How All-Christmas Stations Fared In The Winter Book

by Sean Ross, VP of Music & Programming

Despite the glut of stations that went to a full-time all-holiday music format last year, when the fall ’03 Arbitron book came back, it still looked like the Christmas format was worth doing, giving the stations that did it an average boost of half a share (and seven-tenths of a share if you looked only at FM stations). Holiday music gave some stations, like WBEB (B101) Philadelphia, renewed vigor, and still had the ability to put a station on the board for the first time at WNEW New York. (Ross On Radio, Jan. 28).

But anecdotally, it felt that the all-Christmas format had become a plug-in drug of decreasing potency for stations, particularly AC outlets, creating big fall books and precipitous falls in the ratings later on during the year. So with the winter books now in, we went back to the numbers to see how those stations did. And the answer is that, even with the expected tapering off, those stations are at least incrementally better off than they were six months or a year ago.

Only 17 managed to put two up books together.

In the fall, we looked at 119 stations in the top 100 markets. In the winter, there was information available for 101 stations (the rest were in embargoed or two-book-a-year markets). Of those stations, 63 were down, six were flat, and 32 were up.
Last fall, all stations doing an all-Christmas format averaged a 0.5 share gain. In the winter, all stations doing all-Christmas averaged a 0.3 share drop.
In the fall, FM stations that went all Christmas averaged a 0.7 share gain; in the winter, those stations were off three-tenths of a share.
Of the 71 stations that had gone up in the fall book, 51 were down this time. Three were flat. Only 17 managed to put two up books together.
Of the 24 stations that did Christmas music last year and went down, only 11 rebounded in the winter book. 10 were down while three were flat.
When you look at winter ’03 to winter ’04, the results are pretty much a wash—51 up, 6 flat, 44 down. The stations that went all-Christmas this fall are up a tenth-of-a-share from this time a year ago.
Of the stations that did manage to put two good books together, the best gains this winter went to ACs WLQT Dayton, Ohio (7.2 – 7.8 – 9.1) and KRWM Seattle (4.0 – 4.3 – 5.5).

Of the stations that went all-Christmas, but went down during the fall, best rebounds went to AC WLMG New Orleans (6.4 – 5.5 – 7.7), which had another all-Christmas AC rival in the just-launched WCKW, and Christian AC WDJC Birmingham, Ala., (4.6 – 3.3 – 5.0), also in a market with multiple holiday formats.

The flip side was stations with the biggest reversals. Adult standards KWJL Fresno, Calif., went 3.9 – 6.3 – 4.4 between summer and winter. AC KBEZ Tulsa, Okla., went 4.8 – 5.8 – 3.9.

What about all-Christmas as a launching pad this year? The station that made the most of its Christmas bonus was ‘70s/’80s-based AC WOLL West Palm Beach, Fla., which has gone 3.4 – 4.2 – 5.2 over the last three books. Soft AC launch WLZT Columbus, Ohio, taking a page from the launch of sister WSNI Philadelphia last year, barely got a spike during the fall when it went 0.5 – 0.6, but was up to a 1.5 this time.

WKQC (K104.7) Charlotte, N.C., relaunched with a Christmas format, went 2.6 – 3.5 – 3.9 over the three books. Sister WNEW went 1.7-1.6 and has since evolved from Mainstream to Rhythmic AC.

It’s also worth noting one of the few stations that gave us an answer to the question, “What else can you do besides go all-Christmas and still be special?” Adult R&B WRKS New York’s “12 Days of Christmas” R&B oldies programming gave it a 4.2 – 4.4 rise in the fall. In the winter, it was up 4.4 – 5.0, overtaking the market’s three mainstream R&B outlets. Christmas programming is hardly the only thing that’s happened at Kiss in the last six months, but it sure looks like part of the equation.

So if stations are essentially flat from a year ago, were they better off having gone Christmas? Depends, to an extent, on whether you believe that even a war of attrition is better than giving your competitor a franchise. In New York, two of the stations that appeared to be the most hurt by the combined WLTW/WNEW juggernaut last fall, rebounded nicely. Top 40 WHTZ (Z100) and Hot AC WPLJ both had their best books in more than a year. But not everybody can count on toughing it out like that.

And so far, anyway, seeing the stations that went all-Christmas hold share from winter ’03 is actually better news than I’d been expecting for many, based on some stations’ fluctuations during the year. Anecdotally, going all-Christmas looked like it might be boosting AC stations for three months of the year, then marginalizing them for the other nine, and leaving stations a little less well-off each time around. The format’s toughest months are still ahead, but for now, Santa is still doing okay by many stations.

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 edisonresearch.com Web site every week. Sean can be reached at 908.707.4707 or SRoss@edisonresearch.com.