Every year, more and more stations flip to all Christmas music. And they do it earlier and earlier. In many markets, multiple stations battle to win the season. It seems like a great idea. This has significant implications for every station.

This article explores the pros and cons of playing all Christmas music. Including: 

  • The impact on increasing cume audience.
  • How Christmas programming affects P1 listening. 
  • Why NOT go all-Christmas.
  • The post-Christmas impact.
  • Marketing and promotion considerations.
  • Using Christmas music as part of a format flip.

Should You Play All-Christmas Music?

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. Generally speaking, here is what happens:

  1. The station cumulative audience (Cume) goes through the roof.
  2. Regular P1 Time Spent Listening (those who really love your format) declines.

I provide a deep dive into how this impacts overall ratings in my eBook The Ratings Game.

On the surface, it seems like a great idea to switch to an all-Christmas format. And maybe you should do it sooner than later.

Or maybe not. As in most things, there are many factors to take into consideration.

The Decision

This 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, some make the flip shortly after Halloween. 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 brand value.

All Christmas Music BringsThe Cume

Thousands of new listeners come into the Christmas music station, many of whom are unfamiliar with the primary benefits of the regular format. They’re candidates to be converted as fans, at least until everything returns to normal.

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DMR Interactive studied audience trends of stations that convert to all Christmas and showed AQH (Average Quarter Hour) increases are driven primarily by new listeners finding the station. For details, download their study here:

Download “dmr Christmas Study.pdf” dmrChristmasStudy.pdf – Downloaded 26 times – 805 KB

Adding new listeners is one of the three ways to increase ratings. The audience spike in the short term is an inexpensive marketing opportunity. Combined with a strategy to convert the new cume in the new year, this could drive long-term growth.

But does this approach work? Sometimes. But not always.

The Impact on P1 Listening

Cume growth alone is not enough fuel to power sustainable growth. Consider the impact a programming change has on existing fans. A percentage of the station’s most loyal fans will be unhappy and could result in a decline in P1 TSL.

There’s a real (and valid) fear that listeners are basically invited to go elsewhere! 

And they might. That’s the risk:

  1. Does the increase outweigh the loss? It usually is, at least for the Fall and Holiday rating periods.
  2. Is the fanbase is strong enough that disenfranchised listeners will return when the specialty programming is over?

Studies show a percentage of new listeners can be retained at some stations. However, as life gets back to “normal” and listeners settle into their routines, most return to their favorite station.

And if Christmas stations lose (pre-Christmas) P1 quarter-hours, there’s no guarantee they’ll all be back after December 25.

So before making the switch, evaluate the brand:

  1. Does another station fill the same format position? The more unique the station position, the greater the likelihood listeners will return quickly. On the other hand, the more unique your position, the less attractive flipping to Christmas music becomes.
  2. How strong are personalities? Stations with a big morning show presence will hold far more listeners through Christmas than those that just play music.
  3. What is the plan to advertise, market, and promote the format during and after Christmas programming? As more stations compete for Christmas, this is becoming more and more important.

Overall, the audience exchange before and after Christmas seems to be relatively equal. Even if P1’s don’t return, stations hang onto enough new cume to maintain pre-holiday levels.

The Marketing Impact

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 decades 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 (AC and Christian formats).

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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.

The Format Change

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?

Some of the value may be “wasted”, but the position is claimed and will likely gain publicity and word-of-mouth. And, if changing format, is there a downside?

Christmas music can act as 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. Don’t worry about keeping it a secret from competitors. Use the new audience advantage to promote what is coming in the new year.

When To Flip

Every year, stations debate the best date to make the switch.

My advice:

Identify the perfect date. Then launch a week earlier. Maybe two weeks earlier.

Stake a claim to win the position as far in advance as needed. Don’t be second or third station in, especially if another station is known for it. The first will get publicity. And all those complainers that “it’s too early”? Those complaints are good news.

The traditional time to switch is Thanksgiving weekend (in the US), or the last weekend of November. But do it sooner if possible.

Here are some guiding factors:

  • If another station is known as “the” Christmas station, flip as early as possible, and certainly before the competition turns on the holiday tunes.
  • If you are known as the station for Christmas, it’s possible to wait a little longer. But why wait? Don’t let a competitor gain an advantage by being out of format when the audience is in the mood for it.
  • Get in by December 1, or it’s probably too late.
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The bottom line: It’s better to be a little too early than a little too late.

Special Promotion & Programming

Realize that programming for Christmas requires changing those carefully crafted programming clocks.

That’s okay. Christmas is different. Be different. 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.

Run a Christmas-themed promotion with the goal of building a database with new listeners. These new contacts can be valuable for post-Christmas marketing campaigns.

There are dozens of big Christmas promotions available here.

Then have a strategy for re-entering regular format. 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 even though it is between rating periods. The goal is to establish listening patterns and promotions can be a major part of that.

Imaging & Branding

Consider this a format change, even if it’s just a few weeks. That means a complete brand overhaul, including production and imaging.

  • All messaging should match the Christmas theme. Watch Hallmark TV during the holidays. Everything is themed around Christmas, yet they promote the type of programming offered year-round.
  • Personalities should sound like they love it as much as the audience. This goes a long way to winning new fans.
  • Also: Be sure the talent sprinkles in plenty of Christmas topics and listener interaction. There is a rich library of ideas and content in the Personality Magnet Show Prep service.

Listen to how the WLIT/Chicago staff fully endorses a flip to Christmas (2021):

Conclusion

Flipping to Christmas music is basically a major promotion. It absolutely, positively reflects the market’s mood. It will attract new listeners. Just make sure there’s a plan to retain listeners and bring back the P1’s who may have left during December.

For more details on how to launch a Christmas campaign, download my Guide To Christmas Programming eBook here.