What I Learned From Scheduling Christmas Music
By Sean Ross
Every programmer should have the experience of scheduling an all-Christmas format at least once. You will never make as many listeners as happy as you will at the holidays. You will never see as much of your market gathered in one place either. Whether you miss having programmed radio in the ‘70s and ‘80s or missed the chance to program in that time of double digit shares, it’s a chance to see one station unify the market again. Even knowing that listeners are responding to the holiday, more than your individual programming choices, it’s still very gratifying, even if your job is just to wrap the presents.
I had been scheduling other formats—Classic Hits, Adult Hits, Hot AC, Urban AC—for more than a decade before I edited my first yule log. I wondered if scheduling AC Christmas would be too proscribed. Would there be any need for programmer judgment? As programmers, we’ve known since the mid-‘00s what the holiday hits are. Around that time, we also realized there was indeed a wrong way to play Christmas music: a second or third station would pop up in the market and find that there was no upside to being newer or broader or more tempo-driven. Before long, programmers were comfortable with a relatively tight universe of holiday hits.
The AC Christmas template took hold in the mid-‘00s, a few years ahead of the advent of PPM measurement in the top 50 markets, but its success was part of what emboldened programming in the PPM era. By 2010, Christmas radio had shown that listeners cared more about hearing a favorite right now than about niceties of artist or song separation. The same impetus that led programmers to spin a Christmas favorite 50x a week (and a few to go even higher)—the “Top 40 approach to Christmas”—was the one that drove Top 40 ever upwards of 100x a week on its biggest powers.
By the late ‘10s, when I started scheduling holiday music, that sort of “overindulge the hits” approach was becoming an issue in other formats—Top 40’s issues were the most noticeable, but also the Hot AC and Country stations most built on a similar template. Broadcast radio was suddenly challenged from various sides for both instant gratification and variety. And COVID-19’s changes to listening habits seems to have most punished those formats built around nine-minute listening spans.
But when I began scheduling Christmas music, I found that I wanted to overindulge the hits, too. I was happy when it was time to reach for “A Holly Jolly Christmas” or “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” again. I didn’t want to put “Where Are You Christmas” next to another “new” song, even if that “new” song was the 25-year-old “All I Want For Christmas Is You.” I suddenly felt like I was making a holiday mixtape for each listener and each one had to have all the songs they expected.
That didn’t mean there was no room for programmer discretion. WLTW (Lite FM) New York spins its powers 44x a week, played some version of “Frosty the Snowman” 20x yesterday. CHFI Toronto successfully plays songs 27x a week and only cracked 10x a day on its most-spun title. (Canadian AC is also a little bit newer, partially because Canadian content has prompted them to let songs like Justin Bieber’s “Mistletoe” grow into playable songs over the years.)
Scheduling Christmas has taught me that it was okay if the brush strokes are different. WBEB (B101) Philadelphia has successfully played songs over the years that aren’t on the safelist at WLTW and its iHeart sisters. Some stations still hold off on “O Holy Night,” “Away In A Manger,” and “O Come All Ye Faithful” until Christmas gets closer; some successful stations are playing those songs already. If that mixtape were actually a cassette, some stations would be able to get all the hits on a C-90. (I’ve seen one station that lets different versions of the same song play within the same clock hour.) The station I worked with was plenty successful itself using a C-120 to cover the big songs.
Some stations are comfortable overindulging the “sweater guys” of the MOR era. I tried to keep Andy Williams and Dean Martin at least a song apart from each other. Some PDs code for songs about Santa. Some, this year, are keeping an eye on songs about coming home for the holidays. Even the PDs most devoted to “just playing the hits” generally have their own guidelines—just not the same ones.
The sound that I found myself most having to keep an eye on, surprisingly, was “Spector.” Because of “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” the sound of “A Christmas Gift To You” (a/k/a the Phil Spector Christmas album) is now the sound of the few new holiday songs that get traction as well as new arrangements of some of the standards on major-artist albums.
As superstar holiday albums proliferate, so do variations in arrangements and thus judgment calls. If Michael Bublé does an uptempo “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” in the style of the Darlene Love/Spector version, is it okay to play him next to Dean Martin? If he does a lounge-flavored “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” is it okay to play it next to another relatively contemporary song? I’ve always tried to avoid “two-of-the-same” segues. But what about “one-and-a-half of the same” segues?
Within days of editing my first Christmas log, I’d come across plenty of those ironic scheduling juxtapositions that I often tweet out as #MomentsOfMusicSchedulingGrace: “Blue Christmas” into “White Christmas”; “This Christmas” into “Last Christmas”; “The Christmas Song” into “The Chanukah Song.” Finally, it happened: “The Christmas Shoes” into “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer.” I changed that one.
I’ve often likened music scheduling to Sudoku—change one song and the others around it are now wrong. In some ways, Christmas is the easiest format to schedule because we know what the hits are, and the audience is forgiving of the details. It’s also the most difficult because of the relatively tight list of titles, artists, and styles. Some segues are more like Jenga—one change can upend an entire sweep. It’s okay to care about those details. The audience will be even happier to have the Christmas format in this difficult year. But people still notice a beautifully wrapped gift.
Sean Ross is a veteran programmer, researcher, and the author of the Ross On Radio newsletter. Find him or subscribe free @RossOnRadio on Twitter. Contact him at email@example.com
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What I Learned From Scheduling Christmas Music