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Next week, the floodgates will open for format flips to the all-Christmas format, in an annual tradition that brings major listening surges for some stations and delivers ratings coal for others. Specializing in the AC and hot AC formats, Jim Richards, a partner in the Vallie•Richards•Donovan consultancy, has plenty of experience with all-Yule programming. The veteran regional radio programmer led “B-94” WBZZ to its highest ratings ever in Pittsburgh and launched “Y98” KYKY in St. Louis, which, in two years, became the leading AC in the market and drove the former leader out of the format.

He joined what was then Vallie Consulting in 1988, became President of Vallie•Richards in 1999 and today is a partner in Vallie•Richards•Donovan, specializing in music flow and balance, music scheduling and strategic positioning.

He speaks with Inside Radio about the Christmas format: why stations should flip, why they might not want to, and how outlets can best judge when the time is right to make the seasonal move. An edited transcript follows.

Just after Halloween? Before Thanksgiving? What is the right time to make the flip to all-Christmas? What factors need to go into that decision?

Over the years we have learned from stations that went all-Christmas early in November to those that waited until Thanksgiving to start Christmas around the weekend before Thanksgiving. That has become the right time to maximize the strategy. Metered markets are very helpful, where you can see day-to-day data for usage of the Christmas stations. 

Other factors that could go into the decision relate to weather. If we plan to go Christmas on a Friday and the forecast is for cold or snow flurries on the Wednesday or Thursday of that week, that has actually altered the day we go—or if a competitor goes Christmas a few days before we planned to flip, stations will almost always react if it is within a few days of our launch timetable. 

Another factor that affects the decision of some stations: If the station is performing well, they wait to go later. If the station is not performing up to expectations in key target demos, they may decide to go earlier to generate cume in those demo cells.

Since Christmas is often about making lists, Jim, what are five reasons for a radio station to flip to the all-Christmas format?

1. Increases listenership.

2. Connects emotionally with the listener during the Christmas season.

3. Keeps the station top of mind in the market. Generates new cume.

4. Increase sales.

5. Creates passion for the brand and helps to solidify a station’s position in the market. It gives the station another “what the station is known for.”

As I check that list twice, what are five reasons to not flip to all Christmas?

1. If you’d be the third Christmas station.

2. If you aren’t committed to great execution.

3. If you are not an adult format. 

4. If you’re not willing to commit 100% to branding as the Christmas station.

5. If you are in a format not conducive to increasing cume with traditional Christmas music.

What are your thoughts on more than one station in a market flipping to all-Christmas?

It happens in many markets, and rarely is it a close competition in the ratings between the two stations. The heritage branded Christmas station remains the dominant ratings winner. Usually the second station performs better then their normal numbers, but gets half of the shares of the leading heritage station. This is primarily due to the heritage station capturing the perceptual image for being the market’s Christmas station.

How is streaming impacting the all-Christmas format? Is this a growing way to reach listeners?

We have not seen ratings declines due to pureplays providing Christmas channels, we think, for a couple of reasons. Christmas music on the terrestrial stations is programmed much better than the pureplays—and keep in mind that the streaming numbers for the terrestrial stations also have huge jumps in usage just as the terrestrial signal. This prevents the streaming channels from generating the high cume of terrestrial signals and their streams, since the terrestrial stations market on-air to the large cume.

How do station listeners react to losing their traditional format to all-Christmas? Is there every any sort of pushback?

There really are three reactions when stations go all Christmas… I would say that 55%-60% of the cume loves it, stays with the station and listens as much if not more than in the past. Second, cume from other formats that love all-Christmas convert and listen to the station, making up for any initial cume loss. And third, the 35-40% of the cume that listen less—primarily because it just is too early for them—slowly come back and listen longer as we get closer to Christmas. This combination is why the cume gets so big for the Christmas station during December. 

What are your thoughts about a part time Christmas format… the idea of keeping the regular format intact, but playing 1-2 holiday songs an hour and increasing the numbers as you get closer to the holiday?

We think that is the right strategy for the younger hot AC stations, but as far as using that strategy to impact usage against the all-Christmas station in December… it has been ineffective.

What are some of the do’s, don’ts and best practices of doing all Christmas?

First, focus on the key Christmas songs that test great and create emotion with the listener. Keep a high spin on the true Christmas hits and resist remakes from contemporary artists of the big traditional Christmas songs. Next, don’t worry about burn; you are only playing these songs for 5-6 weeks. Reflect and capture the special feeling of the Christmas season. Imaging needs to touch the listeners. Be all over the Christmas events in your market. And provide your regular format via the stream.

How important are the non-music elements? Packaging, imaging, promotions, events, contesting?

Critical. All the imaging you ask about needs to be addressed and changed and the Christmas theme needs to be embraced by the station in all of its social media. It needs a strong connection and warmth.

For PPM stations, there are numbers to show advertisers about ratings bumps… and potential extra revenue to come from all-Christmas. But in a diary market, where there is no way to isolate the period, what advantage could there be for a station and/or its advertisers?

It’s unfortunate that Nielsen adjusted the dates for the fall survey to end so early in December in the diary markets. This was done to make room for the Holiday book.  When the survey dates previously ended in the middle of December, the Christmas stations in diary markets clearly saw an increase in usage and an increase in ratings. Now, because of the early end date of the fall book in diary markets, you have some AC’s going all-Christmas on Nov. 1 just to impact ratings. 

We feel that AC stations that do this risk hurting their brand and become vulnerable perceptually switching so early in the year, with basically 2 months of Christmas music. The primary reason is that P1’s stop listening to the station, as they are not happy going all-Christmas as early as Nov. 1. Some of those P1’s will become comfortable with other stations or another format like country and may not return to their previous favorite station or they may not spend as much time with the station as they did in the past.

We still see a benefit for our diary market ACs to go all-Christmas for the same reasons we stated earlier: The audience increases, you create new cume, you create passion for the brand and you create top of mind awareness. In many of our diary markets it also increases sales, because many local clients also feel the impact of the station going all-Christmas.