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Around the dial: Commercial radio and the production of popular music

Jarl A Ahlkvist, University of Massachusetts Amherst


Re-conceptualizing American commercial music radio as a pivotal site of culture production significantly advances the sociological study of popular music and culture. This project provides a radio-centered analysis of popular music production by examining radio's role in the popular music industry at the programmer, station, market, and industry levels of analysis. Drawing on trade journalism and programmer interviews, the structural features of the radio industry, the operation of its music format system, and the work of radio programmers are systematically described. This account forms the basis for an analytical model of programming paradigms which seeks to explain variation among stations and programmers. In addition, the study uses quantitative data gathered from an original survey of radio programmers to examine how the industry structure and the adoption of programming paradigms influence music programming. The quantitative findings confirm the existence of distinct programming paradigms and their differential impact on levels of innovation and diversity in music programming. While music formats are found to constrain the music programming options of individual programmers, these parameters are negotiated differently by programmers adopting different programming paradigms. The study also reveals important distinctions between stations according to market size, and use of audience and music research data. Larger market stations rely more heavily on objective research and consequently produce more standardized music programming than those in smaller markets. The study demonstrates the importance of considering commercial music radio stations and programmers as relatively autonomous producers of popular music culture, and confirms the necessity of integrating the previously marginalized study of radio into the mainstream of popular music research.

Subject Area

Social structure|Mass media|American studies|Music

Recommended Citation

Ahlkvist, Jarl A, "Around the dial: Commercial radio and the production of popular music" (1995). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9606482.