Christmas Radio Format Strategies

By Jerry Del Colliano

(With our "Scottsdale Study Group" good time, great oldies monthly luncheon -- from left to right, JD, John Sebastian, Bruce St. James and Todd Wallace).

No sooner than I waxed eloquent about WCBS-FM in New York as the bastion of radio's better days, the station switched to all-Christmas music.

I used to read Tom Taylor at Inside Radio and then Radio-Info document all the stations that just dump their formats each holiday seasons to go whole hog Santa.

Of course, there are some very interesting sociological implications to an industry that embraces Christmas in a world that has never been more secular. Nordstrom, the department store retailer, waits until Thanksgiving before you see any holiday decorations in their stores.

Are they smart or out of touch?

You can't really have pre-Christmas sales if you don't recognize that the Christmas buying season is here. But Nordstrom has long been one of the few beacons that seem to say Christmas as a retail holiday is too long. Of course with a recession in our midst and retailers fearing the worst, many stores started holiday decorating in September. (You should see how weird that is in Arizona when it's still 100 degrees).

In radio, the strategy of stations dropping their formats so far in advance of the holidays to play Christmas music appears to be a no-brainer. If you believe research, you don't have to look any further. If you believe in Arbitron ratings -- big ones -- then you have found sugar plums dancing in your head.

Jerry Lee at WBEB in Philadelphia has been cleaning up with his early Christmas strategy for many years. This year WBEB is offering a separate stream off the terrestrial signal for those who want to hear the usual adult contemporary music format with holiday music.

Christmas brings out the best in some radio operators -- at least on the air. If they just get out of their own way, Christmas music seems to work. It's important for them to commit to all- Christmas music every year and back up the switch with great off-air promotion. More often than not, the promotion part is paltry.

It's also important to tell your listeners when their favorite regular format will return -- especially if you're CBS-FM, a station that has been yanked away from its hard core audience once before. "Playing holiday hits right through Christmas Day" or whatever the end date is. It's comforting to let the audience know their favorite station will be back.

Radio could make the all-Christmas format even more powerful by granting Christmas wishes and putting people on the air. This is a time for great creativity. CBS-FM can carry it off, but some stations have gutted their production capabilities. CBS-FM is giving away $1,000 a day -- small stuff for a big market but understandable when you look at the CBS share price.

Here are my additional thoughts on all-Christmas strategies:

1. Stations that opt to keep their usual music formats can integrate holiday music into the format -- not brain surgery as it has been done for years -- but keeping in mind that just because one or two market competitors may have switched to all-Christmas doesn't mean your listeners won't like to get the holiday feel.

2. It's also okay not to do any holiday format. Many regular radio stations still get hefty ratings in the ramp up to Christmas.

3. Non-music formats can go all-Christmas, too. Of course, they don't play music, but they can use Christmas beds, production and even some songs here and there to enhance their format. Then, a killer promotion that grants -- you guessed it -- Christmas wishes for their listeners is really the essence of the holidays.

4. Use YouTube as a Christmas card and ask your listeners to do their own production (even using their cell phones) and send the link to your station. Then you aggregate the video cards and sell the concept to some advertisers -- online. YouTube is television for a growing number of people. Television is a goner -- at least when you look at the next generation.

5. All-jocks (if you have them) should use Twitter on-air to keep the constant conversation going. Avoid making the mistake CNN makes when one of its anchors, Rick Sanchez, lets Twitter become the star. It's a tool -- an increasingly popular tool, but you are the star. Teach the audience how to go to Twitter. How to communicate in 140 characters or less and interact with live djs. Don't promise interaction if you're not going to deliver. (If you've never used Twitter or don't know what it is, go to and look me up. Try it out).

6. Put some meaning into each year's Christmas format. Don't just play Christmas songs. I've got 12 hours worth of the best Christmas stuff on my iTunes. I don't need you for that. Give me more. In Detroit and markets that are facing lots of unemployment this year, brainstorm on five things your Christmas station could do well to enhance the music. This is more fun than you know if you've never done it. Invite everyone in -- kids, interns, relatives of staff -- you'll not be sorry.

Most Christmas formats do not retain the huge audience gains that they earn during the switch. This is for a good reason.

Radio is generally vanilla -- caught in its budget restraints, paralyzed by its growing lack of creativity. Returning to vanilla is not a game changer for your station.

Here's the next one, if you dare:

7. Brainstorm during the holiday season for five things you'd like to offer the new listeners you've gained or to reward the ones who have increased their listening time this holiday season. Don't make it tripe like -- a new HD channel of all -- whatever. Make it real. Valuable. Compelling. For example: if you're a hit music station, on the first day of the new year debut your amateur hour hosted by a non-radio personality playing his or her music in or near your genre. Or iPod discovery time -- three hours straight of new music on-air and available as downloads linked from your site. There will be nothing in your station stocking once you leave the Christmas music format if you don't carefully plan how to keep the new listeners you may have attracted or rewarded your regular listeners who have listened longer.

Obviously, I love this kind of brainstorming and wish I could show all of you the way we did at USC.

Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year for radio.

But to keep that mojo working, make the day after Christmas more than a just let down.

That's when your listeners should be getting five presents for the new year -- from you! After all, it is better to give if you want to receive.

Anything less is a stupid format trick.

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