Defining the Sound of the Station

This post is for academic purposes only. Credit is to the original author(s).

The first decision you have to make is deciding what kind of station you want to be. If you don’t come to a clear and firm agreement on this, every other subsequent decision you attempt to make will lead to endless disagreements and conflict, because you’ll all be pulling in different directions.

Are you going to adopt a public service broadcasting or a commercial radio approach? They are fundamentally different because their purposes are different, driven by differences in source of income.

Public service broadcasting (PSB) exists to serve the listeners: whereas the primary function of a commercial station is to service the advertisers by delivering an audience to the commercial break. This difference drives all decisions about the style of the station and the construction of program content. A producer on a PSB music station will try to create a balanced mix of items with a consistent appeal – just like a chef preparing an appetizing meal.

On a commercial station, entirely different rules will apply. The producer will be looking to place feel-good songs before each ad break in order to deliver the audience to the break in a positive and receptive mood, an up-beat song after the break to re-establish pace, tease-ahead links to after the break to stop the listener switching off or tuning to another station during the break, a happy song after the news bulletin to perk us up after three minutes’ doom and gloom, and so on. The game is to attract the listener, and then play them along, maintaining their interest, landing them at each ad-break and then carrying them on to the next. Where the PSB producer is a chef, the commercial producer is a fly-fisherman. The mindset is entirely different.  

Then you need to decide what kind of format, if any, governs the structure of your schedule. Most radio stations, whether mainstream or alternative, work to a format or recipe of some kind. Without it you don’t have a consistent identity, and therefore you will find it very difficult to attract and keep an audience, because listeners won’t be able to make sense of you. Not having a format is generally regarded as an act of radio anarchy. If you take this approach you will be perceived as an avant-garde, minority station.

Radio Formats

There are three basic models for a radio format; built programming, flow programming, and strip formatting; and you should consider the pros and cons of each, before choosing your approach.  

Built programming is a schedule consisting of separate programs, each with its own individual identity, presenter, and production team – very much, in fact, like a typical television program schedule.  Listeners to such stations will be attracted by particular programs, rather than by the station as a whole, and will be likely to tune in specifically for those programs. For this reason, program times, once established, should follow an easily understood pattern. This type of scheduling is capable of infinite variety, and of serving many different types of audience, including minority audiences, within one service.  However, the attempt to be all things to all people means that listener-loyalty will be likely to be essentially for programs, rather than for the station as a whole; and you will find yourself continually picking up and losing different audiences as one program gives way to the next. It also tends to be the most expensive kind of radio to produce, especially when the programs are speech-based and pre-recorded.

Flow programming aims to give a consistent sound to the station no matter what time of day you tune in. The whole of the output is aimed at the same demographic or ‘taste-market’. Its appeal is that you can switch on at any time and it will deliver what you expected to hear. Presenters will come and go, but the station will just stream on seamlessly, like water out of a tap. It’s a format ideally suited to music stations specializing in a particular music genre, and to commercial stations seeking to brand themselves with advertisers as targeting a specific demographic profile. With this format, the station identity will be strong; though the predictable and repetitious nature of the output may lead to it being regarded as cheap, plastic, radio junk food – the equivalent of a burger chain, as opposed to a good restaurant.

Built and flow both have major advantages and disadvantages. Strip formatting is an interesting attempt to marry the two: a hybrid format, which aims to deliver the positive aspects of both built and flow, while minimizing the negative aspects.  Its basis is an analysis of the likely audience composition at different times of day. For all of us, there are times when we can, if we wish, listen to the radio, and times when we can’t, however much we might like to. These times are different for each of us – but there are also common patterns. For instance, most of us work a five-day week starting at around 9.00am. This means that will be getting up, dressing, breakfasting, maybe driving to work, between around 6.30-8.30, – a massive potential radio audience. Similarly, we can confidently expect that most people switching on between 4.30 – 6.30pm Monday to Friday will be in their cars, returning home. So who might be available to listen at, say, 11am? Or 2pm? Shift workers (at home)? Lorry drivers? Factory workers (at work)? Based on this kind of analysis, the week is then ‘stripped’ into bands (for example, 9.00-11.00am, 12.00-1.30pm), and each band is then programmed to appeal to the assumed majority audience at that time of day. The result can be quite odd if you tune in randomly at different times of day: it can sound like several entirely different radio stations; but in practice most people don’t do that. It’s a good approach for community-focused stations, because it enables them to provide appropriate programming for different sections of the community with widely differing tastes and needs. The difficulty is getting it right, and not falling into the trap of trying so hard to be all things to all people that you end up pleasing none.


Once you have decided your format, the next step is to bring the sound of the station into clearer focus through formulating your identity as a brand. A brand isn’t just a particular make of a product: it’s all the connotations, associations, emotional resonances attached to the product-name that give it a particular image and appeal.

Asda means low-price; Waitrose means high quality. Ford says conformist; Saab says individualist. Unless you have a clear, immediately understandable brand-identity as your skeleton, the flesh of your programming will be a formless, shape-shifting jelly – Amoeba FM.

A good way to approach this task is to imagine that your station is a person. Describe that person: male/female; name; age; personality; characteristics; exams passed; current job; where they see themselves in ten years’ time; other ambitions; social life, leisure activities; political views; how they dress; what kinds of films they like; the décor of their house; what newspaper they take, if any; what food they like; significant things they own, that reveal some aspect of their personality. And so on, in as much detail as possible, until you have a fully formed, three-dimensional character in your head.

Now reverse the activity. Imagine this particular person is a radio station. What music tracks would you hear? What topics would be discussed? How would you describe the style of presentation? How might one day’s schedule be structured?

Try doing this exercise on your own, then coming together as a group and comparing your ideas. If they’re very similar, great. If not, you’ll have to choose a winner. Either way, the aim is to develop a clear, agreed brand personality for your station. Once you have that, you can move forward to the other key decisions you need to make.

Choose a name

What are you going to call your station? “What’s in a name?” Juliet asks Romeo; “that which we call a rose will smell as sweet.” Indeed; but if rose suggests fragrant, then so will Rose FM; and Onion FM will provoke an entirely different reaction. Who do you think the (fictional) stations below are aimed at? What would you expect to hear?

Your name needs to be memorable, consistent with the brand personality, and ‘feel right’. There’s no more precise way of putting it than that, because there are no rules. It’s not a science; it’s more like a kind of magic. You can’t do it with questionnaires or focus groups or psycholinguistic analysis; you just have to use your instinct.

Many stations incorporate their broadcast frequency into their station name. This is a good idea, especially if you are a new or temporary station, as people may not otherwise be able to find you on the dial.

Design a logo

A logo is your brand name given a unique personality through the magic of typography and graphic design. A word is just a word. However, the moment you choose a font, you invest that word with personality. Again, there are no scientific rules for this; your judgement has to be instinctive. The odd thing is, though, that there is substantial social agreement on font personalities. Give any random group a selection of fonts, and ask them to pick out, say, the strongest, the most feminine, the least serious, the youngest, the most conservative, you will find most people will pick the same ones, though they won’t be able to explain why. The simple fact that they do, though, means that it works: it’s a language.

Your logo is your badge. It’s what goes on your headed notepaper, your leaflets, posters and flyers, your merchandising, and over your studio door. Someone has to design it. If you have people on your team with graphic design skills, then use them. If not, consider offering it as a project to the art & design department of your college. They often like to have what they call ‘live briefs’ with real clients and a real deadline for their students to work on. This way, you may get several different designs offered to you, from which you can choose a winner. Be careful, though, not to give them too long to work on it – you need your headed notepaper and the wherewithal for poster and leaflet production well in advance of your broadcast.

On-air branding   

You will also need to plan, and then create, the stylistic components of your broadcast that are essentially about branding. By this I mean the ways in which you identify the station, and particular elements of programming (such as news bulletins), on-air.

Most stations, though, do use jingles packages. It’s what most people expect and are comfortable with as the punctuation in the language of contemporary radio.

Jingles should express aurally what your logo design expresses graphically: your brand personality. The musical style of your jingles package therefore needs to be chosen with some care. If you are a music station, your jingles should reflect your playlist. Alternatively, consider your audience profile: broadly speaking, rhythmic jingles suggest a young (or male) target audience, while more melodic jingles suggest an older (or more female) target audience. Or consider your raison d’etre as a station: if your entire output is devoted to, say, sport, or rolling traffic news, it’s pretty obvious what kind of jingles package you should choose.

 You will definitely need a station ID jingle. You are required under the terms of your license to identify yourself on-air at regular intervals anyway; and you might as well do it with an aural badge, rather than with a bald announcement. You might want to vary it a little – brighter for the morning, more mellow in the evening, perhaps. After that, you will probably want something to mark and separate-off items such as news bulletins from the general output; and a few ‘stings’ (very short jingles) to top-and-tail traffic reports, commercial breaks, and the like. Individual programs can have a few stings of their own if they like, such as for regular phone-in competition spots, so long as it doesn’t become confusing. All programs should use the same jingles for the station ID, the news, traffic information and so on. The brand is more important than the program.  

How will the jingles get made? As with the logo, if you have talented musicians among your number who know their way around midi sequencing software, then use them; alternatively, again you could offer it as a client brief to the music technology department. If you’re really stuck, it’s relatively easy to put together a professional-sounding jingle using pre-recorded loops in Apple’s Garage band sequencer, or similar software. What you mustn’t do is lift material from your CD collection. That Eric Clapton guitar riff might be exactly right for your station, but if you use it you’ll be infringing copyright. Neither should you use ready-made jingles packages, unless they are clearly marked ‘copyright-free’. For the most part, production library materials of this kind require special licensing, and are expensive to use.

The shape of the schedule

OK: you’ve named your station, you have your logo, you’ve started to think about your jingles package, and you’ve decided upon the formatting template for each day’s programming. It’s at this point that you should start to think seriously about the structure and content of your schedule. How will you divide up the time?  

To a large extent this will depend upon your choice of format. Built programming will mean you have to weave discrete programs of differing durations into a pattern that will, with luck, be appropriate to your differing audiences at various times of day, while at the same time creating a varied and palatable mix across the day. A flow format could be as simple as dividing the day up into two-hour shifts – though you might still have to be careful about particular times of day, such as the traditional peak times of early morning and late afternoon. If you are stripping your week, then the time bands will need to be placed with good – preferably researched – reasons. If, for instance, most of your listeners at 3.00pm are listening at home, but most of your listeners by 5.00pm are in their cars, then you may want to make changes to your programming around, say, 4.00 or 4.30.  

Will you include news in your schedules or not? Just because most professional stations carry some kind of news programming doesn’t mean you have to. Not everyone likes and appreciates news; so not being a news station could be part of your branding. You should also take into account that listeners are, quite rightly, a lot less tolerant and forgiving of inexperience when it comes to news, than they are with other forms of broadcasting. They want news to be professional, reliable, reputable. They won’t trust, and therefore won’t like, news that sounds ‘amateurish’.

If you do decide to carry news, then it will impose a substantial additional workload, both before, and especially during, your broadcast period. It also means adding another layer of training to your pre-broadcast preparation for your reporters, newscasters and news producers, particularly with regard to the legal and ethical issues appertaining to journalism.  

If you do include news, where will you place it in your schedule? Throughout the day, or just at peak times? On the hour? On the half-hour? Will it be just short news updates, or will you have a substantial news program at some point? Whatever you decide, it’s best to give it regular slots of some kind, separate from the programs around it, and with a separate team of newscasters. Don’t just incorporate it informally into music presenters’ links: the presentation style has to change too much. News has to be objective, serious, factual, impersonal, whereas your music presenters have to be warm, engaging personalities. It makes more radio sense to have two people, rather than one split personality.  

Listener expectations

When you are launching a new radio station and establishing your brand, it’s as well to go, to some extent, with listener expectations.

When something new comes along, people try to recognize the kind of thing you are, and fit you into a category. This is why it’s not a good idea to, say, open a high-class restaurant with décor that looks like a fast-food takeaway, or vice-versa. If you send out the wrong signals, people will misunderstand your brand and be put off. The same applies to radio. What does your target audience expect the kind of radio that’s aimed at people like them to sound like? Will they recognize your station as aimed at people like them?

Professional planners start from basic ground-rule generational assumptions such as the following:

  • Small children have no prejudices, and are receptive to anything, so long as it is friendly, fun, and stimulating. They are the only audience who come to the radio with an open mind.
  • The teenage audience is the most conformist, most narrow and fickle, most prejudiced and most speech-phobic of all radio audiences. They hate being talked at (possibly because they have spent most of their lives at school), and are very quickly and easily bored. They conform to fashion and their peer groups because they are insecure. The lyrics of pop songs are of little interest to them because they don’t want to listen to the words: they want to dance to the beat.
  • The older you are, the more you want radio for talk, for company, as part of your social life, rather than just as a music player.
  • The more educated you are, the more you are interested in ideas, the world around you, the arts, science, politics, and so on.
  • Most older adults’ music tastes are fixed at what they liked when they were in their early twenties. Thus, music stations aimed at 35-45year-olds will play a lot of noughties tracks; and stations aimed at retired people will mainly play ‘sounds of the sixties/seventies’.
  • Older people like some brain-food in their radio diet: they like information. Younger people are more interested in emotional stimulation, and/or the visceral stimulation of intense noise and rhythm.

From this kind of thinking, it would follow that if your station is aimed at 15-19 year-olds, you would probably think twice before extending a speech feature beyond three or four minutes at the most; whereas if your target audience is the over 50’s, you would expect to have to give them more than just music, chat and jingles.

You might want to disagree with some of these assumptions, or add some more of your own. That’s fine – they are very stereotypical and broad-brush. The important thing is that this kind of approach helps you develop the ability to put your own tastes and preferences to one side, and plan an appropriate schedule for listeners whose tastes are different from yours. Remember: there’s no such thing as ‘it’s boring’. To say, for instance, “I don’t like Radio 4 because it’s boring” reveals lack of understanding of the whole idea of audience targeting.

Why would any radio station deliberately set out to be boring? It’s not ‘boring’: it’s for someone else. Experienced planners know how, respectfully and sympathetically, without being patronizing, to cater for a variety of tastes, without imposing their own.

Source: The media student’s guide to RADIO PRODUCTION by  Bob Gilmurray

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