The holiday classics haven’t changed that much — radio stations still turn to Bing Crosby and Burl Ives to spread yuletide cheer. But your chances of hearing them on the radio are growing fast.
As of Monday, 402 stations from Maine to Hawaii were playing Christmas tunes around the clock to bring in listeners and advertising dollars. Some cities have as many as five or six.
“Most stations start in the middle of November, and I heard the earliest one even started in early October,” said Joel Grey, vice president and program director at 98.7 The Peak (KPKX-FM). “That’s a little bit of overkill.”
Grey played his first Christmas song of 2006 — “Run Rudolph Run” by Bryan Adams — on the station Dec. 9, but he limits holiday tracks to two or three per hour, in part because warhorse competitor KESZ (99.9 FM) has a strong reputation for its all-holiday programming.
KESZ switched to its annual Christmas-round-the-clock format Nov. 15, said program director and afternoon host Kevin Gossett.
“We always try to get in a little before Thanksgiving,” he said. The start date “doesn’t really vary that much. People talk every year as if we move it up a week a year, but we don’t.”
Nobody on staff knows which year KESZ began its holiday block, Gossett said, but he estimated it’s been about a dozen years and believes the station was the first to be recognized to be doing it.
“It was about eight months after Marconi developed the wireless,” he joked.
SOUNDTRACK OF THE SEASON
For listeners, the nostalgic music creates a soundtrack as they shop, wrap presents, decorate trees, bake cookies and go to parties.
“It’s like a counterpoint to all of the misery in the world. That’s the only thing I can figure out,” said Phil Crosland, executive vice president of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers in New York.
On this year’s start date, Gossett’s “phone started ringing and my e-mail box filled up with messages from hundreds of people: ‘Thank you so much, this is my favorite time of year.’ Probably the count for ‘start later’ was three — and I think two of them were the same guy,” he said.
“I don’t know if (Valley residents) overdo the holidays because we don’t have any snow,” Grey said. “I mean, they put more lights out here than any city I ever lived in. We’re trying to get into the spirit as much as we can, even though we’re living in palm trees and sunshine.”
Behind the holiday cheer and good will are strong ratings: One Milwaukee station saw a jump of nearly 50 percent last year.
KESZ’s Gossett didn’t want to crunch hard numbers on the spot, but said a 50 percent jump “would not be out of the realm of accuracy” for his station, either. “It’s significant, and it’s all day,” he said.
“I think Christmas music cuts across so many demographics,” he said. “Age, income, gender, everything.”
LISTENING TO LISTENERS
The holiday treasure chest includes offerings from artists as varied as Jessica Simpson, B.B. King, Barenaked Ladies, Regis Philbin, Bruce Springsteen and Twisted Sister.
On his blog at kez999.com, Gossett’s running a contest (through 10 a.m. today) in which listeners can send in their three favorite holiday songs; if Gossett plays them on air they get a credit and an iPod filled with the station’s holiday songs. As of Wednesday he’s had 5,000 entries.
“As I look through those sets, I have to say many of them are the same,” he said. “Everybody wants to hear Bing Crosby’s ‘White Christmas’ and ‘Holly Jolly Christmas’ by Burl Ives. ... Fifty percent of them don’t want anything that was recorded after 1963.”
But the other half wants something at least a little different, whether it’s a little-known song like “Pretty Little Dolly” by Mona Abboud or a novelty track like “Walkin’ Round in Women’s Underwear” by Bob Rivers.
Grey said he usually steers away from the chestnuts and sticks to artists whose nonholiday tracks also would be played on the station: “The Eagles, Tom Petty, Bon Jovi, Paul McCartney, Shawn Colvin ...” he said. “Randy Bachman of Bachman Turner Overdrive did a cover of his original ‘Taking Care of Business’ called ‘Taking Care of Christmas.’ There’s some really good Christmas music that few people have heard yet.”
TUNE IN ON THE WEB
For Peak listeners looking for a little more holiday spirit, the station launched an online channel in November that allows Web browsers to stream holiday music through their computers. “When it’s on a Web site, instead of the radio station, it’s up to the people to listen whenever they want,” Grey said. The channel — www.987thepeak.com — gets 5,000 hits a day, with an average listener sticking around for more than an hour and a half, he said.
Though it’s an inexact science, a bump in ratings typically means a bump in advertising rates.
Grey said he limited ads on his holiday Web channel to only 3 minutes per hour, and there were sponsors “standing in line waiting” to sign the premium-priced contracts for the entire two-month period.
And for 32 hours beginning 10 a.m. Christmas Eve, the radio station itself will play only holiday music — commercialfree, thanks to an advertiser who paid a premium price to be associated with the Christmas block. Advertisers likely see a correlation in either good will or sales by getting involved in the holiday format, said Matt Feinberg, senior vice president and director of radio for Zenith Media in New York. “It’s a tradition,” Feinberg said. “From an advertiser point of view, it’s an evergreen special they can buy into.”
The top 10 holiday songs played on KESZ (99.9 FM) during the past month:
1. “A Holly Jolly Christmas,” Burl Ives
2. “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” Johnny Mathis
3. “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” Andy Williams
4. “Feliz Navidad,” Jose Feliciano
5. “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” Brenda Lee
6. “Please Come Home for Christmas,” The Eagles
7. “Jingle Bell Rock,” Hall & Oates
8. “ Jingle Bell Rock,” Bobby Helms
9. “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” Bing Crosby
10. “The Christmas Song,” Nat King Cole
The top 10 holiday songs played on radio stations during the week after Thanksgiving:
1. “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” Brenda Lee
2. “A Holly Jolly Christmas,” Burl Ives
3. “Jingle Bell Rock,” Bobby Helms
4. “Feliz Navidad,” Jose Feliciano
5. “The Christmas Song,” Nat King Cole
6. “White Christmas,” Bing Crosby
7. “Please Come Home for Christmas,” The Eagles
8. “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” Andy Williams
9. “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” John Lennon
10. “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” Johnny Mathis
Sources: KESZ-FM; American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers
Associated Press writer David Sharp contributed to this report.