The Evolution of Format Radio

The term “Format Radio” was not introduced to radio jargon until the early 50s when evolutionary changes in broadcasting began to occur.

Television was coming to Canada (and did), network radio started to wane (and did); international advertisers began canceling their network radio shows and moving their budgets to network television; new radio stations were being licensed, the phonograph record industry began to discover that radio was not an enemy but its greatest ally, and venerable radio stations were faced with overhauling their programming to meet the new challenges.

From its very beginning in 1922, radio programming was considered “family entertainment”. Radio was “all things to all people”. The public was still adjusting to the fact that entertainment and information could be delivered to their homes through the magic of radio. They were not critical. They found satisfaction with virtually any form of human expression that could be transmitted to them.

Over the years, Canadians became more discriminating. American network programming had increased their appetite for comedy. drama, news and “play by-play” actualities of sports events. This hunger could not be satisfied by private Canadian stations hog-tied by regulations that forbade or severely restricted their importation of American programs and even forming their own networks for Canadian programs.

It was not until 1936 that the Government of Canada admitted to its folly in legislating the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Act in 1932 and bowed to the mood of the people. Its replacement by the Canadian Radio Act came in force on November 2nd, 1936, and while it didn’t unshackle the hands of private broadcasters, it created the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and its coast-to-coast network of CBC-owned and affiliated private stations which would carry a blend of American and Canadian sponsored programs and noncommercial CBC programs.

Thereafter, and with the addition in 1944 of the CBC Dominion Network, local radio station programming had settled into a comfortable mix of local and network programs that was a acceptable to listeners both young and old.

The programming by private stations was rigidly monitored by the CBC, which (for example) was concerned that a variety of preferences for different types of music be available on each station. Private stations had to file weekly a schedule of the week’s upcoming programs. They also had to file each week copies of their logs listing all commercial announcements, programs and a coded description of the types of music used, and whether the programs came from a network, from an electrical transcription (a pre-recorded syndicated program) or was performed “live” by the station itself. Use of local talent was appraised annually.

In the 50s, new owners of stations who were forbidden to join a network or to take any programs from a network found themselves unable to compete successfully for audience and advertising by abiding by the CBC’s regulations and policies.

Previously, back in 1944, when Jack Kent Cooke bought CKCL Toronto and re-named it CKEY, he successfully defied the CBC’s demands for balanced mixed programming and turned his station into what some people called a 24-hour Jukebox. CKEY broadcast from records the most popular songs of the day that for a quarter could be played in a restaurant jukebox or heard “live” on the USA network program “Your Hit Parade”. He also adapted New York’s WNEW Martin Block “Make Believe Ballroom” program of records and also used Glenn Miller’s 1940 recording of “lt’s Make Believe Ballroom Time”.

What some stations across Canada had gradually been doing to cater to young Canadians in the hours alter school-and-before-seven, Cooke did around the clock. The “hosts” of these and other block-programmed shows became known as “disc jockeys”.

Following Cooke’s suit in kind, in 1954, Hal Yerxa (to whom, the CBC had issued a licence to own and operate CFCW Camrose, Alberta) dedicated the station’s programming entirely to country and western music. It became Canada’s first 24-hour country station.

Also in 1954, the most distinctive shift in programming emerged with the rock and roll revolution traceable to Allan Waters’ acquisition of CHUM in Toronto. Like Jack Cooke. Allan Waters, too, looked south to the United States to examine what American stations in similar multi-station markets were doing to meet the new challenges for audience and revenue. The Todd Storz-owned stations in the USA (among others) were catering successfully to the youth market with a format of playing and repeating a limited number of contemporary new records day and night CHUM honed a similar format for Toronto.

The rapid and growing success of CHUM convinced other stations in like circumstances that they should make a similar shift.

And so was born Format Radio in Canada.

About the same time, the recording industry had discovered that teenagers had disposable income and that radio was their best vehicle for promoting their products into million-sellers.

In the late 60s another significant factor in the adoption of formats was the development of FM. As applications for new FM stations flooded in, the CRTC deemed it necessary to create a list of definitions and conditions designed to perpetuate the reasoning and policies of previous regulators, that in any given community served by more than one station that the public would be assured of receiving a variety of music from perhaps two or more stations.

It could be said that in its FM definitions, the CRTC, unwittingly, invented “narrowcasting”.

As the new millennium approached, the development of precise audience measurement methods had combined with changing audience tastes to drive the fragmentation of radio formats designed to reach very specific target groups on many stations.

Before, where the programming of most stations could best be described as “varied” or “general”, and later “teen” or “adult”, the variations of these themes had become almost impossible to categorize.

In fact, many stations and their programming consultants resisted being categorized specifically with a labeled format, and preferred to distinguish their unique identity by inventing their own “slogan”.

Listing of Radio Formats and their Descriptions