NEW YORK (MainStreet) - When even the radio industry is tired of the staid, shrinking playlists the all-holiday radio format, it's time for something to change.
We've been writing about radio's holiday creep since at least 2010 and have accepted a few truths about it: It's ubiquitous, it's lucrative and it includes fewer songs than you think. The folks at MediaBase tried to keep track of just how many times radio stations across the country would play a particular holiday song. In 2011, they just stopped doing it because the Top 10 just wasn't changing.
Every year, regardless of where they place in the pecking order, Burl Ives' Holly Jolly Christmas, Brenda Lee's Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree, Mariah Carey's All I Want For Christmas Is You, Nat King Cole's The Christmas Song, Bobby Helms' Jingle Bell Rock, Andy Williams' Most Wonderful Time of the Year and John Lennon and Yoko Ono's Happy Xmas/War Is Over are played 18,000 to 20,000 times on stations across the U.S. between Dec. 1-25 alone. That's more than 30 times per hour, which means a whole lot of overlap for songs of this length.
In 2012, KYXE-FM 104.9 in Yakima, Wash., started decking the halls Oct. 10 by launching its "North Pole Radio" on a new FM signal. Last year, Syracuse's HOLLY-FM 95.3 and 103.9 went on the air with 24/7 Christmas music on Oct. 5. This year, perhaps in response to all-Christmas radio fatigue, the first station to switch -soft rock station WEZW-FM 93.1 in Wildwood Crest, N.J. - held off until Oct. 17. According to RadioInsight, that's the same date it picked in 2011 when it was the first U.S. station to switch.
But an oldies station in Brainerd, Minn., has taken a different approach to the holiday radio format over the past two years and found a great deal of success. Instead of dedicating entire days of its broadcasts to playlists of Christmas music, KUAL-FM 103.5 took holiday music from 1945 through 1999, added news reports, retro commercials and clips from popular films and TV shows from each of those years to create the 55-hour This Was Christmas block. The program increased ad revenue for KUAL by 61% in 2012 and another 58% last year.
This Was Christmas was picked up by KNSI-FM 103.3 in St. Cloud, Minn., this year and is being offered to other stations across the country for free by KUAL in 2014 - with the hope that the station can collect on it in 2015 and beyond. With more than 2,000 songs packed into those 55 hours, This Was Christmas is already doing better than most of the nation's all-Christmas playlists.
To say all-holiday radio can get a bit repetitive is understating matters. Andrew Forsyth, a consultant for Nielsen, said the average playlist size for all-holiday stations in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Dallas/Fort Worth and Los Angeles shrunk from 752 songs in 2009 to 694 in 2010, while the average number of times each song was played during the holiday season rose to 33.4 from 30.5. Those numbers have only tightened as the year have progressed, but it's tough to blame stations for going with what works.
Since radio research firm Arbitron switched to its Personal People Meter method of ratings data collection in 2007, Arbitron's ratings team has been carrying around cellphone-sized monitors that could pick up broadcasts its carriers were hearing and detect the watermark of the station playing in the background. When a listener is at the local discount store getting elbowed away from a display of Breaking Bad action figures to the tune of Jose Feliciano's Feliz Navidad, an Arbitron monitor is counting that song toward the ratings.
Unfortunately for stations, all-holiday radio isn't the force it once was. A 33-market study by Arbitron in 2009 found that the average market share for radio stations that switched to the all-holiday format rose 91%. Just last year, the folks at RadioInfo noticed ratings improvement in November for 60% of stations that made the switch to the all-holiday format. But that left 31% of stations whose ratings declined and 9% for whom nothing changed at all.
One of the bigger problems is that competing Internet radio sees no need to restrict holiday music to specific time of the year. Pandora, for example, has nearly two dozen holiday music stations available year-round. In a survey by the music site two years ago, listeners 35 to 44 made up 94% of Pandora's holiday music channel listeners. Meanwhile, Midwest states were the stations' earliest adopters, making the switch by early November.
Spotify, meanwhile, had everyone from Rolling Stone, Complex Media, The AV Club, retailer Free People and musicians Y La Bamba, DeVotchKa, The Hush Sound and No Doubt guitarist Tom Dumont contribute holiday playlists.
Even listeners who don't mind holiday radio get turned off by narrow playlists and repetition. If an all-holiday backlash is what it takes for stations to get creative and put together unique broadcasts such as This Is Christmas, the industry as a whole could use a little more humbug.
— By Jason Notte for MainStreet
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