In all my college radio advising, music is one area I generally don't meddle too much with. I'm so far out of touch with "today's music" that it's almost shameful. So I write this in an attempt to self-teach via organizing my thoughts, and hopefully I'll garnish some insightful comments, too.
First of all, I'll touch on formatted vs. unformatted. Most "college radio" stations aren't formatted, although I suppose it's worth pointing out that those few that are generally enjoy more listeners (and thus more quantitative success) than those that don't. It's not an easy comparison, though. One thing that really comes at me here is WERS's recent decision to dump block programming for freeform during most of the day. Before you scream "WERS is NOT freeform!!!" I recognize that by the classic definition, you are correct. However, Joe Public scanning the dial and finding 88.9FM isn't going to make that distinction. If Joe hears six different songs from six different genres, he's thinking he's listening to a freeform station.
Putting WERS aside and thinking more about the legions of "college radio" stations that are effectively "freeform" out there....you'd think that because of freeform's inherent all-inclusiveness that it'd be popular, but in fact the reverse is true: when the listening public writ large tunes into a station, they want to have a decent idea of what they're going to hear. Most people don't want to tune for rock-alternative and get polka. So the audience for freeform is always hyper-niche; only a very narrow audience really digs that uber-randomness.
Quick aside: the "Jack" format that sounds much like an iPod on shuffle is nowhere near as "diverse" as a real freeform station. Despite the branding, most "Jack" (or "Mike", or "Frank", etc) stations only draw from perhaps four or five genres during any given daypart...and those genres are usually somewhat related.
Getting back to freeform, and its close cousin block-formatting, that wildness to the playlist typically means you end up with listeners devoted to a specific DJ, because that DJ will be relatively consistent during their show. This isn't inherently a bad thing, but it can be very limiting for your listeners since they're - by and large - only tuning in once a week for a few hours as that DJ spins.
In theory you can group similar DJ's together so that you get something approaching a daypart going...hopefully convincing listeners to stick around for the next DJ after their favorite one leaves. But that must be fiendishly difficult to manage, both from DJ to DJ and also semester to semester as schedules change and students come and go.
I wonder if anyone's successfully pulled off a hyper-organizing of their DJ's that way. With modern technology and voicetracking it certainly can be done far easier now than in years past...although many DJ's prefer to run a live show to get the feedback from the listeners (and because they're, in many cases, too lazy to plan out their show in advance enough to voicetrack it) so I can imagine a philosophical war over trying to implement that. Anyone know of a successful or unsuccessful example?
So that's formatted vs. unformatted. I'll also get into how the traditional model of working labels for new music, and organizing that music for airplay, seems to be breaking down in the age of iPods and home-burned CD's...but that's for the next post.