Even before Thanksgiving, more than 100 radio stations across the country have switched to an increasingly popular format: all Christmas music, all the time.
And that switch to 24/7 Christmas music is coming increasingly earlier in the season, even as early as before Halloween for a handful of stations, including WVEZ in Louisville, Kentucky.
"It’s actually a strategic move, in terms of how our radio stations are rated,” says Shane Collins, program director at WVEZ. “We gain tremendous amount of total audience. There are occasions where the audience will increase as much as 40 to 50 percent.”
Across the country, in the top 50 media markets, the combined audience for radio stations playing Christmas music more than doubles during the listening season, according to Nielsen Audio, which provides ratings for radio stations. Last year on Thanksgiving, the stations had a combined daily audience of 12.3 million listeners. By Christmas Eve, the audience peaked at 28.6 million.
By playing Christmas music starting in October, instead of December, Collins hugely expands his listening audience for two extra months, he says. That means he can charge higher rates for advertising on his station.
Little wonder then that stations across the country are elbowing each other to be known as the Christmas music station in their cities. Jon Miller of Nielsen Audio says that’s why stations are switching earlier in the season every year, as they try to become the Christmas music leader.
“That’s kind of a cat and mouse game of who’s going to go first,” Miller says. “There’s not room for four or five stations to do it in every market … and get really big ratings…. Whoever owns the position tends to benefit the most.”
By the end of the year, some 500 stations will have made the switch, according to Nielsen. Radio industry consultant Jim Richards says the phenomenon picked up steam only in the last 10 years or so. And at first, he says, stations were cautious.
“We started doing it ... over Thanksgiving holidays … certainly the start of the Christmas shopping season happens there, and ... we weren’t interrupting our normal listening habits,” Richards says.
Stations were worried that unhappy listeners might abandon their station forever, says Richards. But that’s not what’s happened over the years.
“The phenomenon of this whole thing is that for the most part, come the second week of January of the third week of January, the listener's patterns of radio usage pretty much return to normal,” Richards says.