Going all-Christmas on an AC station has been a reliable strategy for a decade now–enough so that the competition to be first has pushed the format into earlier starts each year. And even if all-Christmas has found its level in recent years, that level is usually somewhere in double-digits. Holiday music remains, as Edison Media Research’s Larry Rosin notes, the most powerful tactic since the Birthday Game’s mid-’80s heyday.
That said, not every station can own all-Christmas. And even knowing that, some stations commit themselves each year to a war of attrition where the only objective is to limit the other guy–even if their own ratings don’t go up. And because the switch is flipped so early, PDs swallow hard and live with a middling November because they know that December will be huge.
The war of attrition is seen as a necessary evil, just because few stations have successfully found a way of competing with holiday music. The stations that have done the best are those that show up in or shortly before the fall book with songs that haven’t been heard in the market for a while. The early Bob- and Jack-FMs often had good fall books, no matter how well the Christmas AC station did. WRKS (Kiss 98.7) New York’s all-R&B oldies “12 Days of Kissmas” has also proven to be an effective December stunt. And it will certainly be interesting to see whether the excitement around WCBS-FM’s return to Oldies sustains through December.
A new Oldies station (regardless of actual era) is, at least, one of the things that has enough of an emotional attachment to stand up to Christmas music–another body of Oldies that are the most emotionally charged for many people. Indeed, one of the reasons that all-Christmas so easily replaces Mainstream AC is the relatively passive nature of many AC stations throughout the rest of the year–Celine Dion singing “O Holy Night” is usually more compelling than Celine singing “That’s The Way It Is,” at least in December.
So far, there hasn’t been a heavily publicized example of an AC station that made its fortune off not going all-Christmas. In 2007, however, the changing nature of the AC and radio landscape might make it a little more possible for some stations to redefine the rules of engagement–either to stick with a mix of Christmas and contemporary music or to at least delay their changeover to Thanksgiving without conceding the advantage.
Two things have happened this year that have possible ramifications for the holiday battle. One is that Adults have become at least a little more enthusiastic about new music. AC, and not just Hot AC, became the home of Daughtry, Snow Patrol, KT Tunstall, Maroon 5, and now Colbie Caillat. That’s a change from recent years where the only valid currents in the format were usually from Country.
The other is that WWFS (Fresh 102.7) New York has shown that the concept of “today’s” AC has some new currency with listeners. It has also shown the power of the right TV spot to articulate a need that some listeners might not have known they had a year ago. WWFS has by no means taken out WLTW, which won the second summer trend 4.5 to 2.7 12-plus, but it did find its niche, and made the battle a little less lopsided. In other words, it found the second biggest position in AC and maximized it–which certainly has ramifications for anybody not doing holiday music.
Those who saw the Fresh 102.7 spot know that the station’s spokeswoman explained, in a very matter of fact tone, why she wanted something between the “played-out songs” on the “old light station” and the Hip-Hop on Top 40. So it’s not hard to imagine the same “common sense” tone being applied to a message like, “I love the Christmas season, and I love Christmas music, too. But it’s not the only music I want to hear. And I definitely don’t want to hear it when I’m taking down the Halloween decorations.” The message is still pro-holiday music; it is, if anything, against other stations exploiting holiday music.
Being able to take such a tack would allow a station to do one of two things. 1) Position a mix of the best holiday music and today’s great music as a positive, in a way that it never seemed to be in the past, or, 2) Explain to listeners why you’re going to wait for Thanksgiving and still compete for top-of-mind awareness as the Christmas station. It might also be possible in this way to position yourself as the choice for a more contemporary holiday mix. (“White Christmas” and “The Christmas Song” wouldn’t go anywhere, but perhaps some of the ’60s MOR is up for discussion this year, in the same way that some regular ’70s AC titles are looking a little less timeless at AC these days.)
Either strategy would have to be backed up with a significant amount of TV. That alone may be enough to rule this option out for most people, since many regard holiday music as an end run around marketing. But if you’re in a holiday battle where you’re going to have to market anyway, maybe there’s something to be said for building some equity for the format you’re running for the other 11 months of the year.
Finally, any AC station that does go all Christmas this year should do everything possible to brand itself with its new or reinvigorated audience members as the station that will turn them on through the year to great new music that they can still be excited about. The listeners who stop by at holiday time from the Hot AC or Country station already know that your station plays “Careless Whisper”–in fact, they may think it does little else.
All of this is, for now, very hypothetical (and unresearched) programmers’ strategizing. Being first-in and owning all-Christmas is still undoubtedly better than any of the other options, particularly if being first-in does not require you to change format tomorrow. But in 2007, AC has had the benefit of a second potential franchise. If both those franchises were able to work in concert this holiday season, even for only a station or two, it would help create a gift that keeps giving to AC throughout the year.