Let’s begin with the radio in the 1979 Chevy Nova my grandma Cele gave me. A volume knob, a tuning knob, and five preset buttons for cementing a relationship with AM radio—that was it. At one point, driving, I came upon a venerable Top 40 DJ from Philadelphia who called himself the Geator with the Heater. Later, after hauling the indestructible green machine to the West Coast, I wondered at the Quiet Storm shows on KDIA that took Oakland soul listeners into sleep. In those same Bay Area years, circa 1989–92, Hot New Country was flourishing on my Nova. For an indie rocker who’d spun records on college radio by groups with names like Butthole Surfers, this country stuff beamed in from another planet. But as a captive to the Garth, Trisha, Clint, and Wynonna flow, I learned to hear another format on its own terms: the small rebellions and innovations that made sense when set against a constancy of sound and attitudes.
Keep those car buttons in mind for a bit longer. Each potentially represented a separate music format: Top 40, adult contemporary, rhythm and blues, country, or album-oriented rock. And each station played, consistently, proven hit records, whose basic qualities a regular listener could anticipate even before pushing the button. The identity of those listeners varied as much as the music did, to let advertisers target different consumer segments. In the 1950s, Top 40 had emerged as a programming style to help radio compensate for television’s absconding with syndicated network shows. By the mid-1970s, the format system I will focus on offered different musical flavors of Top 40, rooted in divisions of age, gender, race, region, and economics but also blurring and crossing between those rival categories. The result was a particular model of commercialized cultural pluralism: a formatting of publics.