Friday 30 November 2018

I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday

Magic has gone 'fully festive' for 2018. Take That - with a little help from Wham - kicked it off at 9.00 today (30th Nov).

Although we've had a cracker-full of dedicated Christmas stations in recent years, it's the first time a key UK FM (in London) station - as opposed to an ancillary brand - has flipped format. 

In other words, this is the first time a major UK station has taken the risk of sudden format flip, with a plan to return to its traditional format in a few weeks' time.

Does the mood of Christmas suit the Magic brand? Like a hand into a glove.

In the US, the flipping trend dates back to the mid '90s. The audience figures there suggest it works - and it's thought to build cume. 168 US stations went 'all Christmas' in 2015. 

Is radio different in the United States? Yes. There, listeners are accustomed to changing formats overnight - and there is no BBC, whose particular advantages mean that the gains from any UK radio risk can be diminished. Talent also jumps ship more there - and listeners appear to follow.  Over here, as commercial radio, at last, enjoys national scale, resource and something approaching platform equivalence, talent swapping is just starting to happen - but station/'button' loyalty here appears to be peculiarly high.

If you are going to flip, you need to be sure that the niche is big enough - and your brand is strong enough.  In London, it likely is - and on FM where the majority of cume is still built, for now - Christmas is territory no-one else occupies. Is Magic a famous enough brand to be able to 'play away' for a few weeks - with listeners probably coming back in January if they don't like it? Yes - and listeners still have their excellent sub-brands too to lean on.

Does it make the brand more famous - yes.  And, as Magic sits in London at 13% reach (similar to where it was as Melody in '98) - some way away from its 19% high seven years ago, with reinvigorated Smooth competition and indeed from Magic's own sub-brands , maybe a shot in the arm for Magic brand conspicuousness in London could be a good thing.  It's also something fresh to talk about with the ad agencies too - and a way of accessing identifiable budgets.

In the UK, Smooth Radio was one of the first to present an all Christmas format on a new ancillary DAB channel in 2011. Since then, such brands as Free, the Wave (Swansea), Pulse and Signal have joined in too through re-purposing frequencies. Last year, Magic Christmas arrived on DAB - and also Heart Extra Christmas.  

Whilst Rajar cannot easily measure specific fresh Christmas service ratings in the UK, their respective parents likely benefit from heightened brand might. Magic, of course, will carry on registering directly as a station this month, of course, and owing to its scale and three monthly distinct figures, W4 2018 will generate a thoroughly interesting set of figures.

How many people will be asking Alexa or Google to play them a Christmas station - and which will they think of first?

It's all about Mood

On average, Christmas songs make up 6% of all the music on commercial radio each year (PPL) - so there must be something in it.

Already, some listeners are moaning about the change at Magic.  But they always moan about change - and the day that stops, we should all be worried. Those of us who've lived through challenging decisions in the past know well that noise and audience behaviour are often very different things.

In the United States, audiences seem to value the shift.  It's about mood, and radio does mood best. The number and popularity of Christmas stations showed an upturn after the dark days of 9/11. In a New York Times article,  Gary Fisher from Equity Communications pointed to the benefits of the format flips: “Christmas music is comfort-zone radio for a lot of people”, “Given everything that has happened in Atlantic City and in South Jersey, this music really is a link to better times. That’s why we feel it works for us early”.

Without drawing any inappropriate parallels between 9/11 and Brexit, does the UK need to get away from it all this year, of all years? Yes.

We know Christmas is a time when a lot of people get very happy.  Being Britain, we also recognise that those who are not happy thoroughly enjoy moaning about it.

We know too that music, particularly Christmas songs, affects people emotionally.  EMR qualitative research concluded: "For three quarters of people, Christmas music has a very powerful impact, helping to surface strong emotions - it remind them of happy memories".

Linda Blair, a clinical psychologist, disagrees - suggesting that festive tunes can impact on mental health. She agrees that music goes straight to our emotions and 'bypasses rationality', but fears that it simply brings on the worries of the duties and obligations to come. Linda suggests that shop assistants have to expend much energy in zoning out of the music which is being drip-fed to them.

John Lewis is predictably cheery.  Alongside the Coca Cola truck, the arrival of its TV ad has become a seasonal landmark. There's no doubting the emotions such campaigns stir, and no doubting the enthusiasm of viewers for exactly that feeling.  'On Brand', which works with some major UK brands and shopping centres, agrees with the power of Christmas music - and suggests that the retail Christmas begins on the 15th November and ends on Boxing Day. 

When thoughts of Christmas are evoked, listeners feel good – and feeling good is likely one of the reasons they came to you.  So much research over the years recognises that listeners value radio as it ‘cheers them up’. 'Mood' is an increasingly recurrent theme as an audience driver.

Impressive research from the RAB, the Radio Advertising Bureau, suggests people are happier when consuming radio, that when spending time with any other media.  And they are happier with radio than with no media, with happiness levels climbing 100% and energy levels up by 300%. 

So, what better music to play than a Christmas song?  The first chord whisks you back to your toddler times, Advocaat with grandma, or partying with friends.  And it reminds you of that end-of-term feeling: the rare period in life when you can be off work and the emails are not mounting up as everyone else is off too.

When to start?
If you're not going 'all Christmas', when should you start sliding in the Christmas hits, where the format and brand values permit?

Some happy-go-lucky jocks cannot wait to get stuck into their festive songs; others yawn. Programmers too are divided.  Some sensibly evaluate the tastes and moods of their audiences alongside their formats and brand values; other grey suits just seize a rare opportunity to take out their frosty miserableness on their listeners.

Heart certainly goes with the Sleigh List fairly early and, judging by what I judge their brand values to be, that’s eminently sensible.  The AC Gem in the East Midlands revels promptly in the warmth too.  From what I heard of some BBC local radio stations in years past, however, they did not rush out with the tinsel tunes until Santa was stuck in the chimney just a week before. 
Research consultant Roger Wimmer asserts: "If you plan to play Christmas music and you give a rat’s tail about what your audience thinks, then you had better ask them. The only way to know the answer is to ask your own listeners".

Let’s remember that people are talking about Christmas in every workplace by mid November.  The Christmas party emails have gone out, and you’ve likely started to choreograph your Christmas with grandma, the kids and your ex husband.  By the start of December, it’s got to be time to nod to what your own listeners are feeling.  For the rest of the year, most listeners do not notice the odd song you have chosen not to play, but they do notice if you are not ‘sounding Christmassy’, and they will tell you so.

You might imagine Steve Penk, of 'Radio Dead' fame might be a cynic, but, on Radio Today, he said:

"The reason I have always played Christmas songs early on the radio, throughout my career, both as a presenter and station owner, is because I always remember as a child instantly feeling Christmassy when I heard Christmas songs being played on the radio, and this feeling has stuck with me since being a kid."

In some online research about shopping habits and the like, conducted  by the then Orion Media in 2013, we asked around 600 listeners (15-54)  when they wanted Christmas songs.  Yes, it‘s a flawed question in the wrong research methodology for this topic, but we tried the best we could.  Something along the lines of ‘when do you want to start hearing Christmas songs on the radio to help you feel festive, yet not so early so you get fed up with them?’.

I expected listeners to seize the opportunity to be miserable on a dull September day.  They didn’t.  Witness the graph  though - that 'start of December' lead seems pretty decisive.

The identify of the listener's  P1 station choice appears not to make an appreciable difference to their views.  The demos do show variances; with even more of the younger demos wanting their celebrations to begin before December.  Amongst those 45+, however, the decisiveness of the 'beginning of December' vote leaps ahead even further than amongst all adults.  In fact, if you leave it any later than a month before you reach for Chris Rea, three quarters of your 44+ audience are going to be disappointed. 

If your music format allows it, why would you not want to spin a few Christmas songs at the beginning of December, enough for your P2s and beyond to catch one or two?  It also allows you to give some of your regularly rotated songs a holiday.

Last year, by November 2017, some songs were already  creeping up the UK Spotify chart (Maria Carey and Wham). Youtube too saw the Carey kick right at the beginning of November.

In the Philippines, streaming figures suggest the season starts on September 1st, with other countries not really joining in until November 1st.  Pre-Christmas listening of Christmas music surges at the weekend. 

Portland Radio Group suggests “It can never be too soon to deck the halls. And when it comes to Christmas music on the radio, it's never too early to begin the reindeer games”. EMR’s research in 2013 spoke to several hundred UK respondents aged aged 15-54. For 85% of people, they suggested, "Christmas without Christmas music wouldn't be as good".

In the US, ‘Christmas Creep’ means some stations fight to be the first to play Christmas songs. Traditionally, it's the day after Thanksgiving - which places the start of the American festive season in late November. And let's remember it's still around 25 degrees in Arizona at that stage.

Witness the online offerings too. Not least SantaRadio, from the wonderful Guy Harris who  has carved out a well-deserved reputation in recent years for being the best 'radio santa', appearing on so many different stations, with an 'on-brand' Santa for each: cool or fruity; naughty or nice. On Santa Radio - hear the kids' content too - fed in via the app. Some really interesting thinking here - also proving how truly brilliant a well-run voice-tracked station can be.

Dublin's Christmas FM first went on air in 2008, joined by other parts of Ireland in ensuing years and diversifying into themed offshoots. The main quasi-national FM station doesn't carry ads on this temporary additional channel, supported by a hundred volunteers, but does include sponsorships; and has raised  an impressive 1.25m for charity to date. It came on air this year on November 28th, raising money for Temple Street Children's Hospital

When  to stop? I'm a fan of Boxing Day; and blogger Hugh McIntryre points out that 4 out of 5 US stations flip formats back on that day.

Which songs to play?

Spotify's data scientists suggest seasonal trends in music consumption, with Winter dominated by "Spoken word recordings, "mellower" subgenres, and music associated with particular countries".

Top Spotify Christmas songs in 2017

1. Maria Carey - All I want for Christmas is You
2. Wham - Last Christmas
3. Michael Buble - It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas
4. Justin Bieber - Mistletoe
5. Ariana Grande - Santa Tell Me

From overseas (US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand), iHeart Radio collated data from listeners in 2016 giving the thumbs up or down as songs played on-air. Thumbs up went to: Winter Wonderland; Sleigh Ride; Let it Snow;  All I want for Christmas is You; and It's Beginning to Look a Lot like Christmas. Thumbs down went to: Happy Christmas War is Over; Do They Know It;'s Christmas; I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus; and the Christmas Song

Back home, of all Christmas songs, PPL suggests that 'Merry Christmas Everybody' by Slade is played on the widest variety of stations.

PPL Top Ten Christmas Songs over the last 10 years (to 2017)

1. Fairytale Of New York - Pogues featuring Kirsty Maccoll
2  All I Want For Christmas Is You - Mariah Carey
3. Last Christmas - Wham!
4. I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday - Wizzard
5. Driving Home For Christmas - Chris Rea
6. Merry Xmas Everybody - Slade
7. Merry Christmas Everyone - Shakin' Stevens
8. Wonderful Christmas Time - Paul McCartney
9. Do They Know It's Christmas? - Band Aid
10. I Believe In Father Christmas - Greg Lake

Make of it all what you will.  But remember: unless you are Radio 4, people likely turn on your station to lift their mood (and sometimes R4 listeners do that too, frankly).  So, if your format and brand can stretch to it, don't be miserable. Do Christmas. Your listeners would agree. 



 Here's a Christmas gift for a radio-loving friend. 

My book Radio Moments tells of the last fifty years of radio - from the inside.  A  very personal account of growing up with radio, before becoming a tetchy jock  and then a hassled MD and programmer. The laughter and tears of an  unrepeatable era.

    Also 'How to Make Great Radio'. Techniques for today's presenters and         
    producers.  Great for newcomers - and food for thought if you've been doing it      


  1. I think you should listen to, and then play, play play, the wonderful new song by Rebecca Newman, called 'Holidays are Coming'. It's as Christmassy as you can get, a real feel-good song that is sung beautifully. It originally was sung by Melanie Thornton 12 years ago but she tragically died before it could be released. You can also now listen to her version too. Great song used by Coca Cola for many years.

  2. 1 December is acceptable - and not before!

  3. I'm very much a 1st December guy, Lincs FM - which we have piped at work - always used to be like that and then Boxing day revert. Me, I kick off Christmas by listening to "Christmas Rapping" on December 1st.

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