Santa Claus is Coming … to Your Radio


(By Mike McVay) The debate every year is do you play 100% Christmas Music on your station, and if so, when do you flip the switch to be All Christmas All the Time? I’ve been involved in consulting stations that go 100% Christmas or compete against those that do for many years ever since when KESZ/Phoenix was the first FM station to go 100% Christmas for the holidays. KOST/Los Angeles followed the next year and scored big in the ratings, which showed that the All-Christmas format, if done properly, can be successful in any market.  The format has many that claim its origin and success, but I point to those two stations as making in a season programming tactic.

This years Christmas format looks as if it will be the most listened to since the holiday post-9-11. This year, it may even be bigger than that Christmas season in 2001, because of what is happening in our lives and in the world today.  When the pandemic first took hold, we saw some radio stations purposely program Christmas music at night. It saw some ratings spikes as the tactic provided relief from the drama and despair of the daily news. I believe that validates that the All Christmas Music Tactic will be successful the season.

Some despise the tactic as they believe the change to All Christmas is a format change. I would argue that it isn’t a format change. You’ve already seen me describe it as a “tactic” In the previous paragraph. If you are the station that’s known for playing 100% Christmas music, then it’s another part of your on-going music format.

Adult Contemporary stations seem to be the most successful with the All Christmas tactic. There are some exceptions in that I can point to Classic Hits and Country stations that have done well by playing All Christmas Music, All the Time.  Many stations that flip to All Christmas also add a Scrooge Channel to their website, which is where your loyal listener who doesn’t want to hear All Christmas can hear your regular format.

To those who are worried that they’ll lose audience, this is the one time of year when you can make such a programming change and the audience knows when you’re finished, so they can come back to your station when you return to regular programming. It’s also a great time to promote what you do for the other months of the year.  All Christmas is a cume magnet. Promote your regular programming frequently as you may be able to convert new listeners by advertising your programming on your own station. 

The key to winning is to play the Christmas Classics, over-and-over again, just like a Top-40. Create a super power category for the Original Classics, power category, regular category, and lunar category. Place the instrumentals into a category and manage how frequently you play those songs. The currents that work best are covers of classics, which gives you a feeling of variety, although there is the occasional original Christmas song. Unfortunately, that’s not what your listeners are looking for. 

My recommendation is to hold-off on the overtly religious songs, like “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” or “O’ Holy Night,” until you’re a week before Christmas. Keep them distanced on-air so that you don’t alienate a part of your audience. Be conscious of your content into and out of a song that is religious in nature.

Production, imaging, promotions and contesting round out the product. Using holiday sounding jingles, special imaging that includes sleigh bells, artists wishing the audience “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” as well as your on-air staff recording similar greetings and making a big deal on-air for when you throw-the-switch to All Christmas. These things create a warm feeling and emphasize the spirit of Christmas.  You’re creating an atmosphere. 

When to flip-the-switch and go all Christmas also brings debate. Given that Nielsen ratings has moved earlier to nullify the tactic, many stations have been moving their start date earlier and earlier. The commonsense starting date is the day after Thanksgiving. The weakness in that start date is that you have a short window to impact the third month of the fall sweep. My preference has always been one to two weeks before Thanksgiving, starting on that Friday. That’s anywhere from November 13 to November 20. 

Many have done research on when to start the tactic. The audience tells you that they want you to wait until after Christmas. The ratings show otherwise. There is a difference between ones opinion and ones action.

This year, given my anticipation for there to be a huge appetite for Holiday Music, I expect to see many stations make the flip on Friday, November 6th. That start date moves the tactic past the Presidential Election, and lands just in time to give the audience relief from the insanity that’s sure to follow what promises to be a drama packed general election.

Feliz Navidad. Merry Christmas and to all a good rating sweep. 

Mike McVay is President of McVay Media and can be reached at [email protected]


  1. Love these thoughts, Mike. My first experience with “All Christmas” was in 2002- and seeing the results from an early adaptation our appetite was whetted for similar results in our “regular” format. Unfortunately things started to go south with research and development of a format that could reach a large audience with music with resonance as close to Christmas music as possible. I wouldn’t expect double-digit shares like Christmas created but if we could only find a core of music-and learn how to mix it all together, there would be Nirvana for radio. Classic Hits starting in 2013 with K-Earth 101 and continuing into 2021 – with a limited highly researched list seems to be working well for many stations. I get how strong Christmas can be. Smarter research minds than mine should be able to search out music that evokes similar passion from standard playlists and make it work! I’m sure it’s a pipe dream -but if “The Christmas Song” (1944) can resonate with the masses in 2020, that has to be a sign that there’s a formula somewhere.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here