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More Radio Stations Switch to All-Holiday-Music

  • Maura Farrelly

As Christmas Day draws near, many people in predominantly Christian nations are hearing the sound of Christmas carols -- in the streets… in the stores… and, of course, on the radio. It is traditional for radio stations in many countries to play holiday music at this time of year. A song or two is usually inserted into the hourly cycle of music the stations normally play. But a growing number of radio stations in the United States are playing only holiday music in the weeks leading up to Christmas. And experts say this trend is just one more thing that can be traced back to one of the darkest days in recent American history.

"We're playing the best mix of holiday hits," reads the promotional copy at one popular radio station. "Twenty-four hours a day, all the way through Christmas Day. Happy Holidays from 95-5, WPLJ."

WPLJ is one of the top-rated radio stations in New York City. Its format is mostly rock music, and this holiday season, there is still a lot of rock to be heard on WPLJ. But it is rock with a theme, as evidenced by the chorus that follows the promo. "Santa Claus is coming to town! Santa Claus is coming to town! You better watch out. You better not cry."

WPLJ is one of nearly 300 radio stations across the United States to switch to an exclusively "holiday music" format this year. The station started playing Christmas and Chanukah music the day after Thanksgiving, the last Thursday in November. And WPLJ plans to continue its holiday format through December 25th. Tony Mascaro, the station's music director, explains why. "Last year, a couple of stations in the market here in New York went all Christmas, and we suffered pretty big in the ratings, so we decided this year that we wouldn't leave ourselves out for that again."

It is primarily stations with 'pop' music formats that have made the switch. That is because there are literally hundreds of contemporary recordings of traditional holiday music. Everyone from Bing Crosby to Jon Bon Jovi has done a "jazzed up" or "rocked out" version of some popular Christmas song-and many of these recordings have become as much a part of the holiday tradition in America as Christmas trees and mistletoe. Tom Taylor is editor of Inside Radio, an industry newsletter. He says although radio stations have been playing holiday music for decades, it really was not until Christmas 2001 - just three months after the terrorist attacks, that stations started playing exclusively holiday songs. "In that very downcast atmosphere, almost depressed national mood following the attacks of September 11th, 2001, some radio programmers thought this would be a good thing to put a smile or two back on folks' faces," according to Mr. Taylor. "You hear Christmas music, and you tend to walk a little faster, you tend to smile, you tend to sing along."

So is that the effect the all-Christmas-music format has been having on people? Not at first, according WPLJ's Tony Mascaro. "In the beginning, it was a little rough," he says. "People were like, 'Oh, God. Why are you playing Christmas music 24 hours a day?' As we get closer, the response is better."

And as it has gotten colder the response has gotten better. When WPLJ started its holiday format, New York City was experiencing a record-breaking warm spell. Since December is usually quite cold in the northern hemisphere, Tony Mascaro says most New Yorkers just were not in the 'Christmas mood.' But a cold snap that recently swept across the region has helped a lot -- and it is possible some of those people who were complaining just a few weeks ago are now singing along.

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