Maybe the first time you hear Mariah Carey belt out “All I Want for Christmas is You” on the radio each season, it brings a smile to your face.
But then maybe you hear it a 10th time, then a 50th.
Maybe you’re the radio host who has to play it all December long.
And maybe you would rather not.
Steve Davis, vice president for programming for Washington’s local CBS radio stations, including 94.7 Fresh FM, remembers playing the song once five years ago.“The moment I played” it, he recalls, “the phones blew up with people saying, ‘Please don’t.’ ” So he never did again.
In this season of good cheer, there are the people who love to hear six weeks of holly jolly during their commute — and there are the ones who would rather be eaten alive by the Abominable Snowman. And there are the radio stations that have to choose between the two.
For the handful of stations in every market that decide to go 24/7 Christmas, the rewards are enormous.
“Christmas music is like the gingerbread latte,” said 97.1 WASH-FM program director Kenny King, whose station has gone all-Christmas since 2001.“It’s here for a limited time only, and it’s extremely popular.”
“It’s become like our Super Bowl,” says Jim Loftus, chief executive of Philadelphia’s independently owned 101.1 More FM. “Our audience almost doubles.”
And you know how Super Bowl advertising slots can fetch incredible prices? Same goes for Christmas radio. Though he couldn’t say what percentage of the company’s revenue comes from holiday ads, Loftus says that More FM’s ad time “can command a premium” in December and is sold out for the month. King says that advertisers are already putting in their requests for Christmas 2016.
Aside from Christian radio, adult contemporary stations are the ones most likely to go full Christmas. In Washington, all-holiday 97.1 WASH-FM went from fifth in the market to No. 1 in listener share last holiday season, according to Nielsen Audio polling. In Baltimore, holiday station 101.9 WLIF also rose from fifth to first last year.
“It has become something of a phenomenon, almost an expectation over the last 10 years, that the mainstream adult contemporary radio, the station that plays Katy Perry and P!nk and Whitney Houston, is going to flip to all-Christmas,” says Rob Sidney, program director at Miami’s 101.5 Lite FM, which plays Christmas music on weekends and certain evenings, but not all the time.
But flipping to full Christmas music is like asking for a carbine-action official Red Ryder BB gun: It’s risky (You’ll shoot your eye out!). According to a 2008 study by radio marketing company DMR Interactive, stations that do 24/7 Christmas can lose up to two-thirds of their regular listeners. Of course, they gain lots more folks who are abandoning their usual country, rock or talk-radio stations for the month. Which means that come Dec. 26, the radio landscape is like a game of musical chairs: Everybody’s scrambling to win back all the unmoored listeners, or to keep them at the station they adopted when they fled Rudolph and Frosty.
“Rebuilding that audience becomes job No. 1 as soon as the last Christmas carol is finished playing,” DMR President Andrew Curran says.
So in the first weeks of January, you’re likely to hear more contests with bigger prizes on your typical morning show. WASH-FM, for example, plans to give away $1,000 to a lucky listener several times a day throughout January — just when “those credit card bills start rolling in, so people love it,” King says.
In the meantime, though, you may notice a certain comforting similarity to the Christmas songs you hear on most stations. That’s because the same audience research that goes into determining Christmas listeners’ loyalties is used to line up the songs that make their season merry.
That research shows “that the tried and true favorites, the heartwarming songs, they’re the ones that people want to hear,” Loftus says.
Listeners expect Andy Williams, Brenda Lee, Nat King Cole and Bing Crosby. And, of course, a few songs that have become modern classics: “All I Want for Christmas is You,” the most-requested holiday song at WASH-FM, is No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 holiday list (so much for all those Grinches that Davis heard from), and Wham!’s “Last Christmas” — recently covered by Taylor Swift and Carly Rae Jepsen — just misses the top 10.
“It’s rare that we’ll add an original holiday song, something that’s brand-new,” Sidney says.“People still prefer the lyrics that they know and can sing along with, whether it’s Jose Feliciano singing ‘Feliz Navidad’ or Michael Bublé.”
Which is another reason why Fresh FM avoids the whole thing altogether. “There are really only 25 songs people really want to hear,” Davis says. “Beyond those 20 to 25 songs, people like it, but they don’t love it. It’s like filler, waiting for those other songs to come on.”
Besides, he says, many radio personalities prefer their usual genres, and come Christmastime, they all turn into Scrooges: “In my experience, the on-air guys absolutely hate” playing holiday music.
He counts himself among them.“I have no desire to hear ‘Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer’ ever again,” he says.
Loftus’s and King’s staffs, though, never get tired of all the jingle bells.
“For us, this is a very special time. We’re all sad to see it end,” Loftus says. His station is “not the place for the bah-humbug type.”
WASH-FM is even planning to keep the party going. Though the station will flip back to regular formatting on Dec. 26, King says that listeners have asked it to keep playing some Christmas songs until New Year’s. So sprinkled in with the current and ’80s and ’90s hits will be one more week of rockin’ around the Christmas tree, the soundtrack for returning all those ill-fitting sweaters at the mall.
And by New Year’s, should auld acquaintance be forgot (and never brought to miiiiiiind), there’s always a cash prize or a pair of free tickets to lure you back.