How All-Christmas Stations Fared In 2004

by Sean Ross, VP of Music and Programming

When the “Ross on Radio” column began tracking the performance of all-Christmas stations a year ago, we were looking at both at what kind of boost Christmas formats were providing stations in the fall, and at how those stations tracked throughout the year. We were trying to get a sense both of whether holiday music, despite its apparent saturation, was still potent, and what sort of effect “breaking format” was having on those stations down the line: was Christmas helping the franchise or diminishing it?

The numbers still bear out those programmers who feel that not going all-Christmas would result in their stations going down.

This year, we tracked two different (but overlapping) sets of stations. We looked at the stations that went all-Christmas in 2003 (regardless of whether they repeated the stunt this year), and separately at those stations that were all-Christmas last fall.

Each November brings predictions that this will be the year that listeners finally get fed up with too much holiday music. Each January, the fall books refute that. In fact, those stations that went all-Christmas this year got a little more of a boost than they did a year ago. Year-to-year, however, stations are essentially flat.

Of the 125 stations in the Top 100 markets that went all-Christmas this year, 74% were up in the fall book, 19% were down, and 7% were flat. That’s better than 2003’s all-Christmas stations, 68% up, 26% down, 6% flat. The average gain for an all-holiday station this year was 0.7 12-plus shares, a little better than last year’s 0.5. On FM, the average gain was 0.8 vs. last year’s 0.7.

There were 110 trackable stations from 2003’s all-Christmas formats (several had changed format to something far afield from where they were during that holiday season). For those stations, there was still an average 0.5 share gain in the fall, and 0.7 for FM stations. Of those stations, 69% were up, 23% were off, 8% were flat.

When we last looked at year-to-year comparisons in spring, all-holiday stations were up an average of a tenth-of-a-share from spring ’03 to spring ’04. In the fall, both 2003 and 2004 holiday stations were still in that average range. Year to year, however, only 45% of 2003’s holiday stations were up, compared with 51% down and 4% flat. For 2004, 47% of the all-Christmas stations were able to improve on a year ago. 49% were down, 4% were flat.

That’s a change from the spring-to-spring numbers where 60% of 2003’s all-holiday stations were better off than they were a year earlier, suggesting that all-Christmas remains big, but would have a hard time getting a lot bigger. It also means that stations finished the summer ’04 book about a tenth of a share lower than they were the year before. Summer is hardly a book in which most ACs expect to do well, but the upshot is that they need that fall boost a little more than they did a year ago.

The best book-to-book gain last fall was WMJJ Birmingham, Ala. (4.5-7.1) with 2.6 shares, followed by WRVR Memphis, which picked up 2.5 shares. The best year-to-year gain was WLRQ Melbourne, Fla., (6.1-9.1) in a two-book-a-year market and WOLL West Palm Beach, Fla., in a continuous measurement market (4.2-7.0). The highest 12-plus number again went to WTVR Richmond, Va., with a 12.1 in 2003 and an 11.6 in 2004. The No. 2 station each year was KSSK-FM Honolulu: 10.5 in 2003 and 10.3 in 2004.

In 2003, the results in markets where more than one station went all-Christmas were mixed. There were 10 markets where more than one viable FM went up, 14 where one station was up, while a rival was down, and only one where neither station got a boost from Christmas. In 2004, there were actually 18 markets where two stations went up, only 10 with mixed results and only one where nobody gained, the three-way Indianapolis race. Not all those rises were created equal, of course. In Philadelphia, WBEB was up 2.2 shares while rival WSNI was up 0.4. But the numbers still bear out those programmers who feel that not going all-Christmas would result in their stations going down.

All-Christmas formats also did just fine even in markets where the Jack/Bob format made inroads last year. Even in markets like Austin and Phoenix where the Hot AC/Classic Hits hybrid scored well, the net share gains for Christmas music were actually greater than what they were in fall 2003:

  • Dallas: 1.2 shares between multiple stations in fall 2004 vs. a net loss of 0.3 shares in 2003;

  • Denver: 1.2 shares for KOSI vs. 0.7 in 2003;
  • Norfolk: 1.8 shares between multiple stations vs. 0.4 last year
  • Phoenix: 2.3 shares vs. 1.7 last year
  • Milwaukee, where ‘80s rocker WQBW (the Brew) is filling a similar niche (albeit with a much different radio station), all-Christmas was up 2.8 shares this year, vs. 0.3 shares last year.

With the exception of Denver (where KJAC was flat at a 2.4), these were all markets where Jack/Bob was still up nicely, which provides some guidance on the question of how a station can hope to get noticed in the fall by not playing Christmas music. Despite a down book this fall, WRKS (Kiss FM) New York managed to string together some decent fall books in the past with its all-oldies “12 Days of Kissmas.” Breaking format to play records people haven’t heard on the radio for a while may be an answer that makes as much sense for Hot AC stations as going all-Christmas.

As was the case in previous years, going all-Christmas was indeed more potent for mainstream and soft AC stations than for any other format. AC got almost a share’s rise (0.96) out of all-Christmas vs. 0.5 share gains for Christian AC and Hot AC stations. Oldies and Adult Standards formats averaged less than a tenth-of-a-share gain.

Why are holiday formats more effective for mainstream AC stations than anybody else? Maybe it’s because some ACs have built nearly a decade’s worth of expectations for that music. It could be because research has turned up a larger exploitable body of music that is more compatible with mainstream AC than any other format. More important, it’s replacing a format that is often deliberately unobtrusive during the year with one that the same listeners are likely to be passionate about. A Celine Dion fan probably doesn’t mind trading “The Power Of Love” for “O Holy Night” for a month. Replace somebody’s Oldies or Hot AC for a month with a format that differs radically in era and texture and not everybody is going to be sanguine about it.

Over the last year, as we’ve tracked the numbers for holiday formats, we’ve come to the conclusion that they’re not diminishing existing brands—turning AC into a format that can only depend on one good book a year. From the fall-to-fall numbers, you also get a sense that they’re not doing much to build brands either. In a world of shrinking marketing budgets, Christmas is becoming the substitute for a fall campaign, or, in competitive markets, the focus of one. That’s fine, but it doesn’t teach listeners what a station stands for or how to use it.

And Mainstream AC does, by the way, have a story to tell at the moment. The wide variety that has become Jack/Bob’s American calling card over the last year has been a hallmark of stations like WLTW (Lite FM) New York for five years now. Long before “a mile wide and an inch deep” became Jack/Bob’s rallying cry, Lite was the station playing Lonestar, Seals & Crofts, Alicia Keys, Elton John, and the Bee Gees. For most AC PDs, that might seem like a better thing to do than to talk about. But as the rules change, the concept of all-hit variety has become something that generates passion. And having learned to generate passion for six weeks every year, AC might want to see what would happen if it was able to affect that same bond for the other 46 weeks.

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.

2 replies
  1. Greg Dunkin
    Greg Dunkin says:

    Great insight, as usual Sean! This type in-depth anaylis is soarly missed in the trades since you went back into “the prive sector” :-)

    Reply

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