Starting to play Christmas music weeks before the holidays can work for a radio format – if it’s introduced gradually, includes variety, and enhances strategy.

In the US, radio stations start to play Christmas music as early as November. Playing holiday music is a proven radio ratings boost for AC formats. European stations pick it up as well. But what’s the downside – and how to tackle it? Three UK program directors discussed it in the most recent Radio Talk podcast of The Radio Academy.


Provide Christmas music context

Chris Stevens is deputy group PD of GMG Radio. Their (Soft AC) Smooth Radio started to play Christmas tunes at the end of November. Stevens’ theory is that listeners crave feel good now. “People get through lots of troubles and hardship at the moment. Christmas is something that’s universally happy, positive and looked forward to.” He thinks that playing holiday music early in the season is okay, as long as it happens in the right context. “We’re not playing it regularly at the moment. It needs to be sold correctly by the presenter.” GMG Radio recently launched a separate Smooth Radio Christmas channel on DAB. | John Ryan, BBC Radio Manchester managing editor, talks about their music scheduling strategy for Christmas songs on the radio station playlist, based on an increasing Christmas song rotation during 2 weeksAvoid holiday music burn

BBC Radio Manchester managing editor John Ryan (photo) can imagine that Christmas songs could burn really quickly because listeners get exposed to them everywhere nowadays, from television shows to shopping malls. “It’s like putting up a Christmas tree too early. We had a phone-in the other day: Are we spoiling Christmas? The reaction from our audience was: it’s way too early; as soon as Easter eggs are out of the shops, you see trees in the corner.”



Build Christmas song rotation

BBC Radio Manchester is slowly building the holiday music rotation in the December month:

  • 2 weeks before: 1 song an hour
  • 1 week before: 2 songs per hour
  • Christmas Eve: every other song
  • Christmas Day: every song
  • after Christmas Day (at midnight) till next year in December: none | Gary Stein, Key 103 program director and station manager, says that radio programming strategies (for Christmas or in general) should be aimed at delivering the format and meeting the listener expectations based on the brand propositionStick to listener proposition

Key 103 program director Gary Stein (photo) explains that they, just like BBC Radio Manchester, increase the Christmas music rotation slowly: “We don’t go mad on the 1st of December”. Stein says that in a competitive marketplace, stations need to stick to their listener proposition as much as possible. 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.”



“If you give people an unusual expectation,

what good is that doing you in the long run?”



Add some music variety

The panel agrees that radio shouldn’t always play the same version of a well-known song. John Ryan: “There are really good new albums and artists writing Christmas songs and covering traditional numbers.” He also points to generation crossovers in this genre, like the recent Tony Bennet & Lady Gaga duet (The Lady Is A Tramp). Chris Stevens sees a problem when there’s too much Xmas material by one artist. “The Michael Buble album is very good. But because it’s all Christmas, not one song gets remembered.” Gary Stein: “And the song that is released, is the cover of Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas…” | Coldplay's Viva La Vida is the example of a 'Christmas feel' song that could be included in a radio station's Christmas music playlistInclude Christmas mood songs

Especially when a station flips to all-Christmas for a long period (like American AC stations do), it can be tough to find enough titles to create variety. Key 103 PD Gary Stein thinks that music directors could include songs with just a Christmas feel, such as Coldplay (Viva La Vida), Stereophonics (Handbags And Gladrags) and Take That (Rule The World). The playlist could be further extended with songs that have been in the charts around Christmas time.



Respect radio brand strategy

Some stations have a different talent line-up during Christmas. Is it wise to interrupt the usual programming schedule? “We don’t change the whole output, but we’re reflecting that people are behaving differently over Christmas”, GMG Radio’s Chris Stevens explains. Artist specials and recaps of the year are part of this. “But we’re still the same radio station and true to our core values as we are the rest of the year.” This point is also important for John Ryan of BBC Radio Manchester. “If you give people an unusual expectation, what good is that doing you in the long run?”