How Top 40 Radio Works

How do Radio Stations Decide What to Play?

According to the Federal Communications Commission, there are 13,296 radio stations licensed as of September 20, 2002. Aside from the reports of "payola" through indies discussed in the previous section, how do those 13,296 radio stations decide what to play?


Radio stations have playlists of songs, which can change weekly. These lists are put together by radio programmers (and others) who use information from many sources to "add" songs. Disc jockeys have not truly been making decisions on what to play for many years. The job falls to the program directors (PDs) who develop lists that direct the DJ on what to play and when to play it. In some cases, the decisions regarding what is played comes from higher up the ladder, especially since so many radio stations are owned by mega corporations. More and more programming decisions are now made by owners and/or regional program directors.

Tools program directors use to know their market

  • Software applications that rank core audience performance of stations in the same format, same market, or nationally
  • Software applications that tracks radio listening and trends in specific markets
  • Audience-analysis software
  • Arbitrends service, which delivers ratings updates between standard quarterly surveys

Deciding what to "add"

Knowing the audience is the key to a PD being able to identify the best music to add to playlists. To stay on top what their audience likes, PDs watch the charts and other stations' playlists. They may stay tuned to college radio stations, which often play new music that hasn't made it to the mainstream. They may also keep up with Radio & Records magazine's "Most Added" report, which it generates from data it collects from radio stations in major markets according to genre. In the past few years, many have also found new music on TV. In the 1980s, MTV changed the music scene; today, we have music-related TV series, traditional programs that use new music, cable channels, and even commercials that introduce new songs and artists.

Radio stations (sometimes working with recording companies, distributors, promoters, artist managers or retailers) also conduct market research to see what listeners either want to hear and/or are already listening to. They test new releases using focus groups or sometimes "call out" groups in Auditorium Music Tests (AMTs). AMTs are held in auditoriums with music played to a group that can then ask questions and make comments on the music. A newer version of this type of research involves Web surveys by which listeners can vote and comment on music.

Online peer-to-peer (P2P) networks are also influencing radio playlists. BigChampagne, owned by Clear Channel, is tracking the songs most frequently downloaded in the P2P networks such as LimeWire, KaZaA, Morpheus, and others. The program parses this data by geographic region and reports it to radio stations, giving the stations a more accurate feel for what is "hot."

Clear Channel also has a Web site (ClearChannel New Music Network) dedicated to new music. New groups can register and post their music for PDs and consumers to listen to. If PDs like it, there is always the chance they'll add it to their playlist.