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First Listen: Four For The Holidays

100.3 WNIC Christmas Jay TowersI haven’t done many First Listen articles for Christmas music programming in recent years. Adult Contemporary radio found its footing with holiday music a decade or more ago. Large-market PPM ratings measurement took hold shortly thereafter and the formula for most stations has been similar: tight list, tight rotations, one anthem after another, almost no new songs (and only a few new renditions of standards), and many of the other usual scheduling concerns sent on holiday break.

In the first few days of holiday music this year, I thought I detected more of an Oldies/Classic Hits feel to the first Christmas stations I heard. Then, I heard WNIC Detroit on Saturday morning playing the ‘50s/’60s MOR standard-bearers of the format back-to-back, and that felt more like what I was used to.

Here are “First Listens” to WNIC (iHeart Media), WWDE (2WD) Norfolk, Va., (Entercom), WMSX (The Breeze) Buffalo, N.Y., (Townsquare), and WKIM (98.9 The Bridge) Memphis (Cumulus). The distinctions between the first three were subtle. WNIC felt the most traditional. 2WD went as far to the contemporary side as the recent Kelly Clarkson holiday song—one of the few recent holiday additions to get any traction. WKIM went further with Ariana Grande’s “Santa Tell Me” and a few more versions of holiday mainstays by newer artists. But there was no sign of the new songs by developing artists that Cumulus had played under its previous group PD, Mike McVay. 

When stations tightened the AC holiday music universe, there was a simultaneous directive to make the presentation and promotions more fulsome. There were a lot of holiday concert ticket giveaways. There were some ongoing fall cash “text-to-win” giveaways that sounded bombastic and leftover by comparison, not that cash isn’t even more welcome at Christmas.

Whatever holiday stations may be contending with in terms of increased streaming competition and reduced listening, the holidays still provide those stations with the biggest piece of listening, and all of radio with a showcase. There’s still very much a feel of “classic radio” at work here. WJYE morning host Joe Chile, a market veteran and PD of predecessor WJYE, jokingly asked listeners to bring him Christmas cookies. It’s not quite Ron Chapman asking KVIL Dallas getting listeners to send in money for no reason—still the ultimate exercise of radio’s ‘80s influence–but the season is just getting started.

Here’s WNIC on Nov. 6, at 10 a.m.:

  • Ronettes, “Sleigh Ride”
  • Fred Astaire, “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”
  • David Foster, “Carol of the Bells”
  • Michael Bublé, “It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas”
  • Gene Autry, “Here Comes Santa Claus”
  • Dean Martin, “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer”
  • Elvis Presley, “Silver Bells”
  • Harry Connick Jr., “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!”
  • Brenda Lee, “Jingle Bell Rock”
  • Trans-Siberian Orchestra, “Christmas Canon”
  • Andy Williams, “The Christmas Song”
  • Wham, “Last Christmas”
  • Percy Faith, “Joy To The World”
  • Perry Como, “Home for The Holidays”

Mix 96 96.1 The Breeze WMSX Buffalo ChristmasHere’s WMSX (The Breeze) just before 10 a.m.:

  • Paul McCartney, “Wonderful Christmastime”
  • Gene Autry, “Frosty The Snowman”
  • Leroy Anderson, “Sleigh Ride”
  • Frank Sinatra & Cyndi Lauper, “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”
  • John Legend, “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”
  • Bing Crosby, “White Christmas”
  • Barenaked Ladies f/Sarah McLachlan, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”
  • New Christy Minstrels, “We Need A Little Christmas”
  • Bobby Helms, “Jingle Bell Rock”
  • Kenny Loggins, “Celebrate Me Home”
  • Darlene Love, “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”
  • Johnny Mathis, “It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas”
  • Jewel, “Winter Wonderland”
  • Perry Como, “Home For The Holidays”
  • Thurl Ravenscroft, “You’re A Mean One Mr. Grinch”
  • Jessica Simpson & Rosie O’Donnell, “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree”

101.3 2WD WWDE Norfolk Virginia BeachHere’s 2WD around Noon on November 6:

  • Michael Bublé, “It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas”
  • Drifters, “White Christmas”
  • Leroy Anderson, “Sleigh Ride”
  • James Taylor, “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”
  • Dan Fogelberg, “Same Old Lang Syne”
  • Burl Ives, “Have A Holly Jolly Christmas”
  • LeAnn Rimes, “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree”
  • Kenny G, “Silver Bells”
  • Gene Autry, “Here Comes Santa Claus”
  • Kelly Clarkson, “Underneath The Tree”
  • Michael Bublé, “The Christmas Song”
  • Christina Aguilera, “This Christmas”
  • Ronettes, “Sleigh Ride”
  • Vince Guaraldi, “Linus And Lucy”

Christmas 98.9 The Bridge WKIM MemphisAnd here’s WKIM (The Bridge) Memphis from the same hour:

  • James Taylor, “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas’
  • Daryl Hall & John Oates, “Jingle Bell Rock”
  • Andy Williams, “The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year”
  • Train, “This Christmas”
  • Vince Guaraldi, “Linus And Lucy”
  • Straight No Chaser, “The 12 Days Of Christmas”
  • Gene Autry, “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer”
  • Nat King Cole, “Caroling, Caroling”
  • Josh Grobin, “Believe”
  • Elvis Presley, “Blue Christmas”
  • Kenny Loggins, “Celebrate Me Home”
  • Jackson 5, “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”
  • Elmo & Patsy, “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer”
  • Ariana Grande, “Santa Tell Me”
  • Wham, “Last Christmas”
  • Mannheim Steamroller, “Deck The Halls”
  • Air Supply, “Winter Wonderland”
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5 Comments
  1. Mike704 says


    I have never been a fan of going solid Christmas Music so early. The way it used to be done was a gradual increase of Christmas songs leading up to the holiday. At first no more than one or two per hour, usually starting in early to mid December. There is a lack of classic Christmas songs from current artists which means the format has to rely on some very old music. Most 30 year olds have no idea who the Carpenters, Andy Williams, Birl Ives, Nat King Cole, and Bing Crosby were.

    1. Lance Venta says


      Except they do know those artists because they listen to these stations playing Christmas music at levels that very few other stations get the rest of the year during the holiday season. They may not care about the other songs from those artists, but their Christmas themed songs are very well known.

  2. Sean Ross says


    It is amazing that as programmers in other formats push the gold window ever forward, including AC and Classic Hits, that we’ve managed to lock in this one in seeming perpetuity. We have definitely disrupted how the Christmas canon develops in the last 15 years. And yet, no PD would want to be the one playing Justin Bieber/Mistletoe up against Andy Williams/It’s The Holiday Season. (Except, of course, in Canada, where “Mistletoe” is Cancon and a regular part of the format, and stations have made it not-in-violation-of-radio-law.)

    1. johndavis says


      Some backstory: back in the 90s, I oversaw a nostalgia AM that went all Christmas for the holidays. A FM station signed on with a MOR format that decided to copy our Christmas programming and it was the only time when the station would ever show up in the book. Since the FM didn’t have the same reputation for sticking to the Great American Songbook that we had and their Christmas library consisted of whatever was on the CD library they bought from RPM, their Christmas library was fairly contemporary.

      This caused the owner of my station to erupt that we were too old and draggy; I needed to get all those moldy standards out of there and start playing Wham and the Eagles and whatever other AC records we could get our hands on because nobody wanted to listen to all those old records.

      [Ownership of the MOR soon reverted to the then local owners of KESZ, whose general manager figured that if all Christmas could lift a train-wreck of a MOR from asterisks to a 2 share by going all Christmas, if he moved holiday format to KEZ it would make them a LOT of money – and the rest is radio history. Jerry Ryan didn’t technically invent All-Christmas, but he’s the one who turned it into a ratings and revenue monster and deserves all the credit.]

      But here we are 30-something years later, and what are the songs that make the audience feel like they just poured a mug of hot cocoa? All the songs that my boss wanted banished from the library for being too old.

      Rest In Peace, Jorgy.

  3. frankieagogo says


    Of course the Christmas music list is going to tilt toward the classics. Who’s listening to the radio? Folks over 50! Here in Los Angeles the top SIX stations cater to whites over 50. The once dominant KISS-FM is now number SEVEN. KOST-FM is number ONE. And can you really expect new Christmas classics coming from producers and artist who are producing the throw-away auto-tuned crap that now passes for pop music? And let’s be honest about it, the Christmas format is a money play, which means endless commercials. Music radio is broken and far behind the times. The business of radio is broken. For just $50 a year I can avoid the mess that is terrestrial radio with a satellite subscription, and Amazon’s Alexa allows me to hear any song I wish ON DEMAND; as does any number of services… All commercial free. This is all anyone in terrestrial radio needs to know… Formerly known as Clear Channel, iHeartMedia filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in March 2018 after amassing more than $20 billion in debt following a leveraged buyout a decade earlier. Playing some old Christmas music isn’t going to save terrestrial radio.

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