Christmas is now underway on radio across the country, as stations flip to all-holiday formats a bit earlier than usual. In some smaller markets, such as WWIZ in Youngstown, Pa., the move to wall-to-wall seasonal tunes happened as early as late September. But this week, major stations in key cities such as Los Angeles’ KOST also flipped the switch.
“Because of what 2020 has been like we went earlier than most years,” said KOST program director John Peake, whose station went all-holidays at 8 a.m. on Thursday. “We did a pretty exhaustive survey with listeners asking, ‘Is it OK to go early, do you want Christmas or holiday music early this year?’ And it was a resounding ‘Yes.’”
Morning host Ellen K. told Variety that the reaction was immediate.
“It was a little overwhelming,” she said. “It kind of kind of brought me to tears a little bit. This is my fifth year on KOST, and there was a lot of emotion on the other end of the line that I had not heard in Christmases past. I get it… I think people are ready this year. Every year has been different in many ways, but this year, the most different.”
Added Peake: “I was just back in the studios with Ellen K. when we flipped this morning and the response has been bigger than any year we’ve experienced. People were saying, ‘I need a break this year, 2020 has been such a struggle in many ways that I need the escapism.’ I was expecting it to be a well-received event this morning. I don’t think we anticipated how people went sort of bonkers like they did.”
This year, of course, has been taxing on the population due to the pandemic, the national conversation and reaction to systemic racism and a brutal political election. It’s also been tough on businesses that rely on normal routines, such as radio, which has been hit hard by a dip in usage as regular listeners stay home and don’t tune in as they normally would on the go.
Radio consultant Lance Venta, who also owns and publishes RadioInsight.com, had already counted more than 50 station flips to holiday music as of earlier this week. “With listenership down so much due to the loss of commutes during the pandemic, stations are looking for anything to boost their ratings during the important fall ratings period,” he said.
In particular, mainstream adult contemporary stations, which frequently play all day in offices, have been hit hard by the disruption in work routines. That’s why Christmas couldn’t come soon enough for stations like KOST.
“Every year when KOST flips to holiday music, we see a point where we double our audience size,” Peake said. “There’s a huge demand for holiday music in Southern California. We like to flip as soon as we can because its ratings advantageous for us — balance that with how soon is too soon.”
Peake said he didn’t think KOST would ever jump the gun before Halloween, which seems like the natural benchmark for when it might be too early for Christmas music. And then there was another factor weighing on when to go: Peake said the station debated up until Thursday morning when and how to flip to the holidays, given the uncertainty of the election.
“We had a lot of discussion about how it’s probably not appropriate for us to go before the election,” he said. “It just didn’t seem like the right tone and tenor to be playing holiday music when the election was going on. It did seem misplaced. So we waited until certainly past Election Day… And if the current events got out of hand, we were prepared to move our launch date, just because it wouldn’t be appropriate. But as it turns out, we checked in nearly hourly, and it seemed okay, we could go [Thursday].”
KOST was one of the early major market adopters of an all-Christmas format, which it introduced in 2001 (in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks). KOST parent iHeartRadio has embraced the format in markets across the country, with stations in Dallas; Lexington-Fayette; Columbus, Ga.; Norfolk-Virginia Beach; Charleston, S.C.; Panama City, Fla.; Albany-Schenectady-Troy and Birmingham having also already flipped this year. Venta has been compiling a list that includes Entercom stations in markets such as Detroit, Seattle, San Diego and Buffalo.
The appetite for holiday music even extends beyond Christmas. Peake said one year KOST went back to regular programming on Dec. 26 — and immediately heard from irate listeners who weren’t ready to end the season.
“We’ve gone back and forth on how long do we stay in holiday programming,” he said. “And each time we ask the audience and look back at the ratings, it seems like the appetite for holiday music remains even after Christmas Day. So that’s why we stay in the holiday programming up until the 31st.”
Of course, there are also the naysayers who call up complaining every year that the holiday music is happening too soon. “We get that every year,” Ellen K said. “We get that, ‘Let’s wait till after Thanksgiving!’ But I have to tell you, I didn’t hear from any of them this morning. It was all, ‘Let’s go.’”
Radio consultant Sean Ross, VP of music and programming at Edison Research, noted that there are usually a few stations that jump the gun before Halloween, but usually because they’re heading into a format change and ready to blow up the old format anyway.
“This spring, there were stations that tried doing all-Christmas or holiday music weekends,” Ross said. “That didn’t get traction and one co-worker who loves Christmas music told me that she didn’t want to associate Christmas music with quarantine.”
As for this year’s Christmas playlists, station programmers are seeing an influx in new holiday music from Dolly Parton, Carrie Underwood, Meghan Trainor, Tori Kelly and a Gwen Stefani/Blake Shelton track.
Peake said he hasn’t seen a difference in what listeners want to hear during this pandemic year: A mix of uptempo and slower tracks from both contemporary and classic artists including Michael Bublé, Mannheim Steamroller, Bing Crosby, Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra.
“Sometime in the summer is when we begin the audience research study asking what are the best and most appropriate holiday songs to play,” he said. “We didn’t see a substantial difference this year than in prior years. Specific titles have remained somewhat constant. We were curious if we’d see more upbeat songs, but that didn’t seem to be the case. The holiday favorites are sort of the holiday favorites.”
Of course, the pinnacle of them all is Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” That song, first recorded in 1994, inspired the modern boom in holiday recordings and has become a key staple on Christmas formats everywhere.
“What staying power,” Ellen K said. “It is just going to keep on going. Nothing gets requested more than Mariah Carey.”