So This Is Christmas: What Have You Done?

by Sean Ross, VP of Music & Programming

For the last five years, I’ve probably had less exposure than many readers to the all-Christmas format. I’d been in Phoenix for the holidays in the late ‘90s and heard KESZ in the early days of its influential holiday stunting. But New York didn’t have the all-Christmas format until WLTW (Lite FM)’s relatively late entry into the field last year. So, even with some Christmas stations streaming on the Internet, I’d never gotten a chance to really live with the format for more than an hour or two at a time.

No such problems this year. Besides the Christmas music battle between WNEW (which went all-Christmas in early November) and WLTW, which started on the Friday after Thanksgiving, I’ve been able to hear at least six other stations among the 362 stations that 100000watts.com reports have gone all-Christmas this year. But I’ve spent a lot less time with the format than I expected to.

I’ve been left cold by the Christmas radio I’m hearing for a few reasons.

Maybe it was because broadcasters were in a hurry to get Christmas music on the air this year, spurred both by the increasing likelihood of somebody else doing it and the limited window of opportunity before the fall Arbitron book ends. But, by and large, the Christmas radio I’ve heard so far hasn’t held my attention. And while Christmas is such a strong franchise that PDs consider it exempt from the rules of good radio, that’s less likely to be true when a station no longer has the holiday franchise to itself.

I’ve heard some nice little touches: WLEV Allentown/Bethlehem, Pa.’s stager about doing Christmas music “from the Christmas City”; WSNI Philadelphia’s “A Charlie Brown Christmas” drops; WALK Long Island, N.Y., doing a pretty good job of recasting its usual station elements to reflect the change. But, in the aggregate, I’ve been left cold by the Christmas radio I’m hearing for a few reasons.

It’s waaay too solemn. A lot of the music I’m hearing is what I expect to hear on Christmas morning, both in terms of tempo and vintage. (At age 41, I grew up with the holiday music of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and much of what I’m hearing still feels old to me; ironically, the only novelties I’ve heard so far have been on Christian WAWZ (Star 99.1) Middlesex, N.J., which is playing them as mystery oldies. Even listeners who identify traditional Christmas music as their favorite holiday music style must have holiday parties to attend and shopping to do. They still need some energy in the workplace at 3 p.m.
It’s a “White Christmas” of the wrong sort. Soft and mainstream AC stations typically have a somewhat greater African-American composition than other general market stations. And Christmas programming is one of the most inclusive things any station can do. So why, after a month, haven’t I heard “This Christmas” by Donny Hathaway yet? Or “Christmas Just Ain’t Christmas (Without the One You Love)” by the O’Jays? Where is “Silent Night” by the Temptations, a record so potent that even hip-hop stations will have to play it before the holiday season is over? As with the many all-‘80s stations that took their cues from KYPT (the Point) Seattle, some stations sound like they’re working off a safe list that doesn’t necessarily reflect their market.
There’s not enough between the records. All year long, program directors understand the need to set themselves apart from other stations that can copy their music. Few stations have Christmas music to themselves anymore, but I’m not hearing enough of the presentational elements that distinguish great radio stations. Where are the on-air listener calls saying, “Thank you for doing this”? Where are the salutes to businesses playing the station, since this format depends on them? Where are the heartstrings elements—the messages to the troops, the Christmas Wish and other public service promotions, the trips to visit your loved ones for the holidays? With consolidation, it should be easier than ever to give listeners the opportunity to record a holiday wish for use on a sister station back home.
It’s hard, of course, to listen like a civilian. This morning, a friend messaged me to tell me how much he was enjoying all-Christmas on WNEW. I’d preferred WLTW because it felt a little more contemporary; he liked WNEW because he heard a lot more variety (although he wanted some more tempo as well). The holiday station that I’d program for myself wouldn’t necessarily be any more commercially viable than my personal oldies station. Programmers have been doing the all-Christmas format long enough to have a reason for the things they do, right?

Well, some do. But with 350-400 stations going all-Christmas this year, chances are pretty good that some programmers are working with a template that was designed in a different time for different situations. Since last Christmas, we’ve learned a lot about the audience’s threshold for repetition (one actually does exist, apparently) and their appetite for musical variety and stations that break the rules. At the outset, some of the appeal of the all-Christmas format had to be that it sounded different. Now, like many other aspects of anti-radio, it’s in danger of becoming just as homogenous as what it replaced.

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.