Monday, October 31, 2011

Star 94's Christmas Wish

That magical time of year is almost here, a time when we all become kids and wish for our dreams at Christmas and in the coming year.  I have a feeling I know the dream of Star 94 General Manager Rick Mack and Program Director Scott Lindy.  By the time they really know if their dream came true, the jovial man in the red suit on the sled will have long since set his GPS device for the North Pole and will be listening to his favorite Hip-Hop station on his smartphone.

The way things evolve in radio is interesting.  About 10 years ago, AC Peach 94-9 started playing only Christmas music as the big day approached, and ratings soared.  I don't know whether Peach was the first to try this noble experiment, but it was the first that I had heard of.

The following year, Peach 94-9 announced it was going all Christmas music right after Thanksgiving.  Ratings again took off, and this time the industry was watching.  The next year, a great number of AC's across the U.S. flipped to Christmas music for the holidays.  And the approach's success in Atlanta was mirrored across the country.

The big ratings translated to big revenue.  Peach and other stations created special rate cards for the holiday season to rake in the Christmas dollars and save management's jobs for another year.

Then things started getting crazy.  Virtually all AC stations were flipping to totally Christmas.  The thinking became that listeners would set their radio to the first station to switch and leave it there.  Being first seemed especially critical since AC stations play in many businesses, where radios pretty much stay on one station.

In markets with more than one AC, the race was on to play Christmas music before the competition.  The decision was not an easy one because filling the airwaves with Rudolph and the Chipmunks too early might chase people away.  Nevertheless, stations were going all Christmas weeks before Thanksgiving.  And watching the trades each day to find out if a station went Christmas became more exciting than watching CSI: Miami.

Here in Atlanta, Peach 94-9 presented the "Christmas Preview Weekend" in October.  I remember turning on the station and hearing holiday tunes when the temperature was in the 80's.  They were the songs of the season, just the wrong season.

I watched in bewilderment for a few years as B98.5 saw its pants getting beaten off by Peach 94-9's Christmas music.  I suppose it was due to Cox Radio's Bob Neil believing an AC station should sound a certain way and not being willing to deviate from that.  However, in 2005, B98.5 surprised everyone including its salespeople by flipping to Christmas music the day after Thanksgiving.  The station has been going totally Christmas every year since then.  Salem's 104.7 The Fish also has gone all Christmas music in the past several years with a playlist leaning a little more toward the serious side.

Last year, things calmed down.  AC stations still played only Christmas music and did well.  But the novelty and the race to be first seemed to have withered away.  A few years ago, a subject of huge interest was how to program against Christmas music.  But have things evolved to the point where stations are seeing the competition's Christmas programming as an opportunity?  In 2010, B98.5's Christmas ratings well exceeded the station's regular numbers but were not as high as many other AC's around the country.

In recent months, Star 94 and we listeners got quite a surprise when B98.5 started incorporating currents.  In fact, B98.5 reinforces that by going out of stopsets and other "80's, 90's and now" sweepers with a current song.  B98.5 Program Director Cagle is showing he can compete with the best of them and has led his station past Star 94 in the PPM ratings.  His latest wrinkle is humorous sweepers that sound a lot like those Scott Lindy created for Star 94 and The Bull.

Star 94 has been quick to react.  After racking up ratings with its Big 90's Weekend, including men who stayed for the rest of the week, the station detected some burnout in the September PPM.  Moreover, Star 94 might have felt that B98.5's themed 80's and Retro weekends have given Star a chance to demonstrate that Star is the station for new product.  The result was Star 94 went back to playing mainly current product during the weekend with some 90's songs thrown in.

That brings us back to Star 94's Christmas wish.  Is Star perceiving that B98.5's Christmas music will be a terrific opportunity to win back listeners by showing Star is the station for new music?  Star has added sweepers subtly knocking the older songs still played by B98.5, showing its strategy is to reinforce its position as the current music station.  If that is indeed Star 94's wish, it's a 180-degree swing from the Christmas madness of a couple of years ago.

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Link to Rodney Ho's AJC Radio & TV blog:

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