Brad McNally

Freeform radio: The format for NYthespirit.com

Since I joined NYthespirit.com last year many radio folks have asked me about the format and is there one. Well, yes there is – it’s ‘freeform’ and it’s been around since the 60s/70s.

Wikipedia defines freeform this way:

radio station programming format in which the disc jockey is given total control over what music to play, regardless of music genre or commercial interests. Freeform radio stands in contrast to most commercial radio stations, in which DJs have little or no influence over programming structure or playlists.

If Wikipedia says so, it must be right, right? Well, sort of.

Len Comaratta, on the Consequence of Sound website, describes how the format emerged:

Some station programmers held the assumption that their FM audiences would be a bit more mature than their AM counterparts. As such, many gave disc jockeys more freedom and control over the material on their shows. Their style and presentation on the mic was even different from that of the popular AM hits-driven DJs and was more akin to the conversational tones often heard during Radio’s Golden Age. 

These ‘underground’ jockeys would manipulate segues between songs to allow for an expansion beyond any single genre and favoured non-singles over the typical two-and-a-half-minute pop song. FM’s open-mindedness also fed the creativity of bands, giving them a forum to put their art on display. This allowed for the development of longer, more complex material not suitable for Top 40.

Freeform came way before the likes of the Classic 9 at 9 and the freeform jock’s style is pretty much summed up in The Last DJ by Tom Petty. Some on-air jocks, including myself, include monologues with sound effects and poetry in their programs. I’m hearing you say, ‘that’s self-indulgent’, and yeah it can be – in the hands of someone not skilled.

You can create a great feel in freeform radio because you can have various themes running through a show, themes such as progressive rock featuring bands like Yes, Pink Floyd and Alan Parsons; or you can play a contemporary artist like DJ Drez into A.R. Rahman, an Indian Bollywood artist. The sound of these artists’ songs segueing from one into the other go together beautifully, and yet their styles are worlds apart.

Legendary programmer Rick Carol from KROQ in Los Angeles pretty much programmed music from what he heard on the street and in the clubs. WBCN Boston was another famous freeform format.

In the 70s, consultants got involved with the big FM stations and brought in music research, which cut the playlists in half and only played the top-testing songs. This drove the listeners crazy, as they did not want to hear the same Queen song on high rotation.

For a while, the superstar programing brought big ratings. It also gave freeform stations an opportunity. Stations like KROQ in LA took off because guys like Lee Abrams and Dave Charles made them a little more commercial but without losing their identity and essence, and so the ratings soared.

In Australia, at 96fm back in the early 80s, then PD Gary Roberts hired John Hood from New Zealand, a very skilled music guy, and pretty much gave him free reign with the music. While I can’t remember his exact ratings, I do recall 96fm nights was No. 1, like the rest of the station. At the time, it was the only station in town playing album cuts across the day.

In Canada, it was Chum in Toronto with David Marsden, who then left to start up legendary Toronto station CFNY FM. David explains the spirit of those days in the excellent doco about rock radio DJs I am What I play, which you can watch here:

Given the creative freedom and output of freeform radio, it’s not surprising that NYthespirit.com, where I do my show, is David’s brainchild.

Regardless of format, let’s remember that it’s the music that matters and it’s one of the reasons people listen to the radio. The music and the flow of the music will always need that special attention, whatever the format or genre.


Radio veteran Brad McNally has programmed stations around the globe. His career abroad has led him to Stockholm, Finland, Denmark, Dublin, London and Toronto. In Australia, he has programmed major metro stations in Melbourne, Perth and most recently, the Gold Coast at Hot Tomato. He retired in 2016 for health reasons and now presents the McNally Masquerade at online streaming station NYthespirit.com which hails from his hometown, Toronto.

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Recent comments (2)
The legendary Jim Lad
16 Apr 2018 - 11:27 pm

Freeform rock radio,sure it was self indulgent but done well it sounds/ed terrific for those of us that appreciate music that has not been over researched and flogged.
Memories of the late Bill Ali also on 96fm back in the day rolling out a show I think called “especially for headphones”? was also great listening.

Peter Evans
19 Apr 2018 - 7:54 pm

Free rein