POP 

Usually lightweight and popular (from where it gets its name) music that is not purely another genre such as country or soul. The term was used in the 50s and 60s for a while and then dropped by music snobs, who profess to not care much for music that was overtly happy or even popular. Often used more as a derogatory term. 

P & W  'Praise and Worship'

is a sub genre of Christian programming. It features mainly hymns and gospel songs, 'Praising the Lord' and is very popular throughout many areas of the USA and in other countries where it is available. P&W stations attract a lot of sponsorship and listener funding, scoring good reach and penetration, especially among older demographics.

RAP

The American term 'Hip-Hop' never became very popular in the UK, where the more descriptive term 'Rap' was more widely used. 'Rhythm and Poetry' is the chanting of random words and phrases over a rhythmic backing track, something that was used by many black music radio station DJs as far back as the 50s.

Californian DJ 'Emperor Rosko' first used it in the UK in 1966 on Radio Caroline and later on Radio 1, but in the 80s it became 'hip' for some black performers to adopt this as a music style, generally with more laid back music than Rosko was renowned for. 

R&B

  originally known by its full name of Rhythm and Blues, its based on BLUES style of singing but with a rhythmic beat. R&B became popularised in the late 50s and early 60s in clubs and 'juke joints' (often just a bar with a juke box) by artists such as Chuck Berry, John lee hooker and others who made the slow shuffling Blues songs more suitable for dancing by adding a boogie woogie backing, usually with a solo electric guitar.
In the UK, Pye Records added the name R&B to its 'Pye International' label that included such artistes, and many white British groups adopted this as a description of their own style - including the Rolling Stones. In the 90s some black artistes in the UK adopted the term R&B to describe Rap music.

REGGAE

  Generally describing the Jamaican music of the late 50s based on calypso and mento, fused with jazz and some rhythm and blues. Some elements of the style were adopted by artistes produced by Chris Blackwell in the 60s, notably the Spencer Davis Group and the term became more popular for the Ska music artists who began having hits in the UK and other European countries after 1966. By 1969, the term Ska had been dropped (although only temporarily) in favour of reggae, which was usually played a little slower than Ska.

ROCK

Simply a harder edged pop music, often guitar-led with prominent rhythmic and usually played at a high volume. Perhaps one of the most popular format in all but the most tightly regulated radio markets, rock has shaped the international music market  since the 1960s, although the genre itself has gone though an evolutionary process. There are at least a thousand hard rock stations online and on the FM dial.

ROCK AC 

The AC part of the Rock AC format stands for Adult Contemporary, so it's Rock music (as defined above) from the previous fifteen years or so with more appeal to adults than teenagers. Often with a heavy skew towards adult males, its a format very popular with advertisers.

ROCK'N'ROLL

The rebel yell of a generation of baby boomers. This is at its most basic the integration of black and white music which in the mid-fifties had both parents and preachers absolutely appalled. Upbeat with a fast tempo, Rock'n'Roll  was often, but not exclusively, white musicians playing up-beat blues music. Popularised by Elvis Presley's “That's Alright Mama” and “Blue Suede Shoes”, Rock'n'Roll was invariably easy to dance to and up-tempo. Many musicians argue that you can't have Rock'n'Roll without a piano and a bass and most tracks defined as Rock'n'Roll feature these two instruments prominently, usually with saxophone and drums.

SEASONAL

Stations playing non stop or predominantly Christmas music, usually a temporary format aimed at shop or restaurant operators to run in the appropriate period.

SKA

This is a music genre that began in Jamaica in the 50s and was a precursor to reggae. It is widely attributed to legendary producer Byron Lee and seems to come from scat, a style of singing. It's certainly based on off-beat guitar chopping. Millie Small's 1964 hit “My Boy Lollipop” is the biggest selling ska record ever, 7 million copies.

The name Ska was revived in the mid 70s in the British Midlands, particularly by artistes on the 2-Tone record label who mixed the rhythms of Jamaican music with the faster paced hard edged music of the punk era.  A typical example of this second phase would be Selecter's hit single “On My Radio”.

SMOOTH

  Popular, easy-listening music with a calming effect and a laid back style of presentation, designed to relax listeners and be played in the background. Some large radio groups called it 'Beautiful music' for a while.

SPORTS

  As you would expect, this is a mainly all-talk format (although in the UK Rock'n'roll Football, which began as a single programme on Virgin Radio, has become a 24/7 format). Sports stations in the UK usually cover many different sports, such as 'Five Sports Extra' in the UK which has grown out of 'Five Live'. It initially offered just additional coverage of lengthy events, such as cricket or race festivals, but is now evolving into a full time sports only channel.

SOUNDTRACKS

  Mainly instrumental music is played on soundtrack stations and they are often variations of Easy Listening formats such as NAC or Smooth Jazz. Many of these stations major on film soundtrack music, with lush orchestral backings.

STANDARDS

This format is primarily aimed at seniors, older adults (50+). It is sometimes referred to as an 'Adult Standards' or 'Nostalgia' format and is generally full of well known songs from 30 to 60 years ago done in a non-rock style - i.e. easy listening or MOR ('Middle of the Road', a rarely heard term these days but prevalent in the 60s).

TALK

There are many thousands of traditional radio stations which are 'Talk' which simply means all speech, or at least predominantly speech. Most of these are not 'all news' but have lengthy programmes hosted by 'talk jocks' who simply field calls from listeners, or conduct interviews with others. The usual topic of discussion is current events. The main Talk genre has a number of sub genres, such as News Talk, Sports Talk, Christian Talk, etc.

TIS

Traffic Information System radio is very common in the USA and in some European countries such as Germany. It has been tried in the UK, with one single station previously covering both London and Heathrow Airports, and another covering the motorways to the channel ports in Kent. More recently the Highways Agency ran six different Traffic Radio stations online and via DAB but these has now closed.

TRIPPY

  Barely a dozen stations claim to format 'Trippy' music; it could also be called Psychedelic Stoned Rock. Some really heavy grooves that are enjoyed by listeners from California to the Netherlands.  Other similar stations are Psychedelic FM, Happy Smokers Trax and Psycho Chill.  The message is in the name, and in the music of course!

TURKISH 

There are three main strands of Turkish music used for radio station formats;  Arabesque, Turkish folk and Turkish Pop music. Turkish Music includes many very diverse elements ranging from Central Asian folk music to influences from Byzantine music, Greek music, Ottoman music, Persian music, Balkan music, as well as some styles reflecting the influence of modern European and American genres. There are over seventy Turkish music stations available online. 

UNDERGROUND 

Air Atlantic is just one of the 50 or so stations designed to fill the spaces between your ears with some of the most underground vibrationss such as Dream, Bliss, Trip Hop, Ambient, Electronica, Indie, Rock & other flights of fancy.

Psychedelic FM too is an underground station, available only online with its esoteric mix of garage mod pop and underground sounds from 60s to today from around the world. Most underground stations play only album cuts, often quite lengthy ones and would never play a song that is well known or has been a hit.

URBAN

These stations tend to be centred in big cities, although not necessarily. They base the majority of their output on popular black music. There are many sub-genres such as Urban Contemporary, Urban Progressive and so on. Urban stations are particularly noted for their crossover appeal making 'black' formats attractive to listeners of all races and so advertisers. 

The term 'urban' seems to have been coined by Frankie Crocker in the 90s. Crocker said, "A reporter asked what my format was and I told him, quite off the cuff, 'It's what's happening in the city,' in other words 'Urban Contemporary'"

VARIETY

Stations following a Variety format simply use material from a variety of genres.  The name is usually used to describe many small non-commercial radio stations in the USA, such as those in the education sector, and some small 'Mom and Pop' radio stations. Such stations often target more mature tastes and many Variety stations will include tracks from various 'classic' genres. There is even a VarietyIndieRadio online station in the UK. 

FREEFORM

  This could be called formless, it's where the DJ is allowed to play any kind of music with no fixed format to adhere to. It can include any kind of music, even in the same time period. The Freeform format is common in BBC local radio stations and also markets where formatted radio has not become very competitive.

GLAM

A form of rock, Glam evolved from a few British artistes who dressed glamourously in the early 70s to perform pop-rock. David Bowie was the proponent and best known and he has proved to be one of the longest lasting, but others associated with glam rock included Marc Bolan, T Rex, The Sweet, Elton John, The New York Dolls, Roxy Music, Mott the Hoople, Mud and Slade.

These artistes paved the way for Punk and Hair Metal. Sub genres of Glam include Garage, Psychedelic, Rockabilly, Surf and the founders of the genre, British Invasion. The Glamrock JunkShop epitomises the movement with their  'Bopping with the Ballrooms of Mars' and 'Bubblegum Rock' programmes.

GOSPEL

  Christian influenced music, often up-tempo and with a large choir either leading or backing the vocals. Gospel is a traditional music genre as well as a radio format. Among the many sub-genres of gospel radio format are Southern Gospel, Contemporary, Adult Black Gospel, traditional, inspirational, contemporary hit gospel and rock gospel. One of the best and most easily accessible examples of a gospel radio station is 'Mexican Soul Food', which is available terrestrially and online.

HARD ROCK 

This is the format for rock fans who like to feel their music loud, somewhere up past mark 11 on the volume control! From Black Sabbath to Metallica; Led Zeppelin to Foo Fighters; Van Halen to Tool. Sizzling guitars and thumping drums, often augmented by powerful blasts on Korg Keyboards. There are at least a few hundred hard rock stations online and at least two on the FM dial. Hard Rock has spun off its own sub-genres; Jam, Prog / Art Rock and Psychedelic to name but a few.

HEAVY METAL

  A very popular sub-genre of Metal, (see below) Heavy Metal now has around 60 online radio stations and two FM outlets playing the sub-genre. Heavy Metal  has its origins in blues and includes artistes such as Led Zeppelin, Iron Butterfly, Blue Cheer, Black Sabbath and Deep Purple.

HIP-HOP

   Hip hop music is often called rap music. It is a music genre of very stylised rhythmic music over which artistes usually chant. Hip-Hop is a sub-culture which incorporates beatboxing (making instrumental sounds with the mouth into a microphone) and MCing as well as occasionally graffiti painting while doing so!

HOLIDAY 

An alternative name for the format of playing predominantly Christmas music, usually as a temporary format aimed at shop or restaurant operators to run up to the Christmas holidays.

HOT ADULT AC

  There are now several different versions of Hot AC in use. It originally meant stations playing current hit music that is more energetic or upbeat than the average Adult Contemporary station, but over the last five years has increasingly meant stations that play a larger proportion of the very latest releases.  Billboard's Adult Top 40 chart includes new releases played on rock oriented CHR stations as well as Hot AC stations.

HOUSE

  A sub-genre of electronic dance music that has heavy bass chords and its origins in Chicago. The sound has repetitive 4/4 beats, lots of off-beat hi-hats and urgent pounding basslines. The style was popularised by MARRS, S Express, Grandmaster Flash and Sylvester, who each had huge hits in many countries with the genre. Its popularity continues with the likes of Robin Schulz and Duke Dumont and there are several dozen house music based radio stations around the world.

INSPIRATIONAL

The music genre 'inspirational' is generally slow, soft, peaceful and usually instrumental music.  Calm, melodic and designed to relax its listeners and inspire fresh thoughts. There are many examples on Soundcloud.The radio format known as Inspirational contains elements of Blues, Country and Jazz, and is designed to uplift and motivate. Music that makes you 'feel good' and inspires! It is a sub-genre of Christian radio programming that is increasingly popular in the USA. In the UK, UCB run a channel called UCB2 - Inspirational Radio. Live365 have almost 300 Inspirational radio stations on their system.

INSTORE 

  Many large chains of retail stories have in-house radio channels which are used to promote special offers and provide other announcements. Stations generally play well known tunes designed to uplift shoppers and get them in the mood for buying. They are also used for staff training outside hours. Asda FM reaches 18 million shoppers and 167,000 staff every week, making it the biggest radio station in terms of audience the UK. The programme service for instore stations is often provided to the store groups by programme contractors. TSG are the largest provider of such services in the UK and other providers include PEL, Imagesound and KVH Studios.

INTERNATIONAL

  This is a bit of “catch all' which includes radio stations which broadcast 'internationally' such as RT, the BBC World Service or the Voice of America,  and those stations which play a mixture of international music.  Some stations which broadcast a regional type of music such as Hindi, Celtic, Caribbean, Tamil, Middle Eastern and SoCa (from South Caribbean) music are also called 'international'.

JAMMIN OLDIES

This format is a fusion of predominantly upbeat dance, pop and disco hits from the 60s and 70s, often replacing R&B and Soul stations in some American cities, who are tying to drop older demographics from their audience and refresh their sound with newer and hipper tracks.

JAZZ  

There are several forms of Jazz and most have been used for radio station formats  - around 300 are still broadcasting online and on FM. The main Jazz sub-genres are Acid jazz, Avant Garde, BigBand, Bop, Classic, Cool, Hard Bop, Latin, Smooth, Swing, Vocal and World Fusion.

LATIN  

Latin music fuses the rhythm and soul of the entire Latin American region. There are many styles, each with its own particular sound.  Many contemporary artists such as Gloria Estefan have broadened the appeal of Latin music, which has many different sub-genres; Bachata, Cumbia, Bossa Nova, Banda, Mariachi, Salsa, Merengue, Tejano and Tropicana are just a few!

LITE AC

  Stations following a Lite AC format include mainly light Adult-oriented   Contemporary tracks (singles and album tracks) usually play a high proportion of “easy listening' tracks from the last couple of decades. Not particularly upbeat material, just gentle laid back 'pop' that's easy on the ear.

LOUNGE

  This is music designed to be heard faintly, i.e. in the background or as mood setting, often Light Jazz, Smooth Jazz or NAC (see below).

METAL  “

Loud and very distorted electric guitar” is the best way to describe Metal music. Initially made popular by artists like Black Sabbath and Deep Purple, the genre now includes the output of Slayer, Metallica, and Slipknot. Metal has been spun off into a few subgenres such as Industrial, Heavy and Extreme. There is even Rap Metal too and nine internet stations major on just that as a format.

MIDDLE OF THE ROAD

a little used term these days but until 70s it means any laid back popular music, often instrumental. See Easy Listening.

MOD

is a genre which includes mostly up tempo American soul music popular in the mid 1960s, plus music of the bands who also played those numbers. The Who, Geno Washington and 1970s hits by The JAM are all 'Mod' which also described a sub-culture lifestyle of those who rode scooters and dressed in a 'clean cut' neo-Italian style and were avowed enemies of 'Rockers' who generally wore leather and rode motorcycles.

MODERN ROCK 

This genre covers mostly current rock music performed by artists who have emerged during the past five to ten years, rather than older established artistes. Most Modern rock is between Rock and Alternative Rock.

NAC This is a relatively new format, more fully New Adult Contemporary which has mainly smooth jazz tracks. Most stations are designed to be played more as background music than as a performance, to invite criticism or for careful listening. A modern day successor to Easy Listening.

NEW AGE

  Broadly similar to NAC, New Age has become a popular choice for relaxation, inspiration, and enlightenment. Perfect for those who have chosen the lifestyle of yoga, meditation, and other forms of relaxation. Yanni and John Tesh are two of the acts typical of the New Age genre which also has a couple of sub-genres in Environmental, Fusion, Healing, Meditational and Spiritual. Also known as Ambient or Chill, New Age now has over a hundred radio stations using the format online.

NEWS 

There are very few 'all news' stations, perhaps a couple of dozen throughout the entire USA. Many of the formerly 'all news' stations have now gone over to News Talk, which combines a regular news service with a phone in format. All news is very expensive to produce as it requires expensive content and only the largest groups or state run broadcasters can afford to operate this.

OLDIES 

This is a very wide term covers music beyond the recent decade or so covered by 'Contemporary', i.e. older than  ten years. It has several sub genres - often 60s, 70s and 80s, even the 50s, however most stations now refine this to be specific music genres from those eras. Stations filtering music to be simply from a particular era will often sound too varied to attract many listeners, very few of whom would think of their tastes as being just of one particular group of years. 

PERSONALITY

Stations which present well known or high profile DJs with extrovert personalities, who connect or engage with the listeners. They will mix interviews, comedy, music and mini productions to form a programme unique to them. Often these hosts are so well known that they are given a completely free hand in music selection, and often this works very well.

Kenny Everett was an excellent example of a UK personality DJ. Previously, BBC Radio 1 had personality DJs, but these have now mostly been replaced. BBC Radio 2 has almost entirely Personality DJs, though most are not strictly DJs at all, but usually personalities from other fields, such as TV.

AAA

   This stands for Adult Album Alternative, a format which is designed to appeal to adults and those with a more developed music taste. AAA stations tend to play more album tracks rather than hit singles.

ACTIVE ROCK

   This term is used for stations which play mostly hardrock, metal rock  and 'heavy metal' (see below).

ADULT ALTERNATIVE

   is a format of appeal to adults with more developed tastes but usually playing only current hits.

ADULT CONTEMPORARY

  These stations will play music from the past ten years or so, maybe twenty, rather than the latest hits. They are 'today's' artistes, but usually their better known recent hits of the last decade or so.

ADULT ORIENTED ROCK 

This term is not often used today but in the 70s it described stations that played mostly album cuts rather than singles, and usually from the ROCK genre (see below)

ALTERNATIVE ROCK

  Originally this applied to punk music; which were originally mainly 'thrash' bands who played with great energy and gusto and invariably a lack of melody. In the 90s it began to be applied to rock influenced Top 40 'Brit' bands too. It appeals to the younger demographics and includes current hits and cuts from recent albums.

AMERICANA

This genre includes overtly North American lifestyle music and includes country-rock, folk-rock, blues and American roots music. Appeals to adults more than to teenagers.

BIG BAND

Music industry term borrowed for radio to describe the orchestra-led music that was the mainstay in the 40s and 50s. These huge ensembles were usually fronted by well known leaders such as Count Basie or Nelson Riddle. They often had a lead singer who was of lesser importance than the orchestra, despite their name and status. The style was usually upbeat as their main work was in dance halls; a good example of Big Band music would be Frank Sinatra's “New York, New York”.

BLUEBEAT

   The word Bluebeat has become a generic terms for early jamaican music thanks to a record label set up by Emil Shallit (Melodisc) which released R&B and pop hits from Jamaica. The name was coined by label manager Siggy Jackson, who explains “It sounds like the blues and it has beat'. Several unlicensed radio stations have used Blue beat in the British Midlands and the north over the years and the term remains popular with Mods.

BLUES

Music originally from the 'deep south' of the USA, fusing African and American folk music, often sad, from 'feeling blue' its often based on trance like rythms known as 'the groove'.  See Also R & B  (below) 

BOY BAND

Vocal harmonies from young male singers, usually backed by orchestras or session musicians. Best known artistes are The Bachelors and the Walker Brothers (1960s) The Osmonds in the 1970s, Bros in the 1980s and more recently Westlife, Boyzone, Take That and One Direction. 

CHR 

Traditionally stands for 'Contemporary Hit Radio' and is a term first used in the late 1970s by 'Radio & Records' (now part of Billboard magazine, the leading American music business paper). The term was coined to describe stations previously known as 'Top 40' which majored on current chart hits. As artistes began to enjoy longer periods of popularity, the description 'contemporary' has now become much wider.

Ten years or so can be regarded as contemporary and consequently, the CHR letters have often become regarded as Current Hit Radio. Many CHR stations focus on particular styles of music, and the term CHR has many sub-genres, such as CHR-Urban, CHR-Country, CHR-pop, etc.

CHRISTIAN

Popular music that promotes Christianity. Many sub genres exist; Christian Rock and Christian Gospel being the best known in radio terms.

CHRISTMAS

Stations playing non stop or predominantly Christmas music, usually a temporary format aimed at shop or restaurant operators to play in their business in the appropriate period.  Playlists are sometimes very limited, one UK Christmas channel on DAB offered only 32 numbers in 2015 (obviously they had programmed only part of a NOW its Christmas album!). In contrast Sky Radio's Christmas channel used over 500 songs. There are now over 1700 Christmas songs commercially issued by various performers available, not including Christmas carols.

CLASSIC ROCK

  Featuring mainly the best known rock music hits of sixties, seventies and eighties, by major artistes. These are usually both singles and album cuts. The format is known in two American cities as 'Rock Favourites'.

CLASSICAL

  Not so popular as a radio format as consumption usually demands very close listening, but it is highly regarded by some. Intellectually it has the high ground in music. Tracks often have lengthy complex arrangements and is often revived or plagiarised into contemporary music. Classical music is invariably instrumental. Purists will call it 'serious' music.

COUNTRY 

One of the most popular music formats in the USA, it's based on traditional folk music of north American white settlers, particularly from the rural south areas. Vocally led it features traditional instruments such as fiddles, banjos and pedal steel guitars. Often derided as cowboy music, its lyric content does often feature sad episodes in life, and generally romantic or melancholic.

Country music is often parodied by a lone trucker lamenting the fact that his wife has run off while he was away, and even worse, she took his dog with her!  Many sub genres now exist: Country & Western, Country Gospel, etc. Contemporary Country is the format most commonly heard.

DANCE 

While dance music has existed for a hundred years or more, the recent use of the term in radio programming refers to dance floor hits of the current generation. The term has several sub-genres, such as CHR-Rythmic  and the slightly older-skewed Rythmic AC.

DISCO

The term began in France in the early 60s as Discotheque, simply a place where people listened to records. By the late sixties small venues (little more than coffee bars usually) in the UK that had a DJ began calling themselves 'discotheques'. By the early 1970's that was shortened to DISCO. In the USA this term became was used around the mid 1970's for predominantly soul-pop music typified by the Gamble-Huff music from Philadelphia, and later adopted by many pop acts such as the BeeGees in their sound track for the 1976 blockbuster movie Saturday Night Fever.

DOO-WOP

  This genre was developed in Afro-American communities in large American cities and is based on vocal harmonies. It soon crossed over with many black vocal harmony groups such as the Drifters making the big time after beginning as doo-wop artistes. As well as vocal harmonies the genre is known for nonsense syllables, a simple beat, very little or zero instrumentation (which would make it acappella). Often Doo-Wop uses vocal harmonies to substitute for musical instruments.

EASY LISTENING

  Easy listening music is often instrument led, with gentle vocals, easy on the ear. Very popular as background music in some places, often referred to as 'elevator muzak' (a derogatory term usually, but also a company who supply). Quite often this comprises anonymous cover versions of hit songs. In Europe the term 'easy' is often termed 'Middle of the Road' (or when its poorly focussed, 'All over the Road'!)

ELECTRONIC

  Stations formatting electronic are typified by a hypnotic bass line and all manner of synthesizer sounds. Electronic music is often heard as Dance music. Today's leading proponents include many who began as disc jockeys, artistes like Tiesto, Daft Punk and Fatboy Slim. Electronic now ranges from mellow beats to more punchy sounds suited for dance floor action. Sub-genres of electronic music include Acid-House, Breakbeat, Jungle, Trance, Techno and TripHop.

ETHNIC

   A term often used interchangeably with World Music, it has come to be used for music of one particular nation or region. Some World Music stations feature mainly music from African performers.

FILMTRACKS

Soundtrack music from movies were common place in the late 20th century and featured mainly instrumental soundtrack music from well known films or movies.  The BBC used a lot of film soundtrack music on its Radio 2 station for a while.

The  owners of the recordings were quite happy to waive copyright payments to encourage radio stations to help promote the film and some commercial stations playlisted film soundtracks as part of other formats. There was even a film music formatted channel on DAB in Surrey for a while and a hundred online stations follow the format. Good examples of the genre are the 1.fm channel from Switzerland

FOLK

  Quite simply this is 'the music of the people.' At its most basic, folk is cultural, from the roots and backgrounds of people from around the world. Artists such as Bob Dylan, Donovan, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger and Cat Stevens fuse their own distinctive music with more traditional styles of yesterday. The genre includes lots of small niche sub-genres based on the different variations of folk heard in various geographical territories as well as acoustic, Celtic, alternative and contemporary folk.
There are over 70 basic formats used in radio broadcasting. Most describe the varying output of music-led stations. Many of them have evolved over several years as radio has become increasingly diversified. This has particularly been the case since the advent of Internet Radio at the end of the 90s, less than twenty years ago. Note also that many of the formats described have sub-genres too.
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Music Formats
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Listed below are very brief descriptions of the various formats as used in music radio in the North American, and to some extent, the British radio market. 

We have not listed the various sub genres which are peculiar to one or two countries or cultures, however our colleagues at Worldwide Broadcast Consultants have worked in 28 countries and can will be better able to advice you on different format.
Female Format DJ on the radio

Music Formats on the radio