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. Hi Gaston, how you’ll construct your clock, indeed, depends on your own market situation, target audience and music format, but we hope this post has given you some idea starters of how you could set up your own format clock. If you could list your music categories and your desired exposure of those categories, we’ll be happy to think along with you. Thanks for reading Radio))) ILOVEIT!

  2. Our pleasure, Matt. Thanks for your kind email as well. As soon as we find time, we’ll answer your additional questions. Have a great radio day!

  3. That would be awesome Thomas, and thanks for your great reply. So much to think about, your answers really helped!

  4. Gaston Sanudo /

    Well, I’m looking how would it be a COUNTRY music radio station clock.

  5. Thanks for your question, Matt. We’ll get back to you as soon as we can find time for a detailed answer; that answer could end up as new blogpost as well :-).

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