Is This The Year You Can Compete With Christmas?

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.

12 replies
  1. Adam Jacobson
    Adam Jacobson says:

    I’d go all-Hannukah music at sundown on December 4th as a stunt into a new format.
    Hey … it would get me free press!
    Christmas formats, as tiresome as they are, get ratings – and ad dollars.
    And we all know it’s not the programming that matters for commercial radio stations in the U.S. – it’s how the sales team can perform selling what’s on the air.
    So greedy GSMs and GMs have now placed Christmas stations on the air as early as … next week!
    This is absurd. This is lazy. This is a poor excuse to actually putting some care into your radio station and making it successful with its primary product.
    Radio once again has failed to recognize its own weaknesses, and now that I’m no longer covering radio exclusively and just got my first iPod a month ago, the Kool-Aid-induced stupor I’ve been in for the last several years has finally worn off.
    Radio stations are brands. Just like Coca-Cola, Burger King, Colgate and Chevrolet, radio has Kiss FM, The Fox, Lite FM, and so on and so forth.
    But for AC stations, the brand is tossed aside for eight weeks of short-term sales glee every autumn. Does this make any sense whatsoever?
    Could you imagine Burger King removing its menu items from October 7 through December 26 and selling only really tasteless fruit cake, non-alcoholic Egg Nog and pfeffernuse instead of Whoppers and Angus Burgers?
    How about Safeway removing all food from its shelves except Christmas favorites like ham and stuffing?
    It’s ridiculous and silly, obviously.
    Well, then how different is your company when you give up on your AC brand – the brand that is supposed to deliver the 25-54 *money* demo – by replacing the entire inventory of goods with something else???
    Now don’t call me a Grinch. Christmas music has a place and I used to love tuning to EVERY Miami FM on Christmas Day and hearing nothing but Xmas tunes for hours on Christmas morning. But why should a station devote weeks and weeks to Christmas programming?
    Oh, I get it. Stations with failed brands that the sales team can’t sell should go All-Christmas as a great way to build cume, drive the ad dollars and then let the programming staff come up with a new plan … a plan that involves a format that the sales team can better sell through increased ratings!
    Lastly, I find it interesting that no Spanish-langugage stations have gone “todo Navidad.” Of course, few Spanish stations have had ratings and revenue concerns.
    Why? Music is part of it. But guess what the other part is?
    And this, my friends, is why AC stations are so keen on Christmas starting on Columbus Day.
    We’ve not yet returned “personality” back to AC radio, with all apologies to the local crew at WLYF, Delilah, John Tesh and Donnie Michaels’ staff at WFLC.
    And Mark and Kim at KOST. And Valerie Smaldone at WLTW.
    Yes, there is personality there. But is there enough?
    Since I got my iPod, I’ve had a blast adding about 150 songs of multiple varieties onto my little Shuffle – 1Gb in the palm of my hand.
    Nonstop music. Commercial free.
    Who needs my crummy local stations?
    I do. We ALL do.
    But has radio responded with giving me a mix of good music with good personality?
    In bits and spurts.
    It’s time to go back to the future and inject more personality into our radio formats.
    If we don’t, we’ll all be praying for “Jingle Bells” as soon as Labor Day rolls around.

  2. David Gariano
    David Gariano says:

    It seems to me that the only people who truly are passionate and love the All Christmas format are really the only ones who count in the first place, the listeners!
    I can’t wait to see how PPM treats WBEB and KODA, I predict off the richter scale!!

  3. Tom jacobsen
    Tom jacobsen says:

    In years past including last I had one of the biggest December trends with 2 stations going all christmas on the country station I was programming. We did counter program and it works.
    We played Christmas Music and called it Christmas music, but would say..
    “If you told your boss you wanted take off 2 months for Christmas, he would fire you. We’re not taking time off either from playing the Best and Most Country this Christmas Season”
    “The Country you love, and just enough Christmas Music to keep the check book open”
    It works, you just have to put the counter out first , before the other guys play Holly Jolly Christmas for the 8th time…or was it 6 times?

  4. Michael Lowe
    Michael Lowe says:

    All valid ooints, my fellow broadcasters. But, you left one out. Remember, “first doesn’t always mean best.” Not to mention how the music is rotated. Can I recommend to everyone that you might want to consider a “staggered power rotation” for songs like White Christmas and the other classics Consider heavy play the first weekend (Thanksgiving Weekend), then, slow the turnover down until, say, December 15th, then resume the power rotation through Christmas Day. Why burn these Christmas treasures out and piss off your “At-Work listening that you worked so hard to build during the year? Being one of five area radio stations that went “All-Holiday” last year and the first area radio station here to do it over seven years ago, Lite Rock 99.3 experienced a third-phase sag in our overall ratings. But, our 35+ numbers went through the roof. We traditionally flip on Thanksgiving night, although we’ve gone earlier in the past. Understand that we also have to deal with “non-Holiday-like” weather here in Florida. “Let It Snow” is a tough sell in 83-degree weather. But, we established our station as the “Official Holiday Music Station” years ago and it’ll be tough to let it go this time. Thank you for pointing out some potential torpedoes the other stations might/will use against us.

  5. Bill Wells
    Bill Wells says:

    Sean, whatever you’re smoking, give it up before you go blind! Who has budget to “explain it well with a lot of TV”? Don’t think that’s going to happen. Now, repeat after me: “Yes, Sean, there is a Santa Claus!”

  6. Chuck Geiger
    Chuck Geiger says:

    Tom great ideas – I use to employ lots of holiday imaging, some comedic and some serious…But who really cares. With the book ending Dec 12th and two stations doing all XMAS, We are going to feature a holiday hit once an hour with a live talent intro. There are going to be about 30-35 power songs like JINGLE BELL ROCK, ALL I WANT FOR CHRISTMAS IS YOU, ROCKIN’ AROUND THE XMAS TREE and more. Use these songs as listener appointments and make them count. Fig told me once in Citadel play MONSTER MASH on Halloween and tell when you play it so kids can dance before they trick or treat. Less sometimes is more and make it count.

  7. Larry
    Larry says:

    For the life of me, I’ll never understand how the all Christmas format is successful! I used to love listening to the “24 hours of Christmas” that used to play on station from 6 pm X-Mas Eve to 6 pm X-Mas Day. That was more than enough to get my fill! To have to listen to it non-stop from Halloween (or earlier) straight through til New Years is insufferable! It would make me feel like I worked in a Shopping Mall, which I did for many years in a previous incarnation! Basically, I listen to Sports Talk Radio during the month of December, until it’s safe to come back to the FM side of the dial!

  8. Don Beno
    Don Beno says:

    I can’t figure out for the life of me why the format is so successful either…but it is!
    We get our first calls the week before Halloween asking “when are you guys going to start playing Christmas music”!

  9. Tony Florentino
    Tony Florentino says:

    I agree with Sean’s contention that if you’re going to play a tactical game of being the second AC – the one who is NOT going all-Christmas – you better have the external marketing budget to back it up, because talking to your own cume ain’t get you the win.
    Can’t afford marketing? If you’re the market-leading AC that owns the Christmas position (you better be, or you’ve got bigger worries than Christmas music), flip when YOU are ready to flip. If you’re the secondary AC, make the flip 5 seconds after your competitor does, and get on defense.
    To paraphrase Mr. Gariano (one of the smartest programmers I know who is not actually a programmer), everyone hates Christmas music except the listeners. And David is 100% correct in his thinking that the PPM numbers for KODA and B101 will show explosive cume this fall.

  10. Bob Wood
    Bob Wood says:

    Although every artist would like to write their own new holiday song which would play every year, bringing them tidings of joy in the form of bucks in the box, or mailbox money, it happens very rarely that they score with one.
    I always only half-jokingly said there are only about 14 Christmas titles besides religion and novelty. And they will play abut every 45 minutes unless you use filler. Of course there are MANY versions of each of those songs.
    Now here’s the thing – we all think ‘that music tastes are set in the teenage years, or by the last year of formal education’ but the CHRISTMAS music tastes go WAY back and are linked to positive memories much farther back in time!
    If my memory is correct, in a two station battle o’xmas, we beat the competitor with a tight list and that damn 45 minute title turn.

  11. Joseph Gallant
    Joseph Gallant says:

    This year, I doubt you’ll see more all-Christmas stations than in prior years (nationally, look for about 425 or so, about the same as in 2006), but what I think you will see is stations flipping much earlier than in past years.
    I personally think that we’ll see anywhere between 100 and 150 stations (likely closer to 150 than 100) flipping to all-Christmas on Thursday, November 1st (probably that morning) with most major markets gaining two all-Santa stations that day. And a hundred additional stations may take the plunge by the following Monday, November 5th.
    And where there will be multiple all-Christmas stations, I think the second all-Xmas station in most markets with multiple all-Christmas stations will take the plunge just minutes after the first one does, to avoid ratings damage.
    I wouldn’t be surprised if stations planning to go all-Christmas have set-up a procedure to flip on a moment’s notice if they are beaten to the punch by someone else in their market. Hence, the reason I feel the second all-Christmas stations in most markets will flip within minutes of the first.
    I personally think All-Chrisrtmas for more than 36 hours (12 Noon local time December 24th through 12 Midnight local time in Christmas Day) is overkill, but remember that the format does seem to work best among women between 25 and 54, which is the prime demographic in American advertising.


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