WEST ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — It was still two weeks before Halloween when WEZW-FM, the easy-listening standby of Cape May County, pushed the Christmas button.
Not to miss out on the merriment, two rival stations in Birmingham, Ala., activated their holiday playlists within minutes of each other last week, and by December nearly 500 stations around the country were expected to go all eggnog-and-mistletoe.
Even in the age of Pandora and Spotify, the all-holiday format has remained one of radio’s most enduring and profitable gimmicks, with hundreds of stations luring listeners with endless loops of “Feliz Navidad” and “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.” In the past decade, the number of stations embracing the format has nearly doubled, and competition between broadcasters often leads to stations turning earlier and earlier.
“I have never seen a more successful, impactful and sustainable impact on ratings as all Christmas music,” said Dan Vallie, a consultant to WEZW and other stations around the country.
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As radio has been challenged by online media, one of broadcasters’ defensive strategies has been to emphasize their connections to local audiences through news and the kinds of community events that cannot be replicated online.
Christmas programming has proved a perfect fulfillment of this, with broadcasters adding cheerful information in between the Burl Ives and Mariah Carey chestnuts.
For WEZW, at just 4,000 watts the smallest of eight stations operated by a local broadcaster, Equity Communications, the annual Christmas format change is also a bragging right.
The most common time for stations to change — or “flip,” in industry parlance — is around Thanksgiving, but WEZW, also known as Easy 93.1, has carved a niche for itself as the first in the country to go all-Christmas, a change eagerly awaited by its mostly older, conservative listenership.
On a recent afternoon at the office of Equity Communications, stuffed reindeer dolls covered the reception desk and a retired corrections officer dressed as Santa Claus for WEZW’s toy drive.
Gary Fisher, Equity’s owner, said the station’s early format flip was partly timed to help sell eight-week advertising packages to local merchants. But he also stressed the role of light, nostalgic music in lifting the spirits of an area that has been buffeted by the ailing economy and Hurricane Sandy.
“Christmas music is comfort-zone radio for a lot of people,” Fisher said.
A seasonal playlist of just under 300 songs helps WEZW nearly double its normal ratings each year, Fisher said. According to Nielsen, adult-contemporary stations that play Christmas music enjoy ratings increases of up to 87 percent during the workday hours but can gain as much as 129 percent in the evening, when listening is typically low. On Christmas Eve, listening can go up as much as 582 percent.
Darren Davis, president of the iHeartRadio Network, said that planning for the format usually begins in August, which includes “dressing up” a station’s entire audio ambience.
“It’s about more than just the songs,” Davis said. “When you walk into a Hallmark store around the holidays, everything is Christmas — the carpet is Christmas, the window decorations are Christmas, it smells like Christmas candles and cookies. That’s the environment we try to create with our Christmas radio station.”
The origins of all-Christmas radio are disputed, but it began to take hold as a mainstream phenomenon by the mid-1990s. By the end of that decade, the trend had begun to wane, said Vallie, the consultant, but was embraced anew after the terrorist attacks in 2001. According to Inside Radio, a trade publication, 488 stations adopted the format last year, up from 279 in 2004.
Most of the stations that go all-holiday are usually in the easy-listening or adult-contemporary format.
But some programmers resist the change, saying that the benefits of gaining even many temporary listeners — the stations usually switch back immediately after Christmas — are outweighed by the risk of losing loyal listeners.