Sunday, December 8, 2013

Shane McGowan Wishes You a Merry Effing Ho-Ho

[Given the season, it seemed appropos to post this essay I wrote as an example for research classes several years back.]

            I was driving my usual commute during the first week of November.  I hit the “scan” button on my radio and various music and talk shows faded in and out.  My attention was caught when dulcet tones sang, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…”

            I knew those dulcet tones.  That was Perry Como.  When I was a kid my folks were avid listeners of what’s now called Adult Contemporary Music but in my childhood was simply referred to as Elevator Music.  Perry Como, Mel Torme, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Kate Smith, Rosemary Clooney.  I’d learned to know those singers in the first couple notes as a child by repetitive play on the stereo.  But the novelty of hearing the late Honeyed Voice in the Sweater on the radio was soon overtaken by the realization that I was listening to a Christmas song.  On the radio.  The first week in November.

            Now, when I was a kid, Christmas was my favorite time of the year.  I didn’t have to come up with excuses not to go outside if I didn’t want to, and the cold nipping at my exposed nose on waking was neat.  Plus it was wonderful to lie on my belly and read a junk novel by the bottom lights on the Christmas tree with a plateful of cookies and some hot chocolate.  I’d start playing Christmas albums around September and not cut it out, despite firm requests from my family, until about the first week of January. 

            But that stopped when puberty kicked in.  Here were adults—Professional Adults!—programming Christmas music when everyone’s Halloween candy was still fresh.

            Rather than ranting and raving about it, I decided to look into the reason for this.  There had to be a reason.  There were several.

            No radio station exists as an island.  Every station, whether owned by a conglomerate like Clear Channel or Fred over at the Fish Shack, exists as part of a market.  The market can be as small as a city and its environs—the Twin Cities, for example—or as large as a region—the Iron Range, which is the full upper third of Minnesota from Bemidji to the Canadian border (excluding Duluth).  There is an unwritten agreement between radio stations that one station, generally the Adult Contemporary or Lite station, within the market will provide twenty-four hour, seven-day-a-week Christmas music starting in November.  On December 24th, every station is welcome to play as much Christmas music as it chooses. 

            The reasons this agreement came about are diffuse.  Some argue it is because, well, someone has to do it, so it might as well be the station whose listeners are accustomed to listening to Easy Listenin’ Music.  If the station is an oldies station, whose listeners are accustomed to the sounds of the classic Christmas songs from mid 20th Century—Patti Page, Mitch Miller, the Jackie Gleason Orchestra, Sinatra, Como, Torme—so much the better.  It should come as no surprise then that the most often played Christmas song is Nat “King” Cole’s version of “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire),” but what should surprise us is the number of popular songs with at best a tangential connection to Christmas, often merely a mention, that also pop up regularly in rotation, such as Joni Mitchell’s “River,” the Pretenders’ “2000 Miles,” and DanFogelberg’s “Same Old Lang Syne” (this last divorced not only from the holiday but from reality:  how hard is it to find an open bar on Christmas Eve?), while ignoring several more controversial ones with secure roots in the holiday, like the Kink’s “Father Christmas” and ThePogues’ “Fairytale of New York.”

            The difficulty may come when a market has only, say, country and rock stations.  One of them will likely take on the duty, but this will often be a choke for regular listeners, since there are comparatively few Christmas-themed country or rock songs, and certainly not enough to program twenty-four hours a day for nearly sixty days.

            This is the interesting part to me.  While it’s been a given of every generation to bemoan how quickly the Christmas season begins, as if its generation could wait longer, and while I thought I had some memory that this was an omnipresent condition, radio stations starting earlier and earlier until we’d finally reached saturation point with Halloween, that isn’t the case.  While some stations make a practice of starting earlier—KOSY in Salt Lake City, Utah, is apparently the earliest, beginning its Christmas rotation Halloween night [although this has changed only this past January]—the practice used to have as a common starting point the day after Thanksgiving. 

            Until 2001.  Yes, 9-11 changed everything.  That was the year George W. Bush asked us to help America remain solvent by spending money, and one of the ways gleaned by merchandisers and radio programmers in tandem was to begin the Christmas season early, two weeks before Thanksgiving.  The practice has simply escalated and the dates fallen back since then.

            And here we come to the dirty secret why radio stations, especially Adult Contemporary and Oldies stations, fall all over themselves to be the first to begin the Christmas season:  Stores and shops generally play Christmas music for their customers, the better to suggest “buy early and buy often.”  A few stores, like Walmart and Kmart, have their own radio systems, and some big chains, like Best Buy and [late, unlamented] Circuit City, use piped-in Muzak.  But aside from the big boxes, the majority of stores and shops rely on the good old fashioned free radio signal to accelerate buying habits.  Naturally, the mix of garlanded shelving and spruce-scented spray with tchochkes and knickknacks with the background fuzz of Herb Alpert and His Tijuana Brass and their version of “Sleigh Ride” is a marriage made in Retail Heaven.  Most importantly, these stations are played at least for the operating hours for the store and occasionally simply left turned on for the cleaning crew.  This is a bump in Arbitron ratings for a station, sometimes as much as three points.  Arbitron ratings are an important part of a station’s profile.  The place each fits on the scorecard for its market determines how much it can charge advertisers for 10, 20, and 30 second spots.  In a market of ten stations, getting bumped from number 6 to number 3 for the year can mean a bump of tens of thousands of dollars in advertising revenue. 

            It doesn’t matter, of course, if anyone actually listens to this stuff.  The stations provide “ears” to the advertisers, and they’re selling potential sales.  It isn’t important if the employees end up by the third week of November muttering x-rated versions of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” on its tenth play of the day.  What is important is that at least ten times that day, different customers have heard it and their desire for, say, another twenty dollar stocking stuffer for Jimmy has been pricked. 



Works Cited

·         Virgin, Bill.  2007.  On Radio: All-Christmas format is a ratings gift for KRWM-FM, boosting it to first.”  Last Accessed November 25, 2007, at .


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