P:O.V. No.12 - Comparing American and European Practices in Other Media

Formats in Radio Broadcasting
– the American-Danish connection

Per Jauert

Radio Broadcasting Systems
Radio broadcasting on both sides of the Atlantic became institutionalized during the 1920s. While North-American radio after a few years became commercialized, based mainly on popular programs (i.e. daytime soap operas), news and sports, produced with the clear intention of attracting large audiences on a liberal, though regulated, market basis, European Radio was developed from the BBC conception of public broadcasting and public service principles. In most European countries, radio became a monopoly institution within a regulation system where radio was considered a vital part of national cultural policies – an instrument meant for enlightenment and public discourse. Entertainment and popular programs in general were inferior until the 1950s and 1960s, when a deregulation process provided the audiences with commercial broadcasting alternatives, the Scandinavian countries being the more modest in this process. Not until the mid 1980's was commercial radio introduced, mainly on a local basis.

The modernization of Denmark's Radio began in July 1959, when the traditional Danish Broadcasting Company (from 1964: Denmark's Radio (DR)), covering both radio and television) was challenged by a private, commercial radio station, Radio Mercur, which broadcast its programs from an old ship, anchored in international waters between Denmark and Sweden, and covering the eastern part of the country, including Copenhagen, with a fourth of the total population. Radio Mercur was not a pirate radio in a strict legal sense. It did not violate any Danish law, since it used a frequency not assigned to Denmark. But it was a challenge to the dominating opinion among politicians and DR, based on a strict, paternalistic interpretation of public service. More specifically, it questioned the view that radio broadcasting should not primarily be devoted to entertainment, and therefore should not allow popular music, rock and pop charts, fast-talking DJ's, or commercials. The widespread post-war fascination with popular American consumer culture was replaced by skepticism and anxiety, at least in the older generation and among the guardians of the public service values. For them, radio was first and foremost enlightenment, promotion of high cultural core values, and objective or neutral news programs, which until 1964 were edited and controlled by the Association of Danish Newspapers, as agreed on in the early days of radio, on the grounds that public radio should not compete with the newspapers.

The Danish government struggled for four years before a new law was passed, making Radio Mercur illegal (Jensen, 1997, II: 182). But the Danish radio audience had tasted the forbidden fruit, and anxiety among the politicians grew when audience research proved that the listeners preferred Radio Mercur to the two DR channels (P1 & P2). A third channel was planned for, and in 1964 DR launched P3 -The Music Channel. It had 14 hours of daily broadcasting, and the programs were mostly DJ presentations of popular music, including rock and pop, charts, Top 20, etc., and special afternoon programs for teenagers: "After schoolhours." Before that, the only opportunity to listen to that kind of programming had been provided by Radio Luxembourg. In spite of the popularity of the English-American language and life styles, these program types had greater powers of penetration in a Danish setting. But for many years to come, the Music Channel was to be considered an enclave among DR's radio channels. Certainly, it was popular, but exactly how popular is difficult to say, because audience research was rare, almost non-existing. Radio broadcasting was defined on the premises of the sender, not the audience, and consequently a more comprehensive redefinition of public service values and a reform of the channel system were not implemented until the end of the 1980s.

But the seed of a slow process of reform was planted in 1964. During the sixties and early seventies the cracks in the walls around the traditional concept of public service broadcasting widened, making way for changes in the definitions of the broadcaster’s roles and concepts of the audience.

When local radio stations made their entry onto the Danish radio scene, they were not considered a serious threat to the nation-wide public service institution, Denmark‘s Radio (DR). They were regarded not as competitors, but as a supplement, provided by local, idealistic radio enthusiasts. But this understanding of the situation changed in the course of just a few years. When commercials were permitted in 1988, and approx. a dozen larger commercial local radio stations expanded and established full professional coverage in 'provincial' western Denmark, the DR-management realized that the time had come for more radical changes in the former monopoly: in policy, organization, production procedures, programming and approaches to the audience (Hujanen and Jauert, 1998:114).

At first the problem could be considered a crisis of legitimacy. Previously, DR could claim a unique position as a provider of culture, news, information and entertainment to the Danish public. Apart from television broadcasts from neighboring countries, there was no competition on the Danish broadcasting market until the end of the 1980s. But now DR’s legitimacy could be questioned. How much of the market share would it be acceptable to lose in relation to which part of the population before it would be reasonable to argue for cut-backs in the license fee? The pressure from the liberal opposition was immediate, and in the late 1980s, DR was, in fact, forced to face minor reductions in its budgets. The license fee for DR (both radio and television) was approximately 2 billion DKK per year ($250 million (in 2001 dollars)): approximately 1,500 DKK per year per household. DR had to initiate reductions in staff, to redefine its organization – and to manage on a smaller income. This resulted in periodically recurring internal crises and spells of paralysis (Sepstrup 1994:226).

The situation was not as serious for radio as for television, but it was nevertheless a surprise for the management to see the rapid growth and popularity of the commercial local radio stations. The number of local radio stations has been fairly constant since 1987 – around 250, half of them commercial. Approximately 35 stations can be considered fully professional, with a solid economic base. The local radio turnover for commercials has not yet exceeded 2% of the total advertisement turnover, and at the beginning of the 90s it was about 120 million DKK ( Jauert & Prehn 1995:122).

Audience interest in the new local radio varied in different parts of the country. Table 2 shows average figures. Local radio’s market share was approx. 20% – in 2000 35%.

The New Radio
First of all, the commercial radio channels were formatted. The program flow was aimed at the specific audience available at any given time of the day and ready to listen – or 'tune in'. The style of music, DJ performance, the 'pulse' or 'beat' of the channel soundscape could change during the day – and in most cases it had to change, because of the limited transmission area – max. 300,000 people – and the transmitter’s limitations – max. 160W to 3kW. Only in the two or three biggest cities was it possible to establish local radio aimed exclusively at teenagers. Within a relatively broad musical concept, i.e. European Hit Radio as the most common, you could vary the style of music in the course of the day and place enclaves with 'oldies' or 'classic rock' or similar more specialized musical formats. After a few years, some of the stations introduced music management, the music no longer being selected by the DJ. This had been a well known phenomenon in the USA for many years, but was considered a revolution in the Scandinavian countries around 1990. Now it is considered a normal routine, and even though the resistance among DJ's and journalists in Denmark's Radio was very strong, it was introduced in 1992 in P3, and has slowly spread to the other stations.

Secondly, the local atmosphere and community spirit in the programs was a main factor in contributing to their popularity. In contrast to the more 'official' language policy in Denmark's Radio, the language heard on local radio was the dialect actually spoken in the respective areas. The issues in the programs were rooted in the local area, and the listeners were offered various services useful in their daily life: traffic, weather, local events, etc.

Thirdly, the contact between local radio and listeners was more direct, varied and sometimes even almost intimate. The number of phone-ins exceeded by far what was previously the case in DR, and quizzes, debate programs and night-hawk talk radio grew very popular, contributing to linking listeners to the station. The local station became 'our radio' – in contrast to DR, which was identified with the atmosphere of the capital and highbrow paternalism. (Jauert & Prehn, 1995: 63)

In these respects the commercial local radios represented a serious threat to the old monopoly radio and its program policy and practice. The need for reform in DR was evident.

A new public service concept
An era of more radical changes, including a channel reform, was initiated in DR from 1988. From top to bottom, the institution became involved in the development of 'the new radio'. In organizational and strategic terms it was a very deliberate action on the part of management, because the operation was not just an adjustment of old routines. The aims and goals, as well as the general organization of program production and program policy were to be reformulated and restructured.

The old radio had mainly been organized as a production and broadcast institution, and it considered itself primarily a provider of cultural commodities, news and information, mainly fulfilling the function of public service in the sense of "serving the public sphere, the public life" (Syvertsen 1992). A new attitude towards the audience was searched for, but the aim and goal was still to maintain key functions from what has been called the second era of public service principles.

After two years of internal discussion and restructuring, a 'constitution' for the new radio was formulated in 1990. If you look behind the official, formal wording of the new general policy for modernized radio, it becomes evident that the audience is more in the focus of the institutional agenda, e.g., in the phrase: "... [DR must] show respect for the audience, be open towards its criticism and engage it in the programs."

Programs – and /or formats?
The general deregulation process and the struggle for justification and legitimization prompted the managers of Scandinavian broadcasting companies to seek inspiration abroad, primarily in the North American radio markets (Kemppainen 1998). The term 'format radio' was introduced to the Scandinavian broadcasting vocabulary, amongst other concepts inspired by the American radio producer and consultant, George Burns. In his capacity of Director of Burns Media Consultants, he visited Europe several times around 1990 and was on one of these occasions keynote speaker for the European Radio Directors in EBU (European Broadcasting Union) in Heidelberg in 1990 (Leif Lønsmann 1990 – and interview March 8, 2001 with Leif Lønsmann, former Head of Radio Development in DR, since 1999 Director of Radio, DR).

The obvious inspiration from American/Canadian/Australian commercial format radio marked the transition from block radio to an adjusted version of flow radio and format principles. But a format radio in a strict sense or pure version was not yet introduced.

Block radio is the program-essence of the old radio, representing the sender perspective of broadcasting. Block programming consists of separated, single programs, each with its own title, form, subject and producer, often produced and presented without any relation to the previous program or to the one that followed (Lønsmann 1990:2).

Block programming represents a concept of radio as a medium for listening in – for a "lean-forward" listening approach to this specific radio program. It presupposes the full attention and presence of the listener, as opposed to flow radio, which underlines the function of the radio as a companion to the everyday activities of the audience.

The construction principles of flow radio had already been introduced in 1964 when the Music Radio (P3) was launched, while the original block radio principle continued on the two other channels, P1 and P2, until the reform period 1988-1992.

Channel Reforms
In 1992 the channel reform was completed, and DR's radio now had four radio channels on three frequencies (Table 1.). With this expression DR wished to emphasize a protest against what was considered an obstruction of its endeavor to meet the new demands of the competitive radio market. Since 1982 it had been possible to launch a fourth nation-wide FM station, but politicians had not subsequently been able to decide whether to assign it to DR, to another public service provider (i.e. TV 2), or to a commercial company, similar to the nationwide, commercial station, P4 in Norway, launched in 1994.

Table 1

Channel reform

begun 1988, completed 1992.

P1 – Channel 1



The channel for culture and the spoken word. Focus on national culture, enlightenment, talk and radio documentary, features and fiction

P2 Music – Channel 2



Classic radio. Focus on Danish music and orchestras, Danish presentation and co-operation with the national music scenes.

P2 The Denmark Channel-Channel 2

Music and age format

Nine regional radios, partly networking; a full service channel for the mature audience (+40) with a music format accordingly.

P3 – Channel 3

Music and age format

A 24 hour full service channel for the young audience, 12-40 with news, journalism, service – with a music profile aimed at the younger generation

The main idea behind the new channel construction was still to meet the demands dating from the historical heritage of the public service era, i.e. to maintain the function as a provider of content for the public need, for the audience in its capacity as citizens, but at the same time to comply with the demands of the market, and to widen the possibilities for serving the public in its capacity as consumers.

The new channel structure cannot be considered a completed reform along the lines of the principles of modern format radio, due to the specific market situation with limited audience groups, and due to the political demand for only a modest redefinition of the public service principles. Simultaneously, DR was supposed to present more program diversity, attract larger audiences, and serve small target groups with specific interests. The 1992 channel reform was merely an adjustment to the new competitive environment rather than a radical change.

P1 represents DR tradition, focusing on information, current affairs, culture, talk, fiction, drama and documentaries. The essence of this channel is program diversity, and the criterion for success is not a large share of the audience, but a high reach in the course of the week, indicating that a lot of different target groups have found something useful or interesting. In reality, the listener‘s profile is quite advanced in years, and for many years this tendency has increased.

P2 Music is a very specialized channel for small target groups, but the real legitimization of this channel is linked to decade-long investments in the DR Symphony Orchestra and other orchestras (incl. a Jazz Big Band) and their involvement in Danish music life in general. In this respect, this specific public service obligation is part of a general, cultural, publicly supported, music policy.

The newly formatted channels, The Denmark Channel and P3, represent the new radio. In the commercial, US-inspired sense of the notion of 'format radio', both channels signify modifications. With regard to age, the audience target groups are too wide. P 3 cannot appeal to a teenager of 14 and a mature grown-up of 35 at the same time, neither in music preferences nor in spheres of interest. The same goes for P2, The Denmark Channel. It has proven rather difficult to combine an interest in local political, cultural and social issues with the music profile.

For both formatted channels the results after 1992 were that the audience groups changed during the day to a higher degree than intended, and that many younger listeners switched, especially from P3 to the commercial local stations.

In general the channel reform did not result in clearly profiled, format-defined channels. In reality the organization was torn between sympathy for some parts of the old routines and production values on one hand, and on the other hand a clear vision of the growing necessity of modernizing the program production processes, the program content and the structuring of the channels. Those conflicts grew stronger during the 1990s, as market competition intensified.

New channels, new formats, new programs
This year, DR was supplied with a new, nationwide fourth channel and was now able to fulfil a vision developed during the past two decades. During 2001 programs are being restructured, developed and transformed into new contexts, shaping two music-formatted channels (P3 and P4) and two content-formatted channels (P1 and P2).

In order to prevent further loss of younger audiences, DR has intensified strategic program planning and launched several new program strategies, especially on P3 and P4, which most directly face competition from the commercial stations. In spite of these new initiatives, e.g., formatted news for young people on P3, no changes in audience patterns can be traced. It seems that DR as a public service radio is facing a severe generation problem, both in reach and share of the radio market.

Recently – during the last few years – DR has tried to strengthen its capacity as a media content provider, rather than 'just' a public service radio, through its declared intention to be present on all distribution platforms:

  • analogue broadcast radio, where the content provider (DR) still composes the program output

  • digital audio broadcasting, where the EPG will develop a mixture of pull and push program-deliveries; the listener will be able to compose his/her own program menu during the day and combine radio output with written, supplementary information

  • radio on the www, where the listener will be able to compose different media elements from the DR website: parallel 'broadcasting' of the analogue DR channels, DR web-radio, DR streaming audio (music, jukebox function), supplementary written information, video clips, etc.

DR’s market position is still very strong and its management has so far been successful in its attempt to strengthen the position of public service media by gaining political and economical backing from Parliament. But the essential problem to be dealt with within the next few years will still be related to the younger generation's attraction to or rejection of DR as a public service institution.

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Hujanen, Taisto and Per Jauert. "The New Competitive Environment of Radio Broadcasting in the Nordic Countries." In: Journal of Radio Studies, vol. 5, no. 1 (Winter 1998), pp. 105-31.

Jauert, Per and Ole Prehn. Lokalradio og TV. Nu og i fremtiden. Copenhagen, 1995.

Jensen, Klaus Bruhn. Dansk Mediehistorie I-III. Copenhagen: Kulturministeriet:, 1997.

Kemppainen, Pentti. "The Channel Reform of Public Service Radio in the Nordic Countries." In Journal of Radio Studies, vol. 5, no. 1 (Winter 1998), pp. 132-49.

Lønsmann, Leif. Radio ifølge Burns. Copenhagen: Danmarks Radio, 1990.

Sepstrup, Preben. TV i kulturpolitisk perspektiv. Aarhus: Kliim, 1994.

Syvertsen, Trine. Public Service in Transition. Oslo: NAVF, 1992.

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