Inspiration & Resources for Radio Professionals

How To Create The Best Radio Music Format Clocks

How To Create The Best Radio Music Format Clocks

How to make your radio station sound both familiar and fresh? See us create a ‘Fresh AC’ music format and program clock for music scheduling from scratch.

The music director of a local station in Eastern Europe wrote me recently, asking for advice about how to reorganize the music database and format clocks, resulting in a more structured music playlist. You might benefit from this interesting case as well. Therefore I’m sharing my analysis with you below.



Balance rotation, streamline flow

Our reader was trying to figure out how many songs should be included in each music category, and how often these should appear in the music format to achieve the desired music mix? We’ll look at the audience profile, define what to play how often (and what not to play at all) and show that in music scheduling, less is more. Then we’ll try to create a familiar but fresh sounding music format with a balanced song rotation and consistent program flow to make listeners learn what to expect. So let’s dive in!



Serbia on the map of EuropeAnalyze radio market & station

First, a look at the radio market, radio station and music format:

Radio station: a local station in Serbia
Broadcast area: small city (260,000 people)
Target audience: young adults (25-45 years)
Music format: Christian AC (contemporary Soft Pop, Pop, Pop-Rock)
Music mix: both domestic & English songs, both gospel & secular music



Review music library & categories

Although the station offers news on top of the hour and some presented shows, non-stop music is a significant part of its output. The current situation is that a very large music library with many different categories has created a less-focused music format. Their music database now includes 3,800 songs in the English language alone, and they are using the following music categories:


For domestic music

  • 50-70s
  • 80s
  • 90s
  • 00s
  • Hits from 2011-2013


For foreign music

  • 50-70s
  • 80s
  • 90s
  • 00s
  • Hits from 2011-2013



music scheduling software, music playlistUse imaging rotation categories

The station also has a category to rotate their IDs. I think that’s a good idea. When I was programming a station myself, I found it convenient to use music categories to rotate and position jingles (J), sweepers (S) and promos (P) within fixed positions on the clock. I’ve also used levels and sound codes to align, for example, the intensity of imaging with that of the following song to create more flow (more on that in a separate post).



Set music format borders

The station’s music director wrote to me that ‘the playlist is chaotic and I must re-tag songs’. When looking at the above 10 music categories, they play music from the 1950s till today – while they aim at a 25-45 year-old audience. My first step would therefore be to define which music to play, and which not. This depends on your focus and criteria. If you decide that a song’s message is a more important than its familiarity, then you can go back as far as the 1950s. But if you predominantely like to reach as many people as possible with your station’s message, I would advise to always start with the audience in mind. There’s an easy rule of thumb to define the era borders of your music format.



Greatest Hits of 1978, album coverDefine music database bottom

If you set your target demo’s higher end at 45 years, and consider that people usually are ‘addicted to music’ as a teenager (let’s say from the age of 10), it means that you shouldn’t go back (much) further than 35 years in music history. Formula: this year – the age of your oldest target listener + 10 years = the oldest song year in your music library. So in 2013, the cut-off date for your music library is (theoretically speaking) 1978.



Play mass-appeal songs only

However, there are some timeless classics that everyone knows and appreciates (or at least accepts). For this station, I guess Let it Be is a good example. It’s a very familiar song and ‘When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me’ is a lyric that fits well into a Christian AC format. In such case, trust your gut feeling (and/or research) and say: this Beatles-song is from 1970, but we have a good reason to play it anyway! Just make sure that you only schedule music that is being liked or accepted by your entire target demo. You have to be certain that every classic you play, feels like a ‘good song’ – not like an ‘old song’ – to (the younger end of) your target audience.



Trust your gut feeling (and/or research)



Beatles, Let it Be, album cover

The 1970 title song of the Beatles’ 12th and final studio album, Let It Be, is a timeless classic (photo: Apple Records)



Limit number of categories

Looking at the 10 categories that the Serbian station is using, the first thing we notice (besides the large number of categories) is the specification of domestic and foreign music. Now, it has a reason: the station would like to play a majority of domestic songs vs. English songs (‘70%-30% or 60%-40%’), but it depends on how many suitable tracks are available (‘I have problem with lyrics of domestic songs’, the music director writes, as all songs they play have to be free of profanity). In this case, it can be good to separate domestic and foreign music as far as library songs are concerned – to create the desired balance. But at the same time, I would limit the amount of music categories to the absolute necessary. Instead of working with decades, I would use larger musical eras.



average value graphPinpoint music library middle

If you target a 25- tot 45-year-old audience, the average age is 35. Assuming you want to attract just as many 25-35 as 35-45 year-olds, a formula you can use is: this year – the average age of your target audience + 10 years = the middle of your music library. In this case: 2013 – 35 + 10 = 1988. (But that’s theory. I would also consider shifts in pop music culture, such as the moment when a new music cycle begins, by analyzing your market’s music history.)



Use functional music categories

I would like to challenge you as a music director to see if you can cut your number of music categories in half and go back to he basics. I know this sounds radical, but do 11 different categories (like in this study case) make your music format understandable for your audience? I guess it’s a lot easier to ‘teach’ people what you stand for when you only use music categories that actually matter, as written in an earlier article about song rotation rocket science. A functional song category, set-up to build this radio station’s music playlist in the year 2013 could be:

  • APrimary currents (high rotation: big hits or songs on their way up)
  • BSecondary currents (low rotation: new music or songs on their way down)
  • RRe-currents (the best of former currents, from 2011 – now)
  • D1Domestic classics (1992 – 2010)
  • D2Domestic classics (your oldest songs – 1991)
  • F1Foreign classics (1992 – 2010)
  • F2Foreign classics (your oldest songs – 1991)
  • IStation imaging (they only use 1 type of imaging, therefore just 1 category)

The reason for 1992 as the ‘middle line’ of the classics library is that electronic-sounding music (including Euro Dance) was becoming popular in that year – think of Rhythm Is A Dancer by Snap.



70 percent, 30-percent, pie chartFill current-music categories consistently

This station aims to play domestic- vs. foreign-language music in a 60:40 / 70:30 ratio, which is no problem for classics, because they already exist. The supply of ‘playable’ new music, however, is an uncertain factor. I would only split classics into separate language categories; not the currents and maybe not even the re-currents. Instead of dividing them into language categories, assigning new songs to high- and low rotation categories makes sense.



Design basic format clock

I thought it would be fun to make a program clock for this Christian AC, specifically made for their many non-stop music hours (with room for imaging in between the music). I’m a fan of clear, fast-repeating basic category sequences in order to create a consistent flow and constantly fulfill listener expectations. The below music format is based on a fixed majority of domestic classics (66,6%) and a variable percentage of domestic currents & re-currents, completed by a rotation system for station imaging. Notice that the music format ‘re-sets’ after the top of the hour (TOTH) and bottom of the hour (BOTH) breaks:


(TOTH break)

D1Domestic classic (younger)

APrimary current

I – Station imaging

F2Foreign classic (older)

D1Domestic classic (younger)

I – Station imaging


D2Domestic classic (older)

I – Station imaging

F1 – Foreign classic (younger)

B – Secondary current

(BOTH break)

D1 – Domestic classic (younger)

R – Recurrent

I – Station imaging

F2 – Foreign classic (older)

D1 – Domestic classic (younger)

I – Station imaging

A – Primary current

D2 – Domestic classic (older)

I – Station imaging

F1 – Foreign classic (younger)

R – Recurrent



Create a fresh sounding station,

while playing a lot of familiar music



music format, format clock, program clock, hot clock, weekly grid, currents, recurrents, classics, Fresh AC

Music format with 3 currents (red), 3 recurrents (orange), 6 younger classics (dark blue and dark purple) and 4 older classics (light blue and light purple) – so the majority of songs is also familiar to the younger (25-35) end of the 25-45 year-old target demographic, and an older song is always followed by a newer one (format: Thomas Giger)



Sound both familiar & fresh

The flow of levels 1 & 2 creates library music balance between both older and newer foreign (F) and domestic (D) songs. But including currents & re-currents, newer music outweighs older songs (12 versus 4), so 75% of the music is aimed at the younger end (25-35) of the entire 25-45 year-old audience. I always find this a good way to create a fresh sounding station, while playing a lot of familiar music. (I have applied this principle myself as music director of a local station with a 20-49 audience. We didn’t want to sound like a hit music station, but still fresh enough for the younger end of our listener base.) Another, more common trick in AC music programming is to play more re-currents – to add freshness, while maintaining familiarity.



music format, format clock, program clock, hot clock, weekly gridUse format clock spin-off(s)

Every other hour, I would use an alternate version of this format clock (with the wheel turned 1 position to the left or to the right) for variety. Now rotate these 2 format clocks within 2 different week grids – on Monday, start with clock A, on Tuesday with clock B, and so on. As 1 week has 7 days (uneven number) it takes 2 weeks before your listeners ‘hear’ the same clock on the same day on the same time. Does that make sense? You can also rotate more clocks.



Determine songs/category amount

How many songs should be in each category? First of all you need to determine your desired song rotation. The only ‘tricky’ category in our study case is the one for currents. For example, the primary (A) currents are being scheduled twice an hour. The even/odd rule [see aforementioned article] tells us that we therefore need an uneven number of these power songs. For this Christian AC format, 7 A-songs might be good. It makes a top hit surface every 3½ hours. 5 songs result in a 2½-hour separation (acceptable, but it comes close to a CHR rotation) and 9 songs create a 4½-hour category turnover (chances are this will take too long before people hear their favorite hit). As radio programmers, we always keep in mind that most people listen to the radio in short intervals; not for hours in a row.



approved, thumb up green, rejected, thumb down redClean up music database

Last but not least, I would clean up the music library. 3,800 active titles (for domestic classics alone) seens too much to be distinctive enough let your audience know what you stand for. Make a list of your song selection criteria and don’t approve anything for your gold categories (in this case, D and F) unless you can check off every point on that list for every song. Including nothing but strong music ensures both format focus and playlist quality.




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  1. D1 – old (younger)
    A – new hits
    I – station imaging
    F2 – old (older)
    D1 – old (younger)
    A – new hits
    I – station imaging
    F2 – old (older)
    D1 – old (younger)
    A – new hits
    I – station imaging
    F2 – old (older)
    D1 – old (younger)
    A – new hits
    I – station imaging
    F2 – old (older)
    D1 – old (younger)
    A – new hits
    I – station imaging
    F2 – old (older)

    How I’m brocasting it (a.k.a. Top 40 radio station)

  2. Hey Corey,

    Happy to answer your questions!

    To build a consistent brand, you might want to sit together and define the sound of your radio station. As you guys love R&B, HipHop & Soul, you could position your music mix as ‘The Best in Black’ or claim to be ‘All About Urban’ – just to give you an example.

    Think of the audience you want to reach, and of the image you want to own with your brand. Write down your criteria to select the best music for your target audience and desired image. It will be a guideline for your station sound, and help you to choose the right songs.

    Make a list of 100 great titles that you feel are the absolute top songs for your audience and your brand. Once you’ve found your DNA, so to speak, build your complete playlist based on that. Expand your musical universe to 500, 1000, or even 1500 songs that fit around the core.

    Think of your station identity when deciding about how much time you want to talk vs. play music. Do you position yourself as a music station? Then people expect music, and might not want to hear up to 7 minutes of talk in a single break.

    Balance your music and talk segments over the hour, based on the music/speech ratio you have commited yourself to. Create a pleasant and consistent program flow, e.g. short talk + 2 songs, longer talk + 3 songs. It’s like a rhythm that is driving your station.

    Over the next weeks we’ll devote a post to where to position talk breaks inside your music flow, like where to speak (or voicetrack) for how long about what. Hopefully this brief guide will help you on your first steps towards a great format for your station.

    Have a radioful 2014!


  3. Hello Thomas,

    Very helpful article!

    Me and three friends have started our online radio station and it’s a little challenging.

    The challenging part is that we all love a variety of music. For instance, I love R&B from the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, 00s, then we have one who listens to Neo Soul, and then the other two that listen to Hip Hop from the 80s till now.

    We all love each others genre of music, but how do we structure our playlist where it doesn’t sound like we are all over the place? We discuss topics as well. How long should we stay on a subject? How many songs should we play back to back?

    Current structure: intro – 5:00; play 4 songs in a row; topic 7:00; play 2 songs in a row; final thoughts on topic 7:00; play around 7 songs in a row; new topic 7:00, etc.


  4. Hello,

    For AC stations, the number of songs is based on the market situation. However, around 400-600 active songs will do the job. Just an example to consider:

    20-40 Current/Recurrent (hits) [if you need them] – 2-3 / hour
    100-150 Primary (best testing songs) – 4-8 / hour
    150-300 Secondary (good songs, played less frequent) – 2-3 / hour
    50-100 WHOA! (good fits, rarely heard) – 1-2 / hour

    Sublevels/folders by age: Oldies, 80’s, 90’s, Millennium, recent – so you will be able to control your age balance on a clock level.

    Platooning: after a given period of time – 1-3 months, different for each category! – change your active songs or number of plays. This will maintain a ‘freshness’ factor for your listeners.

    On active songs: you can have thousands of songs in your library, but in a given time frame (e.g. during any 30 days) you play 400-600 songs overall. Yes, you play the same songs again and again. Why? Because they are your best testing songs, and you want to make them heard.

    For the ‘domestic’ songs you’ll usually need separate categories and clock positions – since you might want to apply different policies and sets of rules during scheduling. The minimum percentage (15% to 40%) demand is common in a lot of countries.

    Just for the sake of it: one of our clients is the greatest player in the market: on their AC station they play 20.000+ songs. Some titles come back every 2-3 weeks; others once a year. They are No. 1. However, I don’t recommend it for a startup.

    Of course there are several approaches to categorize Gold songs, it was just an example. For more current stations – usually rotating 300-600 songs – here’s an example:

    15-25 New / Current in 2 categories – 2-3 / hour
    20-35 Recurrent in 2 categories (Burn & Recurrent) – 2-3 / hour
    200-300 Best testing older songs, at least 2 categories – 4-6 / hour
    100-300 WHOA! songs [if you need them] – 1-2 / hour

    And there are a lot of good articles on this site about building good clocks, worth to read them. Usually, we build the clocks first, and then fill up the song categories to create cute rotation patters.


  5. Håvard /

    Thank you for a great article.

    I’m setting up an AC station in Norway, and the ‘Norwegian songs problem’ makes me wanna scream!

    But somebody – PLEASE – tell me how many songs there should be in each category.

  6. Hi Antal,

    Thanks for another great comment!

    I like the approach of starting to write down your dream playlist and take it from there when defining your music format, instead of jumping into science and looking at research right away. Refreshing!

    Very important to check with research and do the 20-minute test – or is it a 10-minute test nowadays? PPM in the States shows that the average listening occasion there is 9-10 minutes! (That’s actually inspiration for a new post around this topic, which will be in the music scheduling category on Radio))) ILOVEIT soon.)

    We can safely assume that listeners can distinguish between currents and classics, and the interesting thing is indeed where they’ll put recurrents. They could see it as some kind of hit (a current), but my hunch is that they see it as an early classic (‘I haven’t heard that over the last few months; it’s cool to hear it again now’).

    … we program stations so that at least every second song is a PERFECT format match; a very good testing song that suits to the station image. So listeners learn pretty quickly that they have to ‘survive’ just one song and a good one will come :-). Good way to introduce new songs …

    Absolutely! ‘The sandwich formula’, I heard somebody call it – an unfamiliar songs goes in between two (very) familiar ones, of which at least one is an absolute best-tester; preferably always the song that follows the unfamiliar one so we can indeed educate our audience to stay :-).

    If you are using the SAME clock during the whole week, with no rules applied; that shows the truth. If you bring ‘disturbance into the force’ (namely want to work with your database, and create a listenable playlist) the nice pattern is over.

    Yeah, that’s the problem with morning shows who might only play 7 songs instead of 14 – not to mention specialty shows during weekday evenings or weekends, or even worse :-) specialty weekends (like all 80s or so) that also mess up your artist separations and stuff like that…

    Usually getting the right rotation is a ‘trial and error’ method. ALWAYS work on your backup!

    Wise advice :-). What have you tried that WORKED in terms of getting the right rotations?

    Looking forward to continue the conversation.



  7. Hi Ado,

    Thanks for your question, and please excuse me for a late reply.

    To think of a good clock, it’s helpful to know more about your music library – where does it begin and end? Do you play anything from the Beatles till Buble? Who is your average listener (age, gender, music taste, etc.) and what do you know about him or her?

    The answer to these (and many other, even more detailed questions) will help create a great format.

    Best regards,


  8. Hello there,

    Good article to start with! Let me have some deep dive.

    0. Conduct research. OK, this sounds odd, but I truly believe in research :-).

    1. Imagine your dream clock. Write down the songs (artist, title) that you want to play back to back.

    2. Try to express WHY this is the order and WHY you selected these songs (age, tempo, origin, etc.). This will be your reference. The ‘best we have’ format hour.

    Now, I’ll be tricky here:

    4. Evaluate your dream clock in terms of research

    5. Do you fulfill the 15 (20) minute test?

    Rest a little. If you’re Top 40 or Oldies, your answer could be a pure ‘yes’. But if you’re an AC or AAA or other high variety (even some Hot AC) you might have issues. “My songs do not fit to 15/20 minutes from EVERY category I have.”

    OK, then create equivalent category packs [in theory]. For example (Top 40):

    Power Hit – Current – New
    Recurrent – Burn
    Light – Gold
    Domestic Hit – Domestic Light [if you need this]

    So practically I can fulfill the right rotation in four (five) positions:

    (and so on)

    From a VARIETY point of view, this allows you to place 8-9-10 categories into such order, that you pass the 15/20 minutes test.

    Usually, for an average listener it does not make sense if they listen to a Current or a PowerHit, sometimes an average listener perceives a Recurrent as a new song. However, hour P1 will know – so do not forget: ‘play it, say it’!

    Another hint: we program stations so that at least every second song is a PERFECT format match; a very good testing song that suits to the station image. So listeners learn pretty quickly that they have to ‘survive’ just one song and a good one will come :-). Good way to introduce new songs…

    6. Break your music library into fragments for fulfilling right rotation patterns

    Gosh, it is not easy to explain this. Rotation patterns (how your songs will come up) can be calculated within your scheduler. Bear in mind that the ‘projected’ rotation patterns usually does not match the real phenomenon :-(.

    If you are using the SAME clock during the whole week, with no rules applied; that shows the truth. If you bring ‘disturbance into the force’ (namely want to work with your database, and create a listenable playlist) the nice pattern is over. Mainly for two reasons: call in clock (how many positions you use from a category in a certain clock) and song properties (your rules for back-to-back song scheduling). 1-1 examples: sometimes you play 7-8 songs in an hour, sometimes 15; and you do not want to play 5 slow songs in a row.

    Usually getting the right rotation is a ‘trial and error’ method. ALWAYS work on your backup!

    Several other aspects came to my mind, so I give up here…
    Maybe we write an article on this with Thomas :-)

    Happy programming!


  9. Interesting read. Is it an idea to write such an article about specific 90s oriented formats?

    I’m the owner of a semi 90s Internet station (quite varied, but with an accessible an uplifting undertone to keep everything together, and often with a subtle funky edge). But there’s almost no documentation about 90s formats. I had to figure out everything by myself.

    I think there are differences between the way you can set up a 90s format, and the way you can set up a 70s/80s format. The extreme variety within 90s (hit) music makes it hard to make a consistent format of it, nice enough to listen to at work, and at the same time fresh sounding.

    Because of that, I make use of many parameters/categories when putting the musical database in folders and clocks; relatively light/dark, credible/cheesy, and all the specific genres (the music spans from some big semi-alternative rock hits to soulful ballads, and most is somewhere in between). And the entire 1988-2003 era is also divided in 5 separated periods.

    It’s a real puzzle, which has to result in something with a nice flow. Just by putting everything in the right order. So, I see potential for a nice article. :-)

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