Most everything in life goes through cycles, including Christmas music on the radio. When I was a kid, stations added a little Christmas music after Thanksgiving and increased the songs as the big day approached. No one went all Christmas until Christmas Eve. Then, throughout the 1970s and '80s, few stations played any Christmas music until shortly before the big man in the red suit took flight. In the 90s, Christmas songs began a comeback, especially on Soft AC stations.
Around 1998, and the exact year escapes me, Atlanta's Peach 94-9 played a lot of Christmas music. And ratings shot through the roof. The following year, the station announced it would go 100% Christmas after Thanksgiving. Again, the results were astounding. Christmas music brought bigger audiences, which justified higher ad rates. Advertisers loved it because it put people in a buying mood.
I don't know the extent of the Peach scenario being played out in other markets at the time, but observers around the U.S. took notice. Within a couple of years, AC stations everywhere went totally Christmas songs. And ratings hit record levels. Stations in other formats ran for cover until the season passed and things returned to normal.
Then, the madness began. In markets with two AC's, being the first to go all Christmas music became a matter of life and death. The thinking, of course, was that if your competitor went Christmas first, you lost the Christmas audience.
The problem was if you flipped to 100% Christmas too early, you would alienate your listeners. I clearly remember an October Saturday when the temperature was in the mid-eighties, and Peach 94-9 was having a "Holiday Music Preview Weekend." Deciding the right time to switch was the stuff that sent PDs to the loony bin.
For a few years, B98.5 just stuck with its regular format and let Peach 94-9 hand it a ratings spanking. As to why, my guess is former Cox Radio President Bob Neil stayed steadfast to his beliefs in how an AC should sound, at all times. Suddenly, around mid-decade, B98.5 surprised everyone including its sales staff, who could have been selling it, by going All Christmas. And it's been that way since then, until this year.
In 2011, we saw an end to much of the insanity. With the exception of a smattering of stations switching early to get noticed, most AC's went Christmas during Thanksgiving week. In this market, 104.7 The Fish has also been playing all Christmas music starting just before Thanksgiving. And The Fish's more religious tint has given Atlanta listeners a nice choice.
This year, the Christmas cycle has been on the downside nationally; Christmas stations number a little less than a year ago.
B98.5 is in an interesting position. While it's in an all-out race with Q100 and Star 94, neither of those stations is likely to play significant holiday tunes until right before Christmas day. In fact, last year Star 94 felt B98.5's Christmas programming would give it an opportunity to showcase its regular playlist, which it did with surprising success. Finally, B98.5's 2011 Christmas ratings peaks--and two PPM reports included Christmas weeks--were the lowest in its history.
In walks new B98.5 Program Director Chris Egan to a question just as maddening as when to flip to Christmas in the insanity years. I have not been privy to Egan's thinking, but the chronology of events suggests some indecisiveness at Digital White Columns. In late October, a salesperson called me about advertising in B98.5's All-Christmas programming for a Christmas-oriented event that I work on.
Shortly before Thanksgiving, another salesperson informed me that B98.5 would go 50% Christmas on Black Friday and ramp up to 100% over the ensuing weeks. It's not impossible that the sales staff was not told of programming's plans, but on this important subject, it's hard to imagine they were not told anything.
Right at Thanksgiving, I heard from a reliable source that B98.5 had again changed plans and would initiate its ramp-up with 4 Christmas songs an hour. This proved to be true over Thanksgiving weekend--but surprise of surprises--the number decreased to 1 an hour last week. Whether this was the plan all along is possible but does not seem likely.
Any hesitancy notwithstanding, keeping Christmas music to a minimum at this late date was a gutsy decision. B98.5's ratings have been excellent, and its October PPM numbers were the best in years for regular programming.
Apparently Egan feels protecting his regular numbers is more important than the Christmas audience bumps. Of course, the danger is that regular AC listeners who prefer the sounds of the season will move to The Fish or even 93.3 The Joy FM. But with both of those stations leaning a bit more religious, B98.5's bet might prove to be one worth making.
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Link to Rodney Ho's AJC Radio & TV blog: http://blogs.ajc.com/radio-tv-talk/