:

Primarily, listeners are 35-64 year-olds. The largest share of who are middle-aged men.

Examples (Listen Live)

Classic Country 98.1 WBRF


Music Charts

Classic Country Top 500 Songs of All Time


e) Country

Country music has its roots in the 1920s and is the top music format in American. Some Country stations might focus more on Hot Country songs with contemporary styles, while others might lean more on songs with traditional styles.

Target Audience:

It’s the number one format for 18-54 year-olds. There are more interesting stats: Among 18-54 year-olds, about 40% are country fans. And 60% of country music fans fall within the age demographic of 18-49. Plus most radio stations in the US are country radio stations.

Examples (Listen Live)

Go Country 105


Music Charts

Country Music: Top Country Songs Chart | Billboard


4) Rhythmic

a) Rhythmic adult contemporary

The radio format is also called Rhythmic contemporary, Rhythmic Top 40, Rhythmic CHR, Rhythmic contemporary hit radio, or Rhythmic crossover. Music played include EDM, R&B hits, hip hop, and rhythmic pop. Rhythmic AC stations, though, might not play rap music.

Target Audience:

Those drawn to Rhythmic stations are 24-54 year-olds.

Examples (Listen Live)

Power 106 | KPWR-FM


Music Charts



b) Classic hip-hop

Classic hip-hop radio stations draw their music from the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s. Fans of classic hip-hop station hold lots of respect for the early pioneers and still recognize the genre as a way of people growing up in ghettos going through life challenges to express themselves.

Target Audience:

25-50 year-olds.

Examples (Listen Live)



Music Charts

The 50 Greatest Hip-Hop Songs of All Time


c) Rhythmic oldies

Stations on this format feature Rhythmic, Old School, Urban, Dance, and Disco hits from the 1970s to the 1990s. In the US, the stations target African-Americans and Hispanics.

Target Audience:

25-50 year-olds.

Examples (Listen Live)

Mega 97.49


Music Charts

Oldies Songs List 1970


d) Soul

Soul music contains elements of rhythm, blues, and gospel music. It was popularized by African-Americans in the US from the 1950s to the early 1960s. And its emphasis is on vocals featuring acts such as Aretha Franklin, James Brown, and Marvin Gaye.

Target Audience:

25-50 year-olds.

Examples (Listen Live)

Magic Soul


Music Charts

Soul Tracks 70s Songs


5) Urban

a) Urban contemporary

The Urban adult radio format is also known as urban pop. You’ll encounter playlists loaded with R&B, pop, drum & bass, reggae, dancehall, reggaeton, UK garage, urban Euro-pop, Urban alternative, and grime tracks.

Target Audience:

The demographic of 18-34 years old including Millennials.

Examples (Listen Live)

HOT 97 | #1 For Hip Hop


Music Charts

Adult R&B Songs & Music Chart | Billboard


b) Urban adult contemporary

Radio stations in this format also play classic R&B hits, smooth Jazz, music from soul artists, and contemporary R&B. As a genre, Urban AC has been around since the 1980s.

Target Audience:

Older adults may also want to hear songs from past decades such as the ‘70s and '80s.

Examples (Listen Live)

Mega 104.3


Music Charts

Urban/UAC All Access Music Group


c) Urban oldies

Primarily, Urban oldies stations play R&B music tracks from the 1950s to the early 1990s.

Target Audience:

Adults 35+

Examples (Listen Live)

Classic R&B 107.3FM and AM 1400

Music Charts

Greatest of All Time Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs


6) Dance/Electronic

a) Dance (dance top-40)

Dance music was once regarded as an underground genre of music. But in the past decade, it has been popularized in clubs, raves, and music festivals.

Pop artists and rock artists have also had collaborations with dubstep artists. Electronic dance music (EDM) distinguishing feature is repetitive beats, sound samples, and synthesized tracks.

Target Audience:

16-24 year-olds.

Examples (Listen Live)

C89.5, KNHC 89.5 FM, Seattle-Tacoma


Music Charts

Dance Club Songs


b) Space music

Space music is ideal for Yoga or Meditation. Space ambient music, a subgenre of new age music, has been dubbed, “hypnotic, relaxing, peaceful, spiritual and tranquil."

You can journey, float, and get lost in space by listening to Space ambient.

Target Audience:

Not targeted towards a specific demographic.

Examples (Listen Live)

Soma FM


Music Charts

Space Ambient Music LIVE 24/7


7) Jazz/Blues/Standard

a) Blues

Blues are moving and emotional. And they have been around since the 1870s, with roots rooted in African musical traditions. Blues have distinct lyrics and instrumentation, as renowned as Country music. Fans are loyal for life!

Target Audience:

The market for Blues is not racially inclined. Target listeners are up to 60 years-old.

Examples (Listen Live)

Aardvark Blues FM


Music Charts

Blue Albums Billboard


b) Jazz

Jazz music relies on improvisation. Its distinct elements include melody, response vocals, harmony, swing & blue notes, and rhythm. Listening to jazz music creates a relaxed, calm, and easy-going atmosphere.

Target Audience:

The market for Blues is not racially inclined. Target listeners are up to 60 years-old.

Examples (Listen Live)

Jazz FM


Music Charts

The 100 Best Jazz Songs According To Our Listeners