by Tracy Johnson
Every year, more and more stations flip to all Christmas music. In many markets, multiple stations battle it out to win the season. On the surface, it seems like a great idea. And this year, we all need a little more Christmas. It’s already starting to look like the earliest Christmas season ever. This has significant implications for your station, and it’s not too early to start thinking about the Holiday programming strategy.
Radio stations that switch to all Christmas music usually do well, at least in the short term. Those that have done it for a number of years usually see the greatest lift as they become known as the Christmas station, building equity for their overall brand.
All Christmas music programming works! It really does. And it works for almost all stations. Generally speaking, here is what happens:
I provide a deep dive into how this impacts overall ratings in my eBook The Ratings Game.
So, in a year where most of the audience is ready to turn the page and look forward to better times, it seems like a great opportunity to switch to all Christmas. And if you are going to do it, maybe you should do it sooner than later.
Or maybe not. As in most things, there are many factors to take into consideration.
The all-holiday music format remains one of radio’s most enduring and profitable gimmicks, according to New York Times reporter Ben Sisario.
The number of stations embracing the format has nearly doubled, and competition between broadcasters often leads to stations turning earlier and earlier.
It’s true. To get a head start on competitors, stations are trending to making the flip shortly after Halloween. And this year, there will likely be pre-Halloween launches.
But is Christmas music a gimmick as Sisario suggests? Or is it a smart programming strategy?
Gary Fisher, the owner of Equity Communications’ WEZW-FM/Atlantic City, is a pioneer of the programming tactic. He says the reason it works is simple:
Christmas music is a link to better times.
And in a world filled with stress and negativity, that is a powerful emotion to connect with.
All Christmas music could be the most valuable tactic a station has to establish a brand value.
Thousands of new listeners come into the Christmas music station, many of whom are unfamiliar with the primary benefits normally offered. Many of these new listeners become P1 to the Christmas station, at least until everything returns to normal.
DMR Interactive studied audience trends of stations that convert to all Christmas. The AQH (Average Quarter Hour) increase for KODA/Houston (an AC station that goes all Christmas every year) is driven primarily by new listeners finding the station.
Adding new listeners is one of the three ways to increase ratings. And growing the audience base is the most difficult. The audience spike in the short-term is an inexpensive marketing opportunity to promote a station’s brand values.
The dramatic increase in quarter hours from new listeners finding the station creates the opportunity to promote a station’s brand. Combined with a strategy to convert the new cume in the new year, this could drive long-term growth.
But does this approach work? Maybe. Sometimes. But not always.
Of course, cume growth alone is not enough fuel to power the tremendous rating gains on Christmas stations. It’s true that a percentage of the station’s most loyal fans will be unhappy. This could result in a decline in P1 TSL. However, most listeners will likely return when station programming is back to normal.
But we also see a substantial TSL increase from new P1 listeners. Notice how many quarter hours from P1 listeners KODA gains:
That seems to be good news, right? Well, it is. But hold on. There’s more data that shows where those P1’s come from.
The argument against all Christmas is that it takes a station out of the format. Consistently delivering listener expectations each day is important.
There’s a real (and valid) fear that listeners are basically invited to go elsewhere!
And they might.
In other words, there’s a risk. The decision rests on two key factors:
There’s evidence that a percentage of new listeners gained can be retained after December 25 at some stations. However, once life gets back to “normal” and listeners settle back into their routines, most will return to their favorite station.
So before making the switch, evaluate the brand carefully:
For many stations, there’s little supporting evidence that audience growth carries into January and February. In reality, most stations see shares (and P1 listening) return to previous levels. And in some cases, shares are lower than September and October (pre-Christmas) ratings.
This chart shows how one station’s P1 listening was slow to return after a return to regular programming. Perhaps their audience finds another source they like as much or better. Or maybe they just forgot to return.
Regardless of the reason, there’s evidence that P1 erosion can occur after Christmas.
Overall, the audience exchange seems to be relatively equal. Even if P1’s don’t return, stations hang onto enough new cume to maintain pre-holiday levels.
Some listeners may be upset with a flip to all Christmas, but the marketing benefit is valuable. Viewed as a marketing strategy, playing all Christmas music is a way to reflect the mood of the market.
Consultant Mike McVay has been in charge of stations that have gone all-Christmas for over 20 years. He explains why it works:
If you looked at raw numbers — let’s say you started with 100 people and you lost 20 of them because they don’t like Christmas music (exclusively). You’ll get 30 people coming back in because they do. There is audience turnover but the net is a larger audience. Some people put it on all day and leave it on at work. That’s not unusual.
But what also plays into it are the promotion and production pieces that people are fond of — soldiers saying hello to their families, little children talking about their favorite Christmas toy or (gift) wish. So there’s a lot of goodwill beyond the music that makes (the format) very big.
Christmas music makes a positive statement about a station’s brand values, particularly if those values reflect traditional and family, especially for AC and Christian formats.
For new stations or niche formats, it’s a great way to build a larger presence and attract listeners that may not have discovered the brand yet.
Many stations use Christmas to make a format change. If that’s the case, there’s nothing to lose. So switch early. How early? How about right after Halloween? Especially this year. Consider getting into all-Christmas music sooner, not later.
Yes, some of the value may be “wasted” by being on before the market is in the Christmas mood, but the position is claimed and will likely gain publicity and word-of-mouth. And, if changing format, what’s the downside?
Christmas music can be a palate cleanser to introduce a format change or significant brand adjustment. Since it attracts a large new audience, the new station can be promoted. And I’d promote that new format aggressively. Don’t worry about keeping it a secret from competitors. Use the new audience advantage to promote what is coming in the new year.
Every year, stations debate the best date to make the switch.
Identify the perfect date. Then launch a week earlier. Maybe two weeks earlier.
Even if this violates what seems to make sense, stake a claim to win the position as far in advance as needed.
You can’t afford to be second or third station in, especially if another station is known for it. The first one will get publicity. And all those complainers that “it’s too early”? Those complaints are good news. At least they know you for it!
The traditional time to switch is Thanksgiving weekend (in the US), or the last weekend of November.
I’d do it sooner. Start the weekend before Thanksgiving to take advantage of the tune-in before folks get on the road for the long weekend
When to flip is also influenced by local factors:
If not in by December 1, it’s probably too late.
The bottom line: It’s better to be a little too early than a little too late. And this year, it makes sense to flip as early as Halloween!
Realize that programming for Christmas requires changing those carefully crafted programming clocks.
That’s okay. Christmas is different. Be different. Adjust and be in-the-moment with your audience.
And be creative with new, fresh ideas.
Check out The Santa Claus show, a powerful feature that is highly promotable (and sponsor-friendly). It’s exactly what stations could use.
Then be all in!
I love how Warm 106.9/Seattle features air talent in advertising and marketing. Here’s an example that features midday personality Shellie Hart.
A Christmas-themed promotion should run during Christmas programming with the goal of building the station database with new listeners. These new contacts can be valuable for post-Christmas marketing campaigns.
There are dozens of big Christmas promotions available here.
but as mentioned, the real challenge begins on December 26. The week after Christmas and the first week of January are critical.
DMR President Andrew Curran says,
Rebuilding the audience becomes job No. 1 as soon as the last Christmas song is played.
This is the time to introduce new features, programming upgrades, and format changes. It’s also a good strategy to promote a major contest or promotion.
Yes, I know it’s often between rating periods. But the goal is to establish new listening patterns on the back of specialty programming. And promotions can be a major part of that.
Stations making the switch should have a strategy in place to harvest the short-term audience crop!
Consider this a format change, even if it’s just for a few weeks. That means a complete brand overhaul, including production and imaging.
Rebrand the station in the spirit and context of the programming that surrounds promos. In other words, messaging should match the Christmas theme. Watch the Hallmark TV channel during the holidays. Everything is themed around Christmas, yet they promote the type of programming offered year-round.
And be sure to use personalities in station branding, especially high-profile morning talent. Every personality should be on-board and excited about the music. They must sound as if they love it as much as the audience. This goes a long way to winning new fans and will help retain a fan base who misses the “regular format.”
Also: Be sure the talent sprinkles in plenty of Christmas topics and listener interaction. I offer a rich library of ideas and content for members of my Personality Magnet Show Prep service.
Think of flipping to Christmas music as a short-term promotion. A big-money contest provides a rating lift, but listening levels go back to normal shortly after it ends. But stations still do it because it attracts attention.
Christmas music generates even more attention.
Christmas music absolutely, positively reflects the market’s mood. It will attract new listeners. Just make sure there’s a plan in place to retain as many listeners as possible and bring back the P1’s who may have left during December.
For more details on how to launch a Christmas campaign, download my free Guide To Christmas Programming eBook for here.
Download P1 Media’s updated list of best-testing Christmas songs here
And you can download DMR Interactive’s Christmas Presentation here
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