Are "All Christmas" Radio Stations a Mistake?

Some listeners want more variety in their music during the holidays

Dr. Elmo on KCBS-AM/San Francisco, 2010
Dr. Elmo, the man who wrote "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" on KCBS-AM, 2010. Photo: Pam Wendell, Creative Commons

When the holidays come along, some radio stations decide to go "all Christmas" and play holiday tracks exclusively -- to the chagrin of some listeners. One listener even inquired if it were a mistake that his radio station in Indianapolis partook in this trend. While listeners who crave variety may think this is the wrong move for a radio station to make, the "all Christmas, all the time" trend is a growing and profitable one for the industry.

"All Christmas, All the Time"

More and more commercial radio stations over the past few years have been opting to play "allChristmas" music for the weeks leading up to Christmas. Each year, it starts earlier. This year, one station is reported to have begun as early as Nov. 1 - not even waiting for at least Thanksgiving, rather jumping in right after Halloween!

Usually, only one station in a market can truly be successful at it because holiday programming like this still aims at a narrow audience: those truly in the Christmas spirit - and early.

Listeners "catch" the holiday spirit in different ways and at different times. If anything, it's a slow build which culminates Christmas week. Then, as soon as the presents are opened, nobody cares about the station playing Christmas music. It disappears soon after Christmas, usually hanging on until right up to or through New Year's Day. Then, most radio stations resume their former format.

Also, it won't work for every type of format. A modern rocker will fail miserably because there just isn't enough rock-oriented Christmas music to allow a rock station to maintain its identity while executing this type of presentation.

But, an adult-contemporary station, like a "Mix" or "Kiss" formatted one can expect to have much more success because the target audience is already attuned to a softer, less rap and rock cluttered sound.


Why So Much Christmas?

So, how did radio get to the point where some stations are poised to make the mad dash into Christmas - and so early? Well, some years ago, Christian-formatted stations began to realize that switching from preaching to Christmas music at the end of the year actually let them show up in the ratings. Sure, people listen to Christian-formatted stations, but they are not market leaders. Yet, Christmas music has a broader appeal and allowed these specialty-formatted stations to attract those who were normally listeners.

After seeing this success over a period of years, commercial radio stations figured if the trick bumps listening up, then why not do the same thing? Commercial radio basically stole this novelty programming idea and never looked back. It spread, and, now, almost every radio market in America has a Christmas station – and the rush to be there first and own it has been getting sooner and sooner every year.

Tom Wood, at Tom-FM in Little Rock, Ark., explained the thinking behind the switch of his station's format to an all Christmas-formatted station: “About six years of statistical proof that the sampling and listening for these two months to all-Christmas stations increases by a lot - 75 percent in some cases.

Plus, we have a competitor in the market that traditionally does this in mid-November.  We wanted to beat them to the punch and gather the publicity and audience.”

So, if you enjoy getting into the holiday spirit early, there's almost always going to be a Christmas station in your city to indulge you.