Friday, 18 November 2016

I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday

“When the snowman brings the snow. When the snowman brings the snow”.

As 'Miss Snobb and Class 3C'  chorused that coda on Wizzard’s ‘I Wish it Could be Christmas Everyday’ for the first time in 1973, those littl'uns likely did not envisage their song would still be aired on radio stations around the World some 40 years later.

But it is.  Alongside Slade, Jona Lewie and festive offerings from the repertoires of Chris Rea and Maria Carey.

Just as Christmas comes once a year, so do those debates in radio stations about when to play Christmas songs.  Some happy-go-lucky jocks cannot wait to get stuck into their festive songs; others yawn.  

Programmers too are divided.  Some carefully evaluate the tastes and moods of their audiences alongside the constraints of their formats; other grey suits seize a rare opportunity to take out their frosty miserableness vicariously on their listeners. That’ll teach ‘em.

What do we know?

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".

The John Lewis TV ad airs in November. There's no doubting the emotions such campaigns stir, and no doubting the enthusiasm of viewers for exactly that feeling.

When thoughts of Christmas are evoked, listeners feel good – and that’s one of the reasons they came to you.  So much research over the years recognises that listeners value radio as it ‘cheers them up’; and that is as true of music radio as it is for mixed formats, according to the BBC’s own 2010 local radio research. 

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 hugely 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 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 though?  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 106 in the East Midlands revels 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. If you decide to play (or not play) Christmas music based on what another radio station’s research indicates, then you will probably (about 98% probability) make the wrong decision.  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.

In some online research about shopping habits and the like, conducted  by Orion Media in 2013, we asked around 600 listeners when they wanted Christmas songs.  Yes, it‘s a flawed question in the wrong research methodology for this topic, given we know one cannot predict behaviour.  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 people to under-estimate their enthusiasm for Christmas, and to seize the opportunity to be miserable on a dull September day.  They didn’t.  Witness the graph of listeners aged 15-54 below, assembled by Orion Media's hard-working head of research, Sophie Hancock.  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, in favour of powerful alternatives. 

In the US, ‘Christmas Creep’ means some stations fight to be the first to play Christmas songs; just as they fight to be last to go the ad break in the hour.  Traditionally, it's the day after Thanksgiving.

Others adopt their all-Christmas formats, playing back to back Christmas music, with marked audience benefits in busy markets, a trend dating back to the mid '90s, but showing an upturn after the dark days of 9/11.  The audience figures there appear to bear out the format wisdom. 168 US stations went 'all Christmas' last year.

The UK has joined in too in recent years. In the UK, Smooth Radio was one of the first to present an all Christmas format on a new ancillary DAB channel in 2012. Since then, Free (AM DAB) and Signal have joined in too. It seems 2016 will see festive action from Signal, Pulse, The Wave and the Global stable with Heart Extra. Whilst Rajar cannot easily accommodate specific Christmas service ratings, the audience volume such services add to their respective parent brands is probably of value.

Loads of online offerings too. Not least SantaRadio, from none other than 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 enviable '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.

Dublin's Christmas FM first went on air in 2008, joined by other parts of Ireland in ensuing years. The station doesn't carry ads on this temporary additional channel, but does include sponsorships; and has also acquired an impressive reputation for charity fundraising. 

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”.

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".

The top Spotify artists across the combined period of Winter 2014 and 2015 were as tabulated below.  Whilst the Beatles lead, owing to their songs being streamed for the first time in December 2015, it's easy to see many of the remainder have a festive flavour.

  1. The Beatles*
  2. David Bowie
  3. Bing Crosby
  4. Yellow Claw
  5. Nat King Cole
  6. Mark Ronson
  7. Bushido
  8. Michael Bublé
  9. James Newton Howard
  10. ZAYN

Youtube too sees the Carey kick right at the beginning of November.

Back to 'normal' radio formats, 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". 

My old friend, John Ryan, suggested that songs can burn quickly because every shop plays them. I know what you mean, John, but the tills of those retailers, year after year, probably give better indications about the success of a music policy than Rajar ever might.  Happy people spend money.   GaryStein, then at Key, cautioned sensibly “increase the Christmas music rotation slowly. We don’t go mad on the 1st of December.  When you go into a coffee shop on Christmas, you’ll get a special cup and maybe the ‘Ginger Bread Latte’, but it’s just a variation”. True, there are format considerations. 

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.

Make of it what you will.  But remember: unless you are Radio 4, people likely turn on your station to lift their mood.  And, if your format allows it, stop being so miserable. Your listeners would agree. 

Retort here from Misery Myers

Here's a fab Christmas gift for any radio friend. My book:  'How to Make Great Radio'. It's just a click away on Amazon.

Top 10 most played Christmas songs in the noughties:

1. ALL I WANT FOR CHRISTMAS IS YOU Mariah Carey (1994)
2. FAIRYTALE OF NEW YORK The Pogues (1987)
4. STOP THE CAVALRY Jona Lewie (1980)
7. LAST CHRISTMAS Wham (1984)
9. STEP INTO CHRISTMAS Elton John (1973)
10. WONDERFUL CHRISTMAS TIME Paul McCartney (1979)
Source: PPL & PRS for Music


  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.