November 22, 2011
The Christmas Question
As we begin to approach the end of the year 2011, which we hope will still be the most wonderful time of the year, we have an early Christmas present for you. In keeping with those thoughts and in response to a number of tweets, Facebook and Linkedin inquiries and requests, we thought we would once again examine the problem and answer the question of how much Christmas music should be played on Urban and Urban AC stations during the holidays. As most of you know, many AC stations have already begun adding holiday jams to their playlists. And a few stations have already begun the changeover to all-Christmas music.
While there is no automatic time to make the switch, there is a theory that, particularly in markets currently measured by Arbitron's PPM, playing Christmas music early can give stations an advantage. In the case of "unintended listening," that may be true. Keep in mind that if you're in a market currently being measured by Arbitron's PPM, "unintended listening" will definitely affect you. Here's why: Those listeners who are shopping and wearing a meter will inevitably shop in a store that is playing an AC station featuring all-Christmas music. Guess what? Even though they did not and would not have chosen the station that the store is playing, nevertheless the encoded signal will be picked up and credited to their side of the board. If it's any comfort (and misery loves company), the all-Christmas stations will be capturing some cume from all music-formatted stations. That trend will continue as Christmas Day gets closer.
Mood Affects Ratings
First of all, Christmas, even in this economy, is important to our listeners. So Urban stations need to play some Christmas favorites. Most stations we've spoken with say they are going to begin playing Christmas jams the day after Thanksgiving. This year that means Friday, November 25th. At that time most stations are going to play at least one song per hour and gradually increase that number by at least one until Christmas Day, when they will be playing 50% or more Christmas music. The same policy extends into the weekends. The day after Christmas, these same stations will drop all their Christmas music, begin to count down the biggest songs of the year and prepare for 2012.
How has the trend endured? Because of competition, the bump we saw for AC stations a few years ago may getting smaller, but it's still not a bad thing for them. Inflated listening may hurt the credibility of the station with some advertisers, but their position is they'll take a steady dose of winning numbers over peaks and valleys. Regardless, some loss will occur. However, if done properly, that cume will revisit more frequently than before. And fortunately for these AC stations, they have a budget that allows them to do some research.
On the contrary, for budget reasons, most Urban stations do not include Christmas songs in their callout research. So the holiday guessing game begins. If we're all agreed that Urban stations have to play some Christmas jams, the question becomes how many? How often and which songs should they replace? To answer those important questions we have to look back and say, what have we learned?
Some of the lessons we already knew; we just reapplied them. For example, research told us that regardless of when we go or what holiday tracks we play, there is some risk. A familiar Christmas jam with 20% burn just means that 80% of the audience isn't burned on it. If your listeners are in the Christmas mood and they know you're playing some Christmas favorites, they may be inclined to listen to you a little more. After all they would rather hear artists and jams they can relate to, rather than just hear songs and artists they would never listen to.
On the other hand, if they're not in the mood to hear some Christmas jams, they will go to your competition. If it's a Christmas classic that your research instincts tell you was valuable enough to play often and early and take a vested interest in exposing, you might want to play it more often. Why in the world would you want to walk away from a holiday track or artist and let another format just have them?
Again we need to "hook" early and pre-announce the Christmas songs that we are going to play and set the audience up to expect them. And just like jams from our regular playlist, there are some traditional Christmas tracks that we are going to be forced to share with format-similar stations.
Just because a holiday jam or artist gets played by multiple formats doesn't mean that we should stop playing it or not play it in drive time. After all, isn't that what we want? As a business we are way over-thinking this issue because of the complaints of a very vocal few in the audience. Not that we don't care about those vocal few. We do, but we're in a mainstream business, which means we want always want at least fifty-one percent of the vote
If they are Christmas favorites you consider still important to your audience and the format, then, bottom line, you should play them. But it's also important that the station consider treating them as core artists instead of song-to-song artists for scheduling purposes.
Your Holiday Hook-Up Station
Now that we've looked at the music to be played during the holidays, what about what goes between the jams? Liners, promos and stagers should all take on some holiday flavor. There's really no question about the power of a strong morning show on Urban radio -- regardless of the season. And it's a fact that morning humor still comes from presentation. Nationally syndicated morning shows such as Tom Joyner, Steve Harvey, Rickey Smiley and Russ Parr have proven this. There was a time in Urban radio, just like general-market radio, when we obsessed on morning show Christmas benchmarks. We were totally into holiday games and bits. Games and bits may be icing on the cake, but they're not what makes great morning shows work.
During the holiday season, it still comes back to basics. Everything that's funny about successful Urban morning shows comes from the characters of the individuals and the way they mesh, or even clash. Humor comes from topical truths -- reflecting on life and the way these morning shows relate to the audience they were designed to reach. Even during the holidays, character doesn't come in a can. It comes from truth.
Truth is not only stranger than fiction, it's funnier. Truth avoids the perils of patterns. Although we kind of always knew it, and strictly for the benefit of those few stations that still have live, local morning shows, we re-discovered that noisy neighbors, a series of canned jokes, stale contests and forced phone topics just wouldn't get it.
The other thing that emerged is that humor often comes from editing. In this less-is-more age, the new "Generation Jones" audience wants their humor condensed and packaged. This means editing -- a role that the morning show producer must play ... a role that really came into its own in this year. The morning show producer role is becoming more and more common with local morning shows. Christmas show prep really means making choices and that requires that there be a lot of stuff to choose from. It also means your morning show needs the freedom to try a lot of new things. Some will be great and the rest will never be heard again. It means your morning show should take the creative initiative and want to try new stuff that ties in with the holiday season.
Now for those who might say that the all-Christmas AC stations don't play enough of the type of music or feature the kinds of artists that our research shows most Urban listeners want to hear, you'd be right. While that is a fact, what is also a fact is that at some point traditional Christmas music becomes the great equalizer. You're much better off competing by gradually spiking in those Christmas jams you know your audience wants to hear than either going all-Christmas or worrying about losing listeners during the holidays.
Also there will probably be some stations, other format-similar stations that will switch to all-Christmas music this season. These same stations will switch back to their regular format when the holidays are over. There's no way to avoid what we call "casual cumers" -- those of your P1 listeners who may occasionally want an instant Christmas flavor fix that you can't give them. So you lose them for a few hours to an all-Christmas AC station. You're going to get them back as soon as they tire of it.
Remember, people will eventually tire of hearing all-Christmas music and want to hear some hits. Too much holiday music too soon can be irritating, even for those who really love Christmas. You could be an alternative to them and they could re-set their pre-set so that after the holidays, they will have found a new station and you will have captured some new Christmas cume. We all want to be Santa's choice and create the type of holiday environment St. Nick himself would enjoy. Who knows, this year maybe our St. Nick will get a meter or a diary.