(By Mike McVay) Christmas decorations are already appearing in stores just as Halloween decorations are going up. The merchandising world pushes the holidays earlier and earlier as brick & mortar stores look for every advantage over online shopping. Consumers grumble, but they shop anyway, because not everyone wants to wait for “the season” to make their purchases.
The same type of grumbling takes place among radio audiences every year. “They’re starting too soon.” “Why can’t they wait ‘til Thanksgiving is over before they start playing Christmas music?” Yet the growth of ratings driven by Christmas music entices everyone responsible for programming to roll the dice and risk the exchange of audience that takes place. The question to ask is will the audience that comes to our station for Christmas music be greater than those who leave because of Christmas music. Those stations that are best known for playing 100% Christmas music are the ones who benefit the most from this tactic.
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. The All-Christmas tactic has been growing audiences since at least 1996. You find the tactic working even in markets that almost never see snow.
The Christmas format scored its biggest ratings in 2001 following the September 11th 2001 terrorist attack. The holiday season in 2020 showed strong ratings. When the pandemic first took hold, we saw some radio stations purposely program Christmas music at night. It was April and May … and they were playing “Holly Jolly Christmas.” That tactic saw some rating spikes as the approach provided relief from the drama and despair of the daily news.
I believe the fact that the positive performance of Holiday Music during difficult times validates that the All-Christmas Music tactic is diversionary. It’s conceivable that the tactic will perform well as a diversion from the aftermath and drama sure to be caused by the mid-term election. The fear of a recession on the horizon. Social issues that have divided the country. The lingering illnesses caused by the pandemic.
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 previous paragraphs. If you are the station that’s known for playing 100% Christmas music, then it’s another part of your on-going music format. It’s a part of your brand. It’s in your DNA.
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. Repeating that those are exceptions. 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.
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.
Many have done research on when to start the tactic. The audience tells you that they want you to wait until after Thanksgiving. The ratings show otherwise. There is a difference between one’s opinion and one’s action. I point to political polling as evidence that some respondents say what they think you want to hear.
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 11th. That start date moves the tactic past the Midterm 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 election.
The keys to winning The All-Christmas Battle:
- Play the Christmas Classics, over-and-over again, just like a Top-40. Create a superpower 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 current.
- Play the biggest songs a lot. That’s an unusual move for an AC station, but the benefit of a tight rotation on the Classics of Christmas provides instant gratification. That leads to greater Time Spent Listening. Not less. It’s counter intuitive.
- Separate titles by an hour and fifteen minutes. Separate artists by forty-five minutes. These are short songs. Over schedule in every hour. Create a tertiary category that’s scheduled just before the stop-set. That song is played for timing if needed but dropped if not. These songs should be familiar songs, too.
- Hold-off on the overtly religious songs, like “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” or “O’ Holy Night,” until you’re a week to 10-days 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. Separate by two hours.
- Novelty songs (Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer) are fun, but they burn quickly. If you’re going to play novelty songs, use common sense. Keep them away from religious Christmas songs. Don’t play them anywhere near another novelty song. Make sure the song matches the atmosphere you’re trying to create.
- 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. Be the audio version of a snow globe for the holiday.
- The Christmas season is a great time to sell special advertising packages. If you’re the 100% Christmas station, look at your audience share from last years tactic, and sell off of those. The audience during your Christmas music programming is fluid, but almost always lands on a cume that’s greater than during the regular format. More ears will hear their message during this time. It makes sense that it should cost more to advertise inside of the Soundtrack for the Holidays.
May the joy of this holiday season fill your hearts with love, your coffers with cash and your listeners with an insatiable desire to hear Christmas music every hour of everyday this season.
Mike McVay is President of McVay Media and can be reached at [email protected]