Insight: The All-Christmas Music Format Phenomenon

| December 3, 2012

By Mike Kinosian
RadioInfo
Managing Editor/West Coast Bureau Chief

LOS ANGELES — We have already witnessed how the presidential election and “Sandy” dramatically impacted ratings on news and talk outlets.

Barring an unforeseen occurrence of monumental magnitude, many adult contemporary stations in PPM markets will post moderate gains in the December monthly and downright staggering increases in the “Holiday” report.

That fearless prediction applies to those adult contemporary outlets – and to a lesser extent, several facilities in a few other formats – that have chosen to temporarily abandon the format between Thanksgiving and Christmas in favor of wall-to-wall sounds of the season.

Programmers of a certain age will remember hauling out Christmas vinyl from the storeroom or dusting off a stack of carts for airplay between Noon Christmas Eve to Noon Christmas Day. That was considered fairly standard practice.

More adventurous music-radio operations would promote a frequency-related block of holiday music, such as the “101 hours of continuous Christmas music” that would culminate either Noon Christmas Day or at 6pm Christmas night.

Long gone are the days of waiting until December 15 to begin sprinkling-in one Christmas song an hour and then bumping it up to two or three every 60 minutes on December 20.

Finding at least one station per market playing all-Christmas music all the time for four, five, six straight weeks – or in some cases longer – is the well-accepted rule.

Substantially good reason, aside from priceless community goodwill, makes that so.

Among all those from every PPM market measured in November 2011, a grand total of seven (7) stations reached 6+ shares in double-digits.

That select group included talk WLW, Cincinnati, WTVN, Columbus, and WTMJ, Milwaukee; adult contemporary WRCH, Hartford; CHR WPRO-FM, Providence; rock WHJY, Providence; and urban AC WQMG, Greensboro.

None of those stations reached as high as a 12-share.

In January 2012, Urban ACs WVKL, Norfolk and KJMS, Memphis, along with Spanish adult hits KLYY, Riverside notched 6+ shares in double-digits.  They joined four members of November’s club – WRCH, WPRO-FM, WHJY, and WLW.

After the additions/subtractions, the number in that elite fraternity remained at seven.

Highly noteworthy is what happened – and what has been happening the last several years – between November and January.

Adult contemporary stations cracking double-digits in December were: WBEB, Philadelphia; WWRM, Tampa; KSFI, Salt Lake City; WYXB, Indianapolis; WMAG, Greensboro; and WRCH.

Country WCOL, Columbus reached double-figures, while WPRO-FM, WHJY, WLW, WVKL, and KJMS continued, bringing the total to 12.

In the “Holiday” monthly, 33 stations reached double-digits 6+, which is well over four times as much as in November and January; three-fourths of the 33 were adult contemporary.

Moreover, whereas stations in double-figures tend to be in the 10- and 11-share range, with the occasional 12-share, eight (8) “Holiday” outlets in this class recorded 6+ stats above 14; WRCH hit the 17-share mark and KSFI 16.

Listed by market size, here are the 33 stations that achieved a 10-share or higher in 2011’s “Holiday” report.  Also shown are the station’s 6+ November 2011 share; Holiday 2011 market rank; January 2012 market rank; and January 2012 (6+) share.

A station such as WLW – which did not play all-Christmas music in the “Holiday” sweep – is listed because it satisfied the double-digit ratings parameter.

Remember, this showcases stations with at least a 10-share in 2011’s “Holiday” report; thus, it does not take into consideration many other stations with their own powerful all-Christmas music success stories.

Obstacles and unique challenges can accompany this programming maneuver, including a fundamental radio principle that is put to the supreme test.

Un”B”elievable holiday shocker

Just as it has done since the early-2000s, Philadelphia’s WBEB (“B101″) halted its regular programming last month for all-Christmas fare.  This year, the switch was made on November 19 – the Monday before Thanksgiving – but advertisers do not attempt to sway executives at the Jerry Lee-owned adult contemporary standalone powerhouse to start at any particular time.

Even so, vice president/general manager Blaise Howard theorizes that many retailers who, in the beginning of November, have all their Christmas decorations up in the malls would be thrilled if “B101″ would commence playing the holiday music then.  “Those who want it are passionate about it,” he stresses.  “We do not get many negative remarks; occasionally, someone will say that they wish we would have waited until Thanksgiving.”

No other Philadelphia-based facility is challenging “B101″ with all-Christmas, although it is being done down the road in Wilmington, Delaware and to the north in Allentown.

In the 11 monthly PPM reports this calendar year (January – November), “B101″ has an average 6+-share of 6.42.  In that stretch, it finished first in March and April; third in May; and second the other eight times.  In short, this is a major player in the eighth-largest market.

As impressive as that is, it pales in comparison to what happens in the “Holiday” report, since in the last two years, “B101″ has been in the 15-share range – a 15.6 in 2010 and 15.3 last year.

Despite such mind-boggling results, it is difficult for the station to generate commensurate revenue from it and a main reason is as stunning as the ratings stats.  “We work at it every year,” Howard states with assuredness.  “There is an interesting phenomenon though that is happening out there.”

Spearheaded by director of national sales Dave Giordano, station representatives alert clients – particularly national ones – that Arbitron has a thirteenth – “Holiday” – monthly report.  “We are finding that most people think there are only 12,” Howard notes in disbelief.  “They think December is the ‘holiday’ book, when in essence, the December monthly ends on December 7.  People who have any retail business make their money that last 45 days of the year.  That is why they call it ‘Black Friday.'”

As with many other things, perusing historical data can be extremely useful to project the future, so Howard reasons that if “B101″ continues to do all-Christmas music, “You can be pretty sure we will be around those ratings.  We try to inform clients about how important it is to take a look at that ‘Holiday’ book from last year to see what is going to happen this year.  That has been relatively successful over the last couple of years, but it is something I wish Arbitron would do a little bit more of to let people know.  It is shocking to me how many agencies did not even know there was a thirteenth book.  We are still amazed every day when we have meetings – even on Madison Avenue in New York – that people do not know that a ‘Holiday’ monthly exists.”

In general, all of calendar year 2012 has been pretty flat in the City of Brotherly Love, business wise.  “The year just never got any legs underneath it,” Howard comments.  “It would be up slightly, but then back down.  National has been off, which created an excess of inventory, so pricing is not very stable.  Things are pointing toward 2013 to be flat or up slightly.  Hopefully, it will be more like 2010 than 2011 and 2012.”

Among adult contemporary B101’s seasonal promotions is a Christmas choir competition.  One division is made up of those in elementary school through eighth grade; the other is comprised of high school students.  “We invite choruses from all high school and grade schools around the Philadelphia area,” Howard notes.  “Last year, we had well over 200 schools that gave us submissions.  The quality of the music coming in was unbelievable – it was airplay-ready.  The response we received was amazing.”

Winners get to sing with Peter Nero and the Philadelphia Pops at the end of this month and their school receives a piano.  “We are able to monetize that by having a sponsor,” Howard explains.  “For several years now, it has been the Mercedes Benz dealer.”

Six clients are participating in the station’s “Best Christmas Ever” promotion.  Early last month, “B101″ polled listeners about which gifts they would most want to receive; iPads, iPad minis, and 42-inch LED televisions were among the leading responses.  “At 6:30 pm, we have a show where children can speak to Santa and tell him what they want for Christmas,” Howard points out. “There is a sponsor for that.  December is now a much better month than it has ever been.  Years ago, it was a month much like third quarter.  You were always having a good October and November, but December could go either way.  Now, we have consistently good Decembers.  Last year, we had almost 2.9 million people listening to us – we went up over one million listeners.”

Even though “B101″ does not haul in the huge bucks from all-Christmas music one might expect given the eye-popping numbers, Howard categorically declares he will “absolutely” continue with the tradition.  “I always tell people that you can never underestimate how good people want to feel,” he remarks.  “For some reason, it is just amazing at this time of the year how many people love hearing Christmas music.  The calls, emails, and now Twitter and Facebook amaze me.  It is just nuts and we actually look forward to it.”

In the mood for musical comfort food

Not only does Nashville’s WJXA (“Mix 92.9″) exhibit great ratings prowess with the all-Christmas music format, the South Central Media adult contemporary facility benefits from the masterfully adroit execution led by immensely gifted program director/10:00 am – 2:00 pm on-air air personality Barb Bridges, who this year unveiled wall-to-wall Christmas programming on Thanksgiving Day.  “It has changed so much over the years, with everyone jumping in earlier and earlier,” she points out.  “We have the ‘luxury’ in this market of not having our hand forced.”

Playing all-Christmas music between Thanksgiving and Christmas has been a ritual for AC WJXA the past six or seven years.  Last year, “Mix 92.9″ and cross-town, Salem-owned contemporary Christian WFFH (“The Fish”) jump-started it a little earlier than usual and Bridges dealt with the good and the bad of that experiment.  “You have Christmas loyalists who are ready for it on November 1,” she explains.  “They will call and ask for all-Christmas music but the percentage of people who want it then is smaller.  If you are able to wait until Thanksgiving, listeners are actually ready for it at that point.”

Listeners participating in a survey on the station’s website were asked to rate approximately 35 Christmas titles.  In addition, there was a question regarding when they preferred that “Mix” start playing all-Christmas music.

Roughly 55% of those taking part indicated anytime after Thanksgiving as their choice, so Bridges felt the station would be in the clear by going on Thanksgiving.  “About 35% said they wanted it ‘now’ so they were ready,” she notes.  “A handful said they were not ready until right before Christmas.  In the past, we have started a few days before Thanksgiving and the weekend prior to Thanksgiving.  To be honest, I try to [gauge] the listeners’ mindset and the mood that particular year.  That has absolutely played a part in the decisions we have made as to when to go.  It is nice to be able to anticipate how people are feeling.  More and more during the holidays, people are looking for ‘comfort food.’  That is what I always feel Christmas is – warm, familiar, comfort food.  It makes you feel good.”

Introducing listeners to all-Christmas music the day after Halloween though has the prospective to lead to overkill. “It does seem that way,” Bridges concurs.  “Perhaps people who want that are sitting in a different place.  In a perfect world, I think we would all say that Thanksgiving is the kickoff to the holiday season.  Obviously, retailers have put stuff in the stores way before that but, for the most part, it is there to get you warmed up.”

Even if a person is not totally prepared for it, it seems inevitable that he or she will nonetheless sample a station such as Nashville’s “Mix” this time of year.  They want to have a taste of all-Christmas music, and Bridges works diligently on the imaging.  “The music is the Christmas tree – the imaging is the ornaments,” she proudly states.  “We work for months to make sure that we have little, slice-of-life vignettes that make the whole thing feel like people are re-living their favorite memories.  There is obviously an appetite for what I call the ultimate ‘feel-good music.’  It makes people feel more connected because you can look back; you can look forward; and you can look into your family.  Everybody has something that connects them to these particular songs.  It is pretty cool.”

As recently as a few years ago, some programmers were still convinced that they could play any stack of Christmas songs and the concept would work.  A highly skeptical Bridges however pooh-poohs that by declaring, “Lord – no.  Of course, you could do it, but I don’t know if it would work very well.  You can throw something on the air and hope for the best.  There has to be a blend of classic, familiar, not too old, not too new, not too fast, and not too slow.  You then have to spice, and sprinkle the image through there, so it feels good to listeners.  You want them to say that you made it fun for them to listen to the station.  Listeners want us to make sure the soup is right.  There is a reason why an artist who puts out a new Christmas CD has three-quarters of it as classics.”

Very few new or original songs are included on such releases.  “Yes – we all love those because – good grief – we are struggling with artist/title separation,” Bridges admits.  “The two worst things in scheduling Christmas music is, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s that title again,’ and, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s that artist again.’  There has to be a balance so it is not all Frank Sinatra, Andy Williams, and that whole era – or – Jessica Simpson, Michael Bublé, and Justin Bieber [on the other end of the spectrum].  That doesn’t feel like Christmas to everybody.  ”

In theory, airing non-stop seasonal sounds will help transition a middle-of-the-pack station to the top, and provide listeners with something to pique their curiosity so they will keep listening in January.  “You want them to realize your station has a pretty good morning team, or that the music you play the rest of the year is so good that they’ll stay for a while,” comments Bridges.  “That is every programmer’s hope.  We peel people from many other formats during this particular time.  They might be P1s of the country stations so they do not customarily spend time with ‘Mix.’  When we return to our blend of music, they will go back to their favorite blend.  They make an exception during the holidays.  I get that and it is okay with me.  We are giving people something they enjoy.  It’s a little bit of holiday cheer over here – then they can go back to their favorites.”

In complete agreement with WBEB, Philadelphia vice president/general manager Blaise Howard, Bridges laments that monetizing all-Christmas music is not as unproblematic as one might assume.  “It just makes me crazy because this is beachfront property in the middle of July,” she states in frustration.  “That, to me, is what all-Christmas music is.  [South Central Media, Nashville vice president/general manager Dennis Gwiazdon] and I smash our heads against the wall.  Our station doubles – and in some cases – triples our cume numbers in certain demos.  You look at it and think this is a no-brainer, but it is not.  The numbers are through the roof, yet we are not able to make money from it in a way that we should.  That is the tragedy of this – it is like not being able to sell the Super Bowl.  For us, this is our Super Bowl.  I don’t think any station doing this is monetizing all-Christmas music to its full potential.  You can do certain things – such as sponsorships – but the weeks leading up to Christmas are just gravy.  It seems counter-intuitive but many people have already spent their money trying to get the early-birds.”

The all-Christmas music phenomenon had been virtually an adult cotemporary exclusive, but stations in other formats have jumped on the bandwagon.  Still – AC seems the perfect venue with Bridges explaining, “That is what we do – we blend music.  It just feels right on our stations.  Our listeners are already accustomed to hearing many different styles and flavors on our station.  We are perfect for this.”

Not necessarily the more the “merrier”

Even before the calendar could be flipped to December, three Salt Lake City stations were playing Christmas music as their complete format; a fourth was doing it part-time, prompting Bonneville adult contemporary KSFI (“FM 100.3″) program director Kelly Hammer to quip, “Welcome to the North Pole.”

In addition to KSFI, fulltime all-Christmas music players in Salt Lake City are fellow ACs Clear Channel-owned KOSY and Cumulus’ KBEE (“B98.7″).  Meanwhile, Capital Broadcasting hot AC KBZN (“Now,” formerly smooth AC) plays about five Christmas songs an hour.  “We flipped to all-Christmas on November 9,” Hammer points out.  In terms of starting, “KOSY will beat us every year, they’ll flip either November 1 or November 2.  One factor for us is that we keep an eye on the weather.  If it is sunny and 70 degrees, people usually are not in the Christmas mood.  This year, it was sunny and 70 that first week of November and we happened to make our change on the first big snowstorm of the season.  The timing worked out well for us.”

Among all stations in Arbitron’s electronically-measured (PPM) markets in the “Holiday” 2011 report, KSFI ranked second overall behind CBS Radio adult contemporary WRCH, Hartford with a 6+ stat in the 16-share range.  “Yes, we can monetize [all-Christmas music] but it is not just from the monthlies when the numbers hit and the revenue starts pouring in,” notes KSFI local sales manager Emily Hunt.  “It is more from a history and heritage standpoint.  The pattern has been the same for so long that increased listening is so significant in November and December that people plan in advance that they need to be on the station.  We see our biggest [sales] increases at the beginning of the year and through second and third quarter.  It actually slows down in the fourth quarter because the inventory is so tight.  When we are budgeting and looking at our plan moving forward, there is a determination of what November and December will look like, simply because it has always been so strong during those months.”

While there is a ratings connection, KSFI sets prices based on demand during those two months.  “It really does happen in the first quarter with a lot of annual planning and then in second and third quarter with sort of last-minute,” Hunt points out.  “That might sound crazy because that is so far out, but the November and December placement is very low.  Regardless what rate we put on it, we are usually at about 75% – 80% in November and December.  It really fills up that far in advance.  The last 20% usually comes in November-December.  KSFI has been around for so long and is the market’s original all-Christmas music station.  This is the first year that a third [all-Christmas music] station has come on; I am sure it is because they have seen the power it can bring.”

With a more crowded field, one might expect that a client could use that to their advantage with a sales objection; however, Hunt has not experienced that.  “It is not really choosing KSFI over KOSY – there is not even a comparison in the listening,” she stresses.  “We get over one million listeners to the radio station during the all-Christmas music timeframe.  The other station is not even one-quarter of that.  There is no question which one is the stronger property; the pricing has not come into play, either.  It is literally that advertisers want to be on the Christmas music station.  This is a unique market because it is growing.  Revenue is still growing, and we are experiencing slight, but steady growth on the radio station.”

Business owners generally look at Christmas music advertising as sort of a “saving grace” to make their year.  Consequently, Salt Lake City clients heretofore were ready and waiting for all-Christmas music.  This, however, has been an odd year.  “It felt like clients were asking that we not rush Christmas,” Hunt opines.  “That is almost the complete opposite as it has been.  People wanted to enjoy each holiday for what it is and not get right into Christmas music.  There have been so many tragedies that people do not want to have an attitude of, ‘Hey, that was so sad – let’s go spend money.’  Feedback from our clients was they were so excited that we did not flip until later.  We did hear some negative feedback about the other station that did.  I received many calls from clients who thanked us for being so respectful to the season.”

Theorizing that the 2012 presidential election played a significant role in the public’s attitude, Hunt maintains, “People were sitting on the fence about whether they should be spending their money.  They wanted to just sit down and take a breather.  The fact that we waited a little longer than we typically do and the way we approached it all the way around was a positive.  I have been doing this for about 25 years and the entire planning year itself has not been in a typical pattern.  There has been so much uncertainty with people holding onto their dollars a little bit longer.”

Different platforms were tried.  “Many went to digital and others have gone back to mailers,” Hunt points out.  “At least with the clients I have had conversations with, they were not chomping at the bit to get things on because their customers have not been able to give them a plan.  They are planning month-to-month, rather than four or five months out.  It was important for the radio station to get so much revenue in advance at the beginning of the year than to wait until the last minute.  If we would have waited for this pattern, we would have been in some trouble.”

Four adult contemporary outlets customarily appear within the top 20 of Long Island’s ratings summary (two of those are New York City signals); Miami has three competitive ACs; and three adult contemporary facilities generally are in the Middlesex-Somerset-Union (New Jersey) top 20 – but again, two of them are from New York City.

The only other PPM market with a spirited three-way AC tussle is Salt Lake City, where there is even added competition from hot AC newcomer KBZN and veteran hot AC KJMY.  “I really think the conservative nature of the market is a factor for making adult contemporary so attractive here,” Hammer contends.  “Generally speaking, AC music is more palatable and family-friendly than the top 40 product that we have seen the past few years.  Right now though, top 40 is easier-on-the-ears to many people, in large part, because the more urban-sound that we have seen creep in has gone away.  CHR programmers have reverted to a more pop-based sound – mothers and daughters can both enjoy that.  There is so much adult contemporary competition in this market because everyone is trying to program to that mother-daughter [scenario].  The demand seems to be there, although there should not be six or seven AC stations in this market.”

First one in – wins

In its eleventh year of doing all-Christmas music, Seattle adult contemporary KRWM (“Warm 106.9″) made this year’s transition the Friday before Thanksgiving.  “Our ratings stay strong after we finish, but they are nothing like what we do at Christmas time,” remarks Sandusky Radio Seattle vice president/general manager Marc Kaye.  “The cume doubles and we do end up getting more people exposed to the radio station.  Hopefully, when we come out of all-Christmas music, people will give us a chance and we can pick some more P2s – and even some P1s.”

Tremendous possibility for a steep ratings drop looms after an equally precipitous advance, but Kaye’s philosophy is that if your station doesn’t go the all-Christmas music route, another facility in the market will.  “If someone else did decide to do that after I had the chance, I would kick myself in the butt for several months,” he maintains.  “You like to come out in a better spot than when you went into it.  The all-Christmas music franchise is a tough one to give up.  One reason we decided to do it 11 years ago was that the first one in – wins.  If you believe that, you want to establish your station as the Christmas music station and own everything about Christmas in your town.  That includes the music, and all the promotions that happen in your city.  It is just such a feel-good thing.”

Especially when advertisers have a Christmas message, they are aware of the benefit of coming on-board to reach the kind of Christmas cume “Warm 106.9″ has.  “If their business depends on the amount of business they do in the [roughly] six weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, they have to take advantage of those people who will turn their business into the black,” Kaye emphasizes.  “Advertising on a Christmas-formatted station that has a huge following will be a very good thing.”

As is the case in a growing number of markets, Seattle has more than one station playing continuous Christmas music.

In addition to “Warm 106.9,” Crista Broadcasting’s KCMS (“Spirit 105.3″) is in that arena, although Kaye explains, seasonal music KCMS plays is not necessarily more serious, as much as it is truer to that station’s contemporary Christian format.  “Many stations like KCMS have found that the more that they try to make it sound like a mainstream adult contemporary, the more they go away from who they are,” Kaye opines.  “Even though ‘Warm’ will feature artists during the all-Christmas weeks that we would not ordinarily play – such as the Trans Siberian Orchestra, Bing Crosby, Andy Williams, and Burl Ives – they do traditional Christmas songs that people like.  We play a great deal of contemporary Christmas music and we get excited whenever someone comes out with a new Christmas album.  We are all over the new Rod Stewart and Colbie Caillat albums.  Listeners to a contemporary Christian station will hear more songs by artists like Jars of Clay, rather than the mainstream Christmas songs.  If they play the mainline stuff, it does not separate them from us – they have to travel a fine line.  We, on the other hand, can look at a list of Christmas songs that have been traditional for many years and play newer versions.  We might have as many as six versions of ‘Let it Snow’ and ‘White Christmas.’  We can shake it up but will never give up on the traditional songs.”

The biggest all-Christmas music complaint Kaye receives is that “Warm 106.9″ plays it in advance of Thanksgiving, however, he points out, “The number of emails we get from listeners thanking us for being the Christmas station far exceeds that, so it is worth it to us.  We even wrap our station vehicle for six weeks in a Christmas theme, and we change over our website as well.  If you are going to commit to something, do it all-out.  For six weeks, we are the Christmas station.”

Sales preparations are done in late-June, with “Warm 106.9″ account executives selling packages that include digital and on-air efforts, as well as promotional opportunities.  “November and December are normally going to be good revenue months for radio anyway,” Kaye comments.  “If the demand is higher than the supply for radio in any one year in those months, rates in the whole market are going to go up because you have limited inventory.  We watch that very closely.  Our ratings go up in the December and ‘Holiday’ monthlies, so there is a value there.  We see how our website page views grow.  Advertisers can decide to tie-in with digital and/or on-air campaign opportunities.  Our digital efforts have become an added revenue source.  That is a budget line that did not exist several years ago.”

It is Kaye’s contention that consumer confidence is now growing.  “We saw that wallets opened up during ‘Black Friday’ and after that as well,” he remarks.  “Television was going to kill terrestrial radio but we didn’t die.  The same was said about eight-tracks, cassettes, CD players, internet radio, and Pandora.  Certain media watchdogs want to predict radio’s demise, but we are still here.  The radio business itself could be a little stronger and I would like to see the market revenue grow from year to year.  It has been stagnant for a few years.”

At the same time though, Kaye stresses, “We are not losing money to the internet like newspapers have.  We finished November ahead of 2011; are ahead of where we were in December 2011; and we still have a lot of selling left to do in December.  We have already done ‘better’ – I am hoping for ‘more better.'”

Torrid tactic

The decision to play all-Christmas music roughly between Thanksgiving and Christmas is a tactic and not a strategy, as far as Cumulus Media senior vice president/programming Mike McVay is concerned.  “You say that you are going to do this to attract a huge cume to your radio station,” he states.  “That is a tactic because on December 26, you are going back to your regular programming.  As a result, you want to take advantage of that large cume that is on your radio station while they are there.  You want to convert them to stay with you after the tactic ends.”

Ascribing definitive credit for this particular now wildly popular, flourishing tactic can be dicey.  Perhaps the most widely-accepted notion though is rooted to a mid-1990s discussion in the Phoenix office of Jerry Ryan, the then-general manager of adult contemporary KESZ.  “To be fair, it was all Jerry’s idea,” McVay recalls.  “I just happened to be someone who was involved with the station at the time.”

Along with Ryan and the station’s then-program director Sam Church, McVay was analyzing ratings when he noticed an AM outlet had popped up from nowhere.  “I asked about it and Jerry said the station did 100% Christmas music every year.  I thought that was bizarre, and Jerry said, ‘Maybe we should do 100% Christmas music next year.’  That is where it came from, and I must say when someone mentions that for the first time, you look at that person as if he or she were crazy.  Jerry Ryan gets the credit for being smart enough to throw it out as an idea and consider it.  Many others jumped on what Jerry threw out and turned it into what it has become today.”

When the notion of utilizing an all-Christmas music format first launched, McVay was unsure if it would be successful, particularly in light of the city of origin.  “There was a real question because it does not snow [in Phoenix] and the concept doesn’t make sense,” he recounts.  “None of us really paid much attention to the Christmas music we played.”

As this programming ploy has evolved, many conscientious broadcasters – including McVay – have done extensive research on it.  “We have become very serious about what songs are played, where, and how often they are played,” he explains.  “We have determined what type of music works – and what does not.”

By the second year of wall-to-wall holiday hits, some people in the industry were convinced it was simply a novelty and would not last although McVay counters with, “How long have we been celebrating Christmas?  The big Christmas songs have been part of our tradition [for a long time].  Hymns go back to the 1800s, and many of the non-hymns started in the 1910s-1920s.  As a result, the songs that mean the most to us are those we have heard all our lives.  They remind us of better times; family; loved ones who are gone; and great toys we received.  Hymns are most memorable because you heard them year after year in church.  There is great familiarity with all-Christmas music.  For many people, it has become part of their tradition.  We start it earlier and earlier, which coincides with the shopping season.  It seems to be more accepted to have Christmas music begin earlier.  Some chain stores start their Christmas sales on Veteran’s Day.”

As has been detailed here, greatest inherent challenges associated with this concept are sweetening the bottom line from the typically lofty ratings stats, and retaining listeners once the all-seasonal tunes have been tucked away.  Regarding the latter, McVay comments that listeners from different life groups are specifically coming in to hear the all-Christmas music.  “Another thing is that stations do not do anything dramatic to hold them.  KESZ was the third of three ACs in the market, but when they went 100% Christmas, it was the first book they became #1 [among Women 25-54].  They were consistently third in non-Christmas music books.  Dropping from #1 to #3 is not such a big [decline].  You have a programming problem though when you fall from #1 to #5 [or lower].  There is something wrong there.”

For the most part, stations that followed KESZ’s lead were similarly-programmed adult contemporary outlets.  Recently though, a few other formats have espoused the approach.  “We have put it on a number of classic hits radio stations where there isn’t an AC that dominates,” McVay points out.  “I think it is best-suited [however] for an adult contemporary format.”

Reach RadioInfo managing editor/west coast bureau chief Mike Kinosian at Kinosian@RadioInfo.com or (818) 985-0244.

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