Ka-Ching! How All-Christmas Music Doubles Radio's Ratings

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Tired of hearing "White Christmas" on holiday rotation? There's no escaping it, as more stations make the lucrative switch to the yuletide format.

This article appeared in the Dec. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

More and more radio channels have been switching their formats to all Christmas, all the time -- a consistent winner for radio even during a brutal 2008-2009 revenue downturn, which ended last year when the U.S. radio industry took in $20.1 billion, up 8 percent from the previous year.

Arbitron says it's not unusual for ratings to double once a channel makes the temporary switch to Christmas music. KOST-FM in Los Angeles, for example, saw its share rise from 4.6 to 9.2 last year after it switched, and WLTW-FM in New York jumped from  6.0 to 12.3.

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"There's no other programming tactic in radio history that consistently delivers ratings increases better than Christmas music," says Darren Davis, senior vp at Clear Channel, which is switching 100 of its 650 music stations to Christmas this year. And where there are ears, there are advertisers.

"If a station consistently does this year after year, it becomes an 'upfront' for advertisers looking to get holiday-minded customers in the final 30 days of Christmas," says Greg Strassell, senior vp programming at CBS Radio. While commercial count doesn't rise, ad rates increase, and sponsorship packages are created.

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Audiences are likely to hear a lot of repetition in the lead-up to Christmas given the reduced playlist, but they seem to like it that way. KYXY-FM in San Diego, for example, played Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" six times on Nov. 28.

Not all are receptive to the Christmas swap; switching from hip-hop or hard rock will alienate the audience, though adult contemporary, oldies and country listeners adjust better. But for those grinches who object, get used to it, because radio executives see no downside to the strategy (there are typically no additional costs involved in swapping formats).

"Nine times out of 10, many new listeners pour in, outweighing the listeners that do opt out," says Strassell, adding that once in a while a station might see a 20 percent post-Christmas ratings boost that lasts through the winter. "In fact," says Davis, "playing Christmas music is all about having a larger audience after Christmas than you did before. People who find the station often stick around after the holidays and discover a new favorite station."

HOLIDAY BOOST: A sampling from 2010 of average shares as radio stations that temporarily switch to all-Christmas see ratings soar.

  • New York: WLTW -- 6.0 | Christmas: 12.3
  • San Diego: KYXY – 4.1 | 9.7
  • Boston: WODS – 4.5 | 9.3
  • L.A.: KOST – 4.6 | 9.2
  • Dallas: KVIL – 4.1 | 7.2