A (Christmas) Tale Of Two Cities
November 28, 2013
'Tis the season.
Perhaps you've heard of this annual phenomenon known as Christmas? It follows Thanksgiving and lands near the end of Nielsen Audio's Holiday PPM month that (ahem) begins next Thursday, December 5th.
As we speak, AC stations are dropping like flies and flipping all-Christmas, while Country braces for its annual month-long trip to the ratings woodshed. Thankfully, it's a short-lived beating; with Country adapting ... fighting rather than switching and roaring back to normal come January and February.
For a third straight year however, two Country stations in separate markets have chosen to switch AND fight, jumping into the Christmas music business to mix it up -- and finding mixed results.
It's been all good for Wilkes' KFKF/Kansas City, which soared to 6+ shares of 11.0 and 9.2 for Holiday 2011 and '12 respectively, ranking #1 in the market both years and watching its cume nearly double each time. In 2013, 'KF rode the Christmas sleigh to an amazing year, which saw the traditional-leaning, 35-54 targeted Country outlet ranked #1 in all but one month so far.
That's pretty impressive on two levels. First, we know Country is on a younger kick with new acts driving its current popularity -- or mania, as some prefer to call it. Second, the market has two other excellent Country outlets: Wilkes sister KBEQ and Entercom's WDAF. As of October, the three stations combined for 17.7 shares of Country listening.
Meanwhile, Simmons KEGA (The Eagle)/Salt Lake City has seen a more modest bump in each of its two previous all Christmas outings - primarily with cume versus share -- but has been unable to bottle any holiday sampling and parlay it into long-term growth. Like KC, Salt Lake City is a busy intersection of Country radio, with three other stations besides The Eagle: Cumulus' KUBL and KSOP Inc.'s KSOP and Classic Country KSOP-A. The four stations combined for an 11.4 Country share in October.
KEGA already made the switch, just saying Noel at 9:30a (MT) on Friday, November 22nd.
KFKF was set to become Santa Central at 2:00p (CT) Thanksgiving day (11/28).
Market conditions, station history and different approaches have yielded contrasting results for KEGA and KFKF.
Perhaps most notably, KFKF has the advantage of owning the Christmas position outright in Kansas City, after just three years, as the sole holiday outlet. But 'KF is also a heritage, market mainstay, which celebrated 50 years of existence as a Country station in 2013.
"We may finally have it right," laughs KF PD Dale Carter. Then again, even he may not be so sure how things have gone so smoothly in 2013. "If I knew the answer I'd bottle it and sell it. It was the same formula [as last year]. How we converted and held it, I have no idea. I just hope and pray we can do it again." Then again, he may know, but simply refuses to share with the rest of the class.
KEGA, on the other hand, is ranked #3 of the four Salt Lake Country stations, which is precisely why PD Jon Watkins is willing to roll the Christmas dice. But he's stepping into an area dominated by Bonneville's AC KSFI (FM100), for years the market's signature Christmas station and currently Salt Lake's #1 ranked 6+ station.
Watkins plans a Christmas music mix that will be 80% Country and 20% standards, explaining, "By that I mean artists like Bing Crosby and Andy Williams. That's how I think we can separate ourselves from FM100, which is an all-encompassing Christmas music mix. I don't want us to lose the idea that we're a hot, young, new Country station."
That strategy flies in the face of KFKF's plan, according to Carter: "We turn into an AC station for five weeks. We throw in a little Country but we're talking Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift here and there; nothing gut-bucket Country."
As for what happens after Christmas, both Carter and Watkins have a plan, which they'll start executing during the holiday music extravaganza.
"The past two years, we spent so much time working on Christmas and when that was over we didn't take advantage of the increased sample," says Watkins. "We'll be more proactive this year and bring back The Eagle on December 26th with a big promotion giving away almost $1,000 a day leading up to New Year's Eve."
Last year, KFKF pre-promoted its 50th-year celebration and came off Christmas music with 50 days of winning to celebrate 50 years of Country.
So, is that why people stuck around all year? "I have no idea," Carter once again claims. "But when we play a Carrie Underwood or a core sounding song during Christmas, we sweep into it by saying 'here's an artist you'll hear on KFKF even after Christmas.' Then the song becomes a four-minute commercial for the station."
This year, KFKF will dangle George Strait tickets over the holidays. "The last-ever George Strait show in KC is on Saturday, January 18th. We'll use that to advertise the show and promotion during our Christmas music, the pay it off in January with giveaways."
I want to go back to something Watkins said earlier, about not losing the idea of being a "Hot, young, New Country station." Given the current state of new music for Country right now (i.e. awesome) and the fact that KEGA touts itself as "New Country," I asked about the strategic ramifications of abandoning that position, albeit temporarily, in a market with two tough competitors. "In a three-station battle, whenever you make a change it gives you pause," Watkins admits. "But I think in this case, the benefits outweigh the risk. In this market, where there are almost 30 shares of Christmas music occurring, we can potentially grow our cume so much to hopefully help us throughout the year - as long as we have a good plan for coming out into the New Year."
And that plan includes something more substantial that the already mentioned on-air, post-Christmas promotions, says Watkins. "For the first time since we've done this, we'll run a TV and outdoor campaign during Christmas season. With two other [FM] Country stations in the market, we believe this will help people know that we exist."
That sort of dovetails into Carter's final thought during our recent conversation. "You learn as you go; in general, what PPM has taught us is that you'd better have an identity as a radio station."
That's exactly what Watkins hopes to accomplish in 2013; carving out KEGA's own, unique place as a Country station in the Salt Lake City market.