Tracy Johnson: Should Your Station Go to All Christmas Music?

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, and more and more are making the move in Canada.

Radio stations that switch to all Christmas music usually win, at least in the short term. 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.


Deciding Whether To Go All Christmas Music

Still, “The all-holiday format remains one of radio’s most enduring and profitable gimmicks,” says The New York Time’s 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. 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 for stations, 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.”

And 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.


By Tracy Johnson

Recognized as one of America’s most innovative radio programmers and managers, Tracy Johnson’s broad background in traditional and digital media spans more than 25 years and has influenced hundreds of radio stations, programmers and personalities. 

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