On Commercial Radio, Christmas Is Coming Early

Nov 24, 2011
Originally published on November 24, 2011 11:33 am

If it seems like you're hearing more Christmas music on the radio these days, it's not your imagination. More stations have been going all-Christmas — and they're doing it earlier than ever.

The reason is simple: Christmas music makes ratings go through the roof.

"For a lot of stations it's the kind of ratings that haven't been seen in 30 years," says Sean Ross, executive editor of the trade website Radio-Info.com. He says over 160 stations — from Honolulu to Houston — have already made the switch this year, some as early as a month ago.

Another reason why: Parents listen with their kids. "Ironically," says Ross, "it actually makes the audience younger, even though the station is playing Bing Crosby and Andy Williams records."

In Los Angeles, two radio stations have been vying with each other to be the biggest Christmas music channels: KOST 103.5, "Southern California's Official Christmas Station," was one of the first radio stations to make the switch. But this year, a competitor went wall-to-wall with Christmas music almost a week earlier.

94.7 The Wave is calling itself "L.A.'s NEW Christmas Station." The station's program director, Jhani Kaye, says he's a Christmas radio pioneer because he used to work at KOST and was the one who made the station switch to an all Christmas format back in 2001. He says he got the idea from a station in Phoenix.

"For you to take a ratings-winning adult contemporary station and basically flip the format — that was a first about a decade ago," Kaye says. It was risky, but the switch brought ratings gold. "We went way up, instantly," he says.

Kaye admits to some complaints from listeners who miss The Wave's usual smooth adult contemporary format — so he emphasizes the station will only play the softest of Christmas songs.

But more importantly for Kaye and the hundreds of other stations flipping to Christmas music, the uptick they get is so big that alienating a few grinches is worth it.

"Radio stations are very much like restaurants," he says. "Whenever you change a menu there are always going to be listeners who miss their favorite items. But when the menu comes back December 26th, I believe listeners will know where to go for their smooth vocals."

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

If you hope to hear a lot of Christmas music this year, you will have plenty of help. The radio has more Christmas music than ever. More stations are going all-Christmas, and they're doing it earlier. NPR's Ben Bergman explains why.

BEN BERGMAN, BYLINE: The reason is simple: Christmas music makes ratings go through the roof.

SEAN ROSS: For a lot of stations, it's the kind of ratings that haven't been seen in 30 years.

BERGMAN: Sean Ross is executive editor of the trade website radio-info.com. He says over 160 stations have already made the switch this year, from Houston to Honolulu, some as early as mid-October. Another reason why: parents listen with their kids.

ROSS: Ironically, it actually makes the audience younger, even though the station is playing Bing Crosby and Andy Williams records.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "DO YOU HEAR WHAT I HEAR")

BING CROSBY: Do you know what I know?

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Do you know what I know?

BERGMAN: In Los Angeles, two stations are duking it out for who can be the king of Christmas radio.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO PROGRAM)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: KOST 103.5, Southern California's official holiday music station.

BERGMAN: There's KOST, which was L.A.'s only all-Christmas station. Now there's the WAVE, which turned on its Christmas tunes almost a week earlier than KOST.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO ADVERTISEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Ho-ho. L.A.'s new Christmas station. (Singing) 94.7, the WAVE.

BERGMAN: The WAVE's program director Jhani Kaye used to be in charge of programming at KOST. He oversaw that station's holiday switch 10 years ago after seeing it work in Phoenix. Some of his colleagues thought he was crazy.

JHANI KAYE: For you to take a ratings-winning adult contemporary station and basically flip the format - that was a first about a decade ago.

BERGMAN: The switch brought ratings gold.

KAYE: We went way up, instantly.

BERGMAN: Kay admits to some complaints from listeners who missed the WAVE's usual adult contemporary format, so he emphasizes his selection of Christmas music is smooth and jazzy, not too jarringly different. And besides, for Kaye and other program directors embracing the Christmas season, the uptick in ratings is so big, alienating a few Grinches is worth it.

KAYE: Radio stations are very much like restaurants, and whenever you change a menu, there are always going to be some customers who miss their favorite items. And when the menu comes back December 26th, I believe that listeners to the WAVE know where to go for their smooth vocals.

BERGMAN: Ben Bergman, NPR News, Los Angeles.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DECK THE HALLS")

INSKEEP: And that's the business news on MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.