Should You Play All Christmas Music?

Should You Play All Christmas Music?

by Tracy Johnson

Every year, more and more stations flip to all Christmas music. In fact, over 500 (yes, FIVE HUNDRED) stations use this tactic in the U.S. alone.

Radio stations that switch to all Christmas music usually win, at least in the short term. Further,r those that have done it for a number of years usually see the greatest lift.

It works! It really does. One or two things happen, generally speaking:

  1. Your cume goes through the roof, and/or:
  2. Your “regular” P1 TSL (those who really love your format) may decline.

Should your station go all Christmas? Maybe. Maybe not. As in most things, there are a lot of factors to take into consideration.

Deciding Whether To Go All Christmas Music

The all-holiday 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. But is it a gimmick? Really? Or is it a smart programming strategy?

Why does it work? Gary Fisher, owner Equity Communications’ WEZW-FM/Atlantic City says:

Christmas music really is a link to better times,

This presents a unique and powerful marketing opportunity that’s potentially more valuable than external marketing campaign.

Benefits Of Going All Christmas Music

There are advantages, of course. That’s why so many stations make the flip.

New Cume: Thousands of new listeners come into the station, many of whom are unfamiliar with the primary benefits you normally offer. This can spike your ratings over the short-term and provide an inexpensive marketing opportunity to promote your brand.

Music Relief: If your regular format playlist is generally tight, and library-based, Christmas music offers relief from fatigue and may preserve the library. And when those songs return, they sound fresh again.

Brand Statement: Christmas music makes a positive statement about your brand, particularly if you represent values that are more traditional and family-oriented, such as AC or Christian.

But in the long term, is it good or bad? Should you take the plunge and go all Christmas?

Why You Should NOT Go All Christmas Music

The argument against it, of course, is that going all Christmas takes you out of format, the reason listeners come to you every day. You fear that you’ll be virtually inviting your existing audience to go elsewhere! And they might.

In other words, there’s risk. The decision, then, rests on whether a) the increase outweighs the loss, and b) if your fanbase is strong enough that they’ll return when the specialty programming is over.

Further, there’s little evidence that the infusion of new listeners are retained after December 25. Once life gets back to “normal” and listeners settle back into their routines, they typically return to their favorite station.

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And, since you’ve been playing Christmas music, you haven’t been able to leverage the attention by demonstrating your regular format.

Stations have used promotion techniques, such as launching a major contest to hold onto the audience. In some cases, this works, if it’s promoted in advance and supported with external marketing.

Some Christian stations try to recruit new fans by issuing a “30 Day Challenge”, a tactic designed to turn the holiday audience into January listeners.

Results of both are inconclusive, but worth consideration.

All Christmas Music As a Marketing Tool

For many years, a popular strategy is to use Christmas music as a palate cleanser to introduce a format change or significant brand adjustment. If you’re not known as the station for Christmas in your market, this is perhaps the most effective reason to flip to all Christmas.

While some listeners may be upset with a flip to all Christmas, the marketing aspect is valuable. Viewed as a marketing strategy, playing all Christmas music is a way to reflect the mood of your market. In that way, risk is mitigated.

mike-mcvayCumulus VP/Programming 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 little 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.”

When To Flip the Switch

If you decide to go all-Christmas, your next decision is when to turn it on. The traditional time to switch is sometimes over Thanksgiving weekend (in the US. That’s usually around the last weekend of the month of November).

I’d make the case to do it on the Tuesday or Wednesday before Thanksgiving to take advantage of the tune-in before folks get on the road for the long weekend.

But when you flip is a decision influenced by several local factors.

Post-Christmas Format Plans: Many stations use Christmas to make a format change. If that’s the case, you have nothing to lose. Switch early. How early? How about right after Halloween. Get there fast and gain a presence for it. You may be “wasting” some of the value before the market is in the mood, but at least you’re staking your claim.

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Market Position: If another station in your market is known as “the” Christmas station, it’s better to flip as early as possible, and certainly before the competition turns on the holiday tunes. On the other hand, if you’re known as the station for Christmas, you can wait a little longer, but don’t let a competitor get the advantage by being out of the format when the audience is in the mood for it. If you’re not in it by December 1, you’re probably late.

Christmas “Fit” With Your Core Brand: Some stations make the switch just for the cume gain, while others use it to build their brand values. If you’re looking for the short-term ratings impact, it’s usually best to go early and go big! Once the ratings services stop measuring listening, your listening increase is somewhat wasted and you’re not adding brand equity.

Conclusion

Typically, stations that flip to all-Christmas see more benefits than not. And some are able to turn that into momentum for the new year. But even if you don’t, it still could make sense to switch. Think of it as a short-term promotion. When you run that big money contest, you know listening levels will go back to normal shortly after. But you still do it. Why? Because it attracts attention, at least for the short-term.

At some point, listeners will probably reach the point of saturation and there’ll just be too many Christmas stations. but we haven’t seen that yet. Will we? Maybe. Until we do, take advantage of it. And if you’re the station that has been doing it and is known for it, keep doing it. Don’t give up the franchise.

Christmas music absolutely, positively reflects your market’s mood. It will attract new listeners that may know nothing about your station. In that regard, if you do it right, risk is virtually eliminated.

Photo credit: Freepik.com

Author: Tracy Johnson

Tracy Johnson specializes in radio talent coaching, radio consulting for programming and promotions and developing digital strategies for brands.

For more than 30 years, Johnson has been developing on-air superstars that attract fans, retain audiences and generate revenue.

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