First Listen: New York’s Holiday Radio Battle

Seeing WCBS-FM New York go into Christmas music on Friday night and not come out wasn’t entirely a surprise. WCBS-FM has been doing a holiday song-of-the-day-type promotion for several weeks now and dropping other hints that they planned to engage WLTW (Lite FM) directly, giving New York a holiday radio battle before Thanksgiving. (WCBS-FM’s Oldies/Classic Hits programming has moved to its HD-2 channel, replacing the Adult Hits format that had been there for the last 18 months.) And sister station WODS in Boston has been successful with Christmas for several years now.
And yet, Oldies has been one of the things that most effectively compete with Christmas in the past, particularly when there’s some excitement about a station being new, as CBS-FM was last year. Until recently, you could also have said that WODS notwithstanding, Oldies listeners tend not to view Christmas as an upgrade from regular programming in the way that AC listeners have; (and there’s increasing evidence that not every AC listener feels that way). On the New York Radio Message Boards, there’s a multiply repeated suggestion that the change was driven by sales, not ratings considerations.
Christmas on CBS-FM is a little different than Christmas in most places. Clear Channel’s Oldies-turned-Christmas stations tend to look and sound pretty similar to their ACs. So does Christmas on WODS. To be sure, there’s a reason for that, after a decade of give-and-take with holiday fomats, there’s now a clear sense of what the hits are. But it’s still nice to think a second successful model could be developed. Listening to CBS-FM this morning, there weren’t a lot of the Christmas novelties that have also become scarce in recent years, but there are enough spikes and alternate versions of the standards from Oldies acts to at least make it a discernable choice from WLTW.
The best thing about CBS-FM as a Christmas station is that it reclaims a lot of the titles that had been effectively selected out of the format over the past decade. As the Soft AC list becomes the national holiday music list, I’d pretty much given up on hearing the O’Jays anywhere besides an Urban AC station. I’ve also seen the Temptations’ “Silent Night” – the ultimate dividing line record between AC and Urban AC – on CBS-FM, although so far just in overnights.
That said, having both Lite FM and CBS-FM in Christmas music would seem to limit an upper-demo listener’s choices. Clear Channel won’t be unhappy if those listeners end up at WKTU or Classic Rock WAXQ (Q104). If WRKS (Kiss FM) repeats its R&B Oldies “12 Days of Kissmas” this year, you can also see that station picking up some listeners who might have otherwise defaulted to CBS-FM.
There’s also the question of how, in a PPM world, listening will be affected by two stations playing “The Little Drummer Boy” by Bob Seger within minutes of each other. Or “Have A Holly Jolly Christmas.” Or one version of “Sleigh Ride” into the stopset and another coming out, as WLTW did this morning. The holiday wisdom for the last few years has been that the hits are the hits and a three-hour turmover on Leroy Anderson doesn’t matter. But as anybody who has seen CHR or Urban research will tell you, things look a little different when there are suddenly two stations with mega-spins involved.
Here’s WCBS-FM at 8 a.m. this morning:
Beach Boys, “Little St. Nick”
Wham, “Last Christmas”
Cadillacs, “Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer”
Bob Seger, “The Little Drummer Boy”
Burl Ives, “Have A Holly Jolly Christmas”
Fab Four, “Joy To The World”
Elvis Presley, “Winter Wonderland”
Band Aid, “Do They Know It’s Christmas”
Jackson 5, “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”
Dan Taylor (Morning Show Parody), “Leftovers No. 5″
Brenda Lee, “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree”
Harry Connick, Jr., “Winter Wonderland”
O’Jays, “Christmas Ain’t Christmas (Without The One You Love)”
Carpenters, “Home For The Holiday”
And here’s WLTW, also at 8 a.m.
Bob Seger, “The Little Drummer Boy”
Leroy Anderson, “Sleigh Ride”
Carpenters, “Sleigh Ride”
Dan Fogelberg, “Same Old Lang Syne”
Daryl Hall & John Oates, “Jingle Bell Rock”
David Foster, “Carol of the Bells”
Bing Crosby, “It’s Beginning to Look A Lot like Christmas”
Stevie Wonder, “Silver Bells”
Amy Grant, “Winter Wonderland”
Vince Vance & Valiants, “All I Want For Christmas Is You”
Burl Ives, “Have A Holly Jolly Christmas”
John Lennon, “Happy Xmas/War Is Over”
Ronettes, “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”

20 replies
  1. Bob Wood
    Bob Wood says:

    As a PD who was programming Christmas music – which I HATE to program due to the lack of any quantitiy of viable (known and loved) titles, especially sans religious cuts which don’t fit til you get REALLY close, I couldn’t see why it would be wrong to play good versions of the same chestnuts to try to stretch out the repeat factor per artist. As I recall, there are some good Vanessa Williams cuts (we were an oldies station, KQQL), some Russ Taff cuts, some fabulous Chicago cuts, and so on, which gave some apparent spice to the regular EggNog. All were familiar – all were appropriate – all TUNES were known, though those versions might not be. Oh – also there was a great New Orleans compilation.
    Tempo and sound code parameters insured a lively feel.
    From your sample hours, I give the nod to WCBS-FM.

    Reply
  2. Randy Sherwyn
    Randy Sherwyn says:

    Seasons Greetings!
    We also in Ft. Myers, FL have a 2 station battle with All-Xmas formats. Your mentioning about there being a “national song list” of just the hits is true. The problem is, there are only so many proven titles that yes, we get the variety from the artists rather than the titles. However, before the season began, I deal with alot of Christmas music because I work on a 12 hour syndicated Xmas Radio Show (www.christmasacrossthelands.com shameless plug)..so I decided to put a few in that I perceived as having a special message. Bam, we start the all xmas format…and in the first 2 days I thought (as an example) “these aren’t familiar, they gotta go”. In those 2 days, those 2 songs were the ONLY 2 songs I got a specific multiple comments on from listeners. I wondered why? Is the fact that these 2 songs touched me in a way that I decided to put them in? I don’t know, but the key here is both the songs have a very emotional message to them that the listners immediately related as “My husband died this past year, that song fits my mood perfect”. That same song had an email “My husband is in Iraq, I can relate..who does that?” Oh, and song #2 “This is our baby’s first Christmas and that song is excatly the way I feel about her”, etc.
    My point? Yes 99% of the playlist is what you see in this article, but if you find a few songs that can grab an emotion, it’s worth it. I agree MOST new songs won’t, but I have yet to have anyone email me that Sleigh Ride made them yearn for their first pony. :>) Keep in mind we are a soft AC.
    #1 Someone is missing at Christmas (Anne Cochran)
    #2 A Christmas Miracle (Neil Sedaka)
    Make the season Merry!
    Randy Sherwyn
    PD/Mornings
    WJPT/Sunny 106
    Ft. Myers, FL

    Reply
  3. Tim Moore
    Tim Moore says:

    Nothing says “bad music” like the holiday season. As the PD of WHOM/Portland, Maine, I am SWAMPED with hundreds of CDs of holiday tunes. Yes, there is an unemployed taxidermist in Minnesota who has a basement studio and really believes that his version of “White Christmas” is better than that old-timer Bing….what was his name?
    Please.
    The best NEW Christmas songs are those that are NEW TITLES. How many versions of “Sleigh Ride” can we program? Makes you want to slide in the Squirrel Nut Zippers “Carolina Christmas” just to break the monotony! I concur with Randy from Ft. Meyers re: Anne Cochran’s “Someone Is Missing At Christmas”–the phones explode. Our biggest request (by far) is Lou Monte’s “Dominic The Donkey” (I’m not kidding)
    As for timing, we flipped right after the market’s Oldies station flipped-we would have preferred to wait until Thanksgiving….I have dealt with alot of angry listeners-and tried to explain in my blog:
    http://www.949whom.com/goout.asp?u=http://TimMooreat949WHOM.blogspot.com
    Would love to hear other thoughts on “going too early”…..we know the power, but is there a backlash from fans who get a negative feeling from stations that “rush the season”?

    Reply
  4. Randy Sherwyn
    Randy Sherwyn says:

    re: Rushing the Season. Yes, the onslaught on cranky sob’s who are *usually* 65+. You can tell from their ALL CAPS, 18 point font emails. However, this year the way I did it cut that minority based bunch of emails and calls to less than half a dozen.
    About 11/6 I started playing 1 song an hour, but I had special sweepers cut saying “Teasin of the Season”, “Season’s Teasings”. I basically showcased them. That got the juices flowing. About 4-5 days later it was 2x per hour, then 3x, then ALL-XMAS. The emails/calls were easily 6:1 in favor of “when can we have it all”. When we switched, I guess it was less painful for the Scrooges. There is nothing to say it has to be all at once, I’ve never understood that. With making “Season’s Teasings” a kind of event, it just flowed right into the All-Xmas nicely.
    Oh another title to check out:
    I Love Christmas (Tommy James) really. Reminds me of doing things as a kid. Darn, there’s that emotion thing again! hehe Other than that, nothing has hit me good enough to warrant airplay. In the mornings I do some of the Dr. Demento/Bob Rivers stuff, but that’s no surprise. :>)
    Randy

    Reply
  5. Chris S
    Chris S says:

    As a listener, I can only stand hearing Xmas music for about 1 day. If that day is the 1st of November or the 24th of December, thats it. one day, and i’m looking for a different station.

    Reply
  6. Bob Buchmann
    Bob Buchmann says:

    This armchair quarterback sees plenty of downside risk for CBS-FM. With Christmas, it’s been proven that one of the ways to win is to be “first in”. Not only “first in” for a particular season, but “first in” as the market’s Christmas station. With Lite FM’s heritage as a holiday tradition, CBS-FM will be in a tough spot. Plus, when you consider all the classic hits I incorporated into Q104’s programming over the years, CBS-FM listeners can find some comfort there…perhaps for better than a month. In the end, PPM will be the judge. We’ll see!

    Reply
  7. Steve King
    Steve King says:

    I have programmed Christmas music a few times in my career with varying results. From the results I have seen, audiences seem to gravitate toward the AC which plays the more traditional titles. From that stand-point, you would think the audience would be more likely to find the traditional titles on the Oldies station. Both formats play ultra-familiar music, but the AC stations seem to win that battle. Not sure as to why, but it is expected, I assume. My guess has always been that AC has a broader scope of artists who can and have been played on the format and there are more artists available with traditional titles, culling from AC, Pop, Country, NAC and even Christian formats, which Oldies is less likely to do, as it would remove them from their format lane. Interestingly, both stations are very familiar.

    Reply
  8. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    We’ve been in ALL-CHRISTMAS mode since the 14th of this month. If being first is best, we win in Central Florida by three days over our nearest competitor, the new Sunny 105,9 (CBS-Orlando). If you’re programming a station that’s not in Florida, chances are, you’re getting appropriate weather to listen to Holiday music. As my friend in Ft. Myers knows, listening to “Let It Snow” when it’s 83 outside is a tough sell. Sean, you’re right about the complaints accusing us of stooping to the demands of the merchants. We, on the other hand, had six different station-sponsored events take place from November 15-22, including concerts by the two biggest holiday concert acts out there-Mannheim Steamroller and the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. It was early, but it made a lot of sense. I’ve found that letting the listeners know that Thanksgiving is late helps to lessen the outrage. Having several station-sponsored events helps, too.

    Reply
  9. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    We’ve been in ALL-CHRISTMAS mode since the 14th of this month. If being first is best, we win in Central Florida by three days over our nearest competitor, the new Sunny 105,9 (CBS-Orlando). If you’re programming a station that’s not in Florida, chances are, you’re getting appropriate weather to listen to Holiday music. As my friend in Ft. Myers knows, listening to “Let It Snow” when it’s 83 outside is a tough sell. Sean, you’re right about the complaints accusing us of stooping to the demands of the merchants. We, on the other hand, had six different station-sponsored events take place from November 15-22, including concerts by the two biggest holiday concert acts out there-Mannheim Steamroller and the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. It was early, but it made a lot of sense. I’ve found that letting the listeners know that Thanksgiving is late helps to lessen the outrage. Having several station-sponsored events helps, too.

    Reply
  10. andy
    andy says:

    i don’t fit the soft ac demo so i know i don’t really count, but my wife does and neither of us like the all-christmas barrage. christmas this year started at lowe’s with having their christmas stuff up in late september. now of course EVERY store is pushing how great the crap they sell/service they provide is perfect for the holidays. you mix in all holiday music all the time (like the two ac stations here do) and i have to tell you, i am way burnt on christmas. i can’t be the only one can i? and with my wife not tuning in either of those stations now, don’t you think 6 weeks (or more) of not having them as part of her listening habit is bad? with other choices she has found, i don’t know if she’ll go back much post-holiday. these ac stations seem to bank everything on christmas. i think it sucks.

    Reply
  11. Bill
    Bill says:

    As a business owner who plays the radio in my business and as a former radio programmer, I believe the strategy against the traditional holiday leader (for years) should be a 50/50 music mix of holiday and regular programming. Sounds crazy but we just put an all christmas station (Q105) on in our office and my staff complains its too much but they want to hear more than a song or two an hour. I would do every other song….and ONLY PLAY THE HITS…especially the holiday tunes!
    I bet it would win against the holiday station every time! It would certainly be on in our office.
    In our market, there are two holiday stations now. We’ve had one of them on for 2 days and we just switched back to the smooth jazz station with no holiday music because we got sick of it…and it’s not even Christmas time yet. The 50/50 mix of holidays hits would satisfy those who want to hear them but also slow down the rotation so they won’t get sick of it. Plus, if the station “decorates” around the other music, it will sound much more merrier & festive than the competitor, giving them an edge as well.
    Just my two cents…

    Reply
  12. Andrea D. Wiener
    Andrea D. Wiener says:

    Me, I personally don’t know what all the fuss is about – ANYBODY with half a brain who’s been in this for ANY length of time will tell you that this year ain’t like no other year for a few reasons – the economy’s messed up, people’s out of work, the market’s going…you know what i say? If a radio station wants to jump on the holiday season early, i say BRAVO BRAVO!! and then i say to all the knockers out there – put an ice cube in your back, chill, and ENJOY the holiday music – yes, i know it’s Thanksgiving, but we STILL got a LOT to be thankful for…
    Andrea in NYC

    Reply
  13. Vic
    Vic says:

    Bob Wood wrote: “…religious cuts which don’t fit til you get REALLY close…”
    Bob, I’m surprised and pleased to see you make that distinction. The programmers where I am open the vault for anything/everything they consider “Christmas,” so you wind up with “O Holy Night” on Nov. 14. Ridiculous, but they don’t seem to realize there’s a difference in content between “Snoopy’s Christmas” and the religious songs.

    Reply
  14. danno
    danno says:

    when did this ALL-Christmas, all the time radio madness begin? i guess Muzak filled the stores with it long before radio caught the sickness.
    and for those who start this sometime long before Thanksgiving, there is a backlash! i’ve done polling and people hate Christmas being thrown at them in the stores before Halloween and the same goes on the radio. i’m no Grinch but, for the life of me i don’t know WHY a Classic Hits(oldies) station would blow up their format for non-stop Christmas music, to be an “ALSO RAN” with the likes of AC’s(who can’t make up their mind what format they are these days).
    bottom line, IF your station does better by blowing up the format for ALL Christmas music WHAT does it say about what you’re doing the rest of the year? ok, MAYBE, you get a bump, but you can’t play Christmas music in April, so you’re back to what you REALLY are, that 2.0 share radio station that people hate, until you play Christmas music. hardly a formula for success.
    back to the issue, Classic Hits. usually only one of those in a market, but several AC’s-Country’s duplicating the format, let them have a HO-HO fest. for cbs-fm to get in that battle and go 24/7 with Christmas is ridiculous, when their audience is passionate about the Greatest Hits Of All Time, and they’re not getting it.

    Reply
  15. Bob
    Bob says:

    In the Christmas music battle between WCBS-FM and WLTW, I think that WLTW wins. I believe this not only because WLTW is known in the market as “THE Christmas Music Station” or “New York’s Home for the Holidays,” but because their music is much more familiar than some of the music currently heard on WCBS-FM.
    I know many of you applaud WCBS-FM for adding in some different titles like “Everything For Christmas” from the Temps and “Christmas Is All Around” by Billy Mack, but when I turn on the radio for Christmas music, I want to hear the CLASSICS. This year, WLTW has done a superb job of playing the CLASSICS while not drowning them out with a load of new Christmas music.
    “Christmas Is All Around” or anything from the Beatles’ cover group The Fab Four does not put me into the mood for Christmas. What does is Johnny Mathis, Andy Williams, Bing Crosby, Nat Cole, and some new artists like Josh Groban, Martina McBride, and the like. WCBS should have done what WODS in Boston or KOOL in Phoenix has done. Play the hits and, in this case, try to go head-to-head with the market leader, WLTW. I would guess that playing unfamiliar songs turns listeners away to other stations, including WLTW (or WALK/WKJY and WMGQ, other all-Christmas stations in the NY metro).
    WLTW, on the other hand, has played many songs this year which they have never played before. Percy Faith (“Happy Holiday,” “We Need a Little Christmas,” “Deck the Halls”), Vince Guaraldi (“Christmas Time Is Here” and “Linus and Lucy”), and Jim Brickman’s “The Gift” have all played on WLTW. Those are the true classics and what I would think the masses would want to hear over the CBS-FM “holiday music.” They have a holiday feel. Motown Christmas music and the unfamiliar ’06 version of “The Christmas Shoes” don’t cut it for me.
    I enjoy WCBS-FM and WLTW during the rest of the year as well, so please don’t take this as a post praising one station and bashing the other. That is not my purpose, but rather, I would like to throw out the familiarity factor, which I think is very important for Christmas music formats.
    As others have pointed out, the PPM will tell, but I hope that WLTW takes the cake again. They are a better, more familiar soundtrack for the holiday season. What is even more troubling for me is that CBS-FM is counting on picking up newer listeners for Christmas for the ones that they ticked off by jingling the bells. I really think that this music mix won’t keep people for long, but would be a second choice for Christmas music.

    Reply
  16. E Gill CVI
    E Gill CVI says:

    I’m down in Philadelphia and for an “Oldies” version of the all-Christmas format, sister-station WOGL is beating the pants off WCBS-FM. I mean, that’s just my opinion but take a listen and see if you all don’t agree. Or just check out their playlists on yes.com.

    Reply
  17. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Bob, Being a second choice for Christmas music might be just fine with CBS. Here in Philly, B101 had the format all to themselves last year and they got a 17-share with it. This year, the market has FOUR all-Christmas stations, none of them thinking they’re going to beat the B.
    My thoughts on WCBS-FM’s format vs. that of WLTW (or in my case, WOGL’s format vs. that of WBEB): I agree that people want the familiar stuff to get them in the festive mood…but what’s familiar to you and me may not be familiar to the upper-end of the demo. (I obviously have no idea who you are or how old you might be.)
    And after four weeks of spinning the familiar, WLTW and B101 will have effectively burnt them to a crisp. It doesn’t help WCBS-FM or WOGL if people tune away from WLTW and B101 only to find the same familiar–but burnt–tunes playing. So CBS is using the “Classic Hits” (“Oldies”) genre to differentiate themselves.
    Here’s the illustration to back up my point. I have spent the past month listening to those familiar tunes on 97.5 and the past two-and-a-half weeks experiencing many of the same familiar titles on B101. Now that WOGL has jumped in with something really quite different, I find myself tuning to them and leaving them on for hours at a time! I believe THAT is exactly what CBS was hoping for.

    Reply
  18. Joseph
    Joseph says:

    Personally, I think all-Christmas stations represent overkill.
    Were I programming a music station, I wouldn’t even begin to play Christmas music until December 1st, and then only one Christmas song every three hours through December 10th.
    From December 11th through 17th, I’d program one Christmas song every other hour.
    From December 18th until 12 Noon on Christmas Eve, I’d play one Christmas song an hour.
    I’d only go all-Christmas for 36 hours: 12 Noon Christmas Eve through 12 Midnight Christmas Day.
    I suspect retail advertisers and their agencies are in part pressuring radio to play more Christmas music, since it has been proven to be a subliminal way to alert the people to “Get Your Christmas Shopping Done!”.
    Given how horrible the 2008 Christmas-shopping season was, I think most radio stations that go all-Christmas in 2009 will take the plunge on the morning of November 1st, again to help what for most music stations is their dominant ad category (retail).

    Reply

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