Christmas Came Early And Broadcasters Still Got A Present

by Sean Ross, VP of Music & Programming

To hear it from some industry observers, 2003 was going to be the year without a Christmas. The over-saturation of all-Christmas formats combined with the decision by many stations to start their holiday programming before Thanksgiving, driven by the early close of the fall ratings book, would, some thought, result in massive listener indifference. And even the author didn’t think much of this season’s Christmas radio was particularly compelling (Ross On Radio, December 10, 2003).

Then the fall New York Arbitron numbers came back. WNEW-FM New York, which had spent a year under a 1-share, was up 0.9-1.7 12-plus, despite incumbent AC rival WLTW (Lite FM) running its own Christmas programming. WLTW, for its part, held 6.6-6.3, and both stations looked formidable if you extrapolated the third month.

There was a similar story in Philadelphia. Last year, WSNI (Sunny 104.5) used the all-Christmas format at its calling card. This year, format leader WBEB (B101) moved to block. B101 was up 5.0-7.4 12-plus. But WSNI was also up 2.7-4.0, compared to a 3.9 for the fall ’03 book. Suddenly the all-Christmas format looked as potent as ever.

A few days later, we started to see some markets where Christmas didn’t look quite as potent. In San Francisco, KOIT was off a tenth of a share (4.7-4.6) and new rival KBAY was off as well. In Boston, the best rise for any of the three holiday formats was 0.2. But as ratings continue to roll in, the all-Christmas success stories are easily outnumbering those where holiday music didn’t result in any forward activity in the fall.

As of Jan. 27, with the books still rolling in, ratings info was available for 119 stations in the top 100 markets that went all-Christmas, according to While this isn’t the final tally, enough books are back that we can start crunching numbers.

Of those 119 stations, 68% were up at least a tenth of a point. 26% were down. 6% were flat.
The average share gain for all stations was 0.5—from a 3.8 share to a 4.3.
The average share gain for the 97 FM stations that went all-Christmas was a 0.7, from 4.2 to a 4.9. 72% of those stations were up, comparable to last year’s FM numbers.
Christmas By The Numbers




% of Stations Gaining Share
All 3.8 4.3


AM 1.9 1.8


FM 4.2 4.9


AC 4.7 5.4


Christian 2.2 2.5


Adult Standards 2.0 2.1 44%

Hot AC
3.2 3.6 71%
Oldies 3.7 4.0 62%

In markets where two viable FM players went against each other with Christmas formats, 10 showed gains for both stations (Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Seattle, Buffalo, N.Y., Charlotte, N.C., Kansas City, Milwaukee, Portland, Ore., Providence, R.I., and Rochester, N.Y.). 14 showed mixed results—one FM up, others down. Only San Francisco saw neither FM gain with an all-Christmas format. And even in situations where a major AC went all-Christmas and lost only a tenth or two, the format was likely found to be worthwhile if it kept a rival from making inroads.
The biggest rise, to date, for a Christmas format in the top 100 markets has been the four-share boost for KSFI Salt Lake City. Only seven other stations came anywhere close to matching that, with moves in the 2-share range.
Drops for all-Christmas formats were relatively modest, no more than a 1.1 in two markets.
AM stations that went all-Christmas were actually down slightly, 1.9-1.8. Even then, many Adult Standards AMs still did the format just to keep from deliberately sending listeners to FM at the one time of the year they play Johnny Mathis and Andy Williams.
When an Adult Standards station was on FM, the story was different. KJWL Fresno, Calif., posted the largest increase in any format other than AC, 3.9-6.3. The biggest jump for an Oldies station was KQQL Minneapolis’ 1.8-share gain.
The highest 12-plus number for a station that went all-Christmas was a 12.1 for an AC station in an embargoed medium market.
It should be emphasized that these are only the fall book numbers. Last year, a few of the stations that did well with all-Christmas formats didn’t get their boost until the winter. Presumably, the earlier start for many stations was at play here.

The proliferation of the format is often linked to September 11, 2001, but all-Christmas formats had been growing steadily since the Clinton boom years.

While there are some cases of stations in less likely formats doing well with all-Christmas (particularly Hot AC WMYX Milwaukee, 4.2-5.1), the all-Christmas format still looks like a better bet when there’s some textural and/or artist continuity with the regular format, as with AC, Christian and FM Adult Standards stations. Some stations seem to have already gotten that message. Last year, several Country outlets went all-Christmas with middling results. This year, doesn’t list any Country stations in the top 100 markets that went all-holiday music.

That doesn’t mean that only the AC audience tends to search out Christmas music. Seeing WNEW grow and WLTW hold steady while Top 40 WHTZ (Z100) and Hot AC WPLJ declined suggests that, at the very least, Christmas radio is flooding a market with quarter-hours that make even a flat station look bad in comparison. And in New York, where WNEW had spent the better part of a year building up Top 40 cume, despite its eventual format, it’s not hard to draw a straight line between its increase and its rival’s woes. Top 40 usually has problems in the fall book, but having listening in almost every market thrown out of balance can’t be a good thing for a cume-driven format.

One conclusion you can’t draw easily is whether the all-Christmas format gives you any kind of read on the national mood. The proliferation of the format is often linked to September 11, 2001, but all-Christmas formats had been growing steadily since the Clinton boom years. And the national mood, while obviously better than two Decembers ago, was still facing ongoing challenges during the fall from economic growth that wasn’t always translating into new jobs, daily casualties in Iraq and orange terrorism alert status around the holidays.

All-Christmas wasn’t infallible last year, either, and some stations did, indeed, decide to walk away from it; (some markets had three Christmas stations in 2002 and none this time). But there were also successes for stations that saw only middling results in 2002. Anecdotally, it’s easy to find people who were fed up with the Christmas format and its early start. In the aggregate, anybody hoping that radio will back away from Christmas music is going to have to wait until the audience backs away, or until stations that don’t go all-Christmas find something compelling enough to compete.

Sean Ross is Edison Media Research’s VP of Music & Programming and the former editor-in-chief of Airplay Monitor, Billboard Magazine’s radio programming publication. The opinions expressed here are his own and can be found on the Web site every week. Sean can be reached at 908.707.4707 or