I had a great time last Christmas Eve on a long drive from S.C. to Kansas. All day and night. With the weather zipping around from mild to severe during our 17 hours on the road, my special ladyfriend and I kept most of our time occupied by fiddling around with the radio knobs. Without a CD player or iPod, we relied on the airwaves -- for better and worse.
Aside from the occasional obnoxious modern country, hip-hop, or classic rock station, almost all we could tune in was "holiday music" and Christmas carols ... for hours on end. Now, I like a festive tune from time to time, especially some groovy classic from Vince Guaraldi or Ray Conniff, but, come on -- too much of anything is bad news, and too much Christmas music is practically torture.
For the last two weeks or so, two local commercial radio stations -- Y102.5 (a Clear Channel station) and Sunny 96.9 (a Citadel Broadcasting station) -- have cranked up the Burl Ives and Celine Dion tunes and switched to an "all-holiday music" format. Why would anyone do such a thing so far out from Christmas Day? Does any market really need eight-straight weeks of "Feliz Navidad" by Jose Feliciano or Amy Grant's rendition of "Sleigh Ride?" Heavens, no. Bah! But that's the reality of the local airwaves.
"It started at 5 p.m. on Fri. Nov. 4, as what we were going to call a 'Shop 'Til You Drop Weekend' where we just played holiday tunes until Sunday, just to create a buzz," says Chris Rivers, program director at Y102.5. "We fully intended to go back to our format on Monday morning -- '60s, '70s, and '80s tunes. An hour after we started the 'Shop 'Til You Drop,' Sunny 96.9 FM came on the air playing holiday tunes and saying they were going to play them until Christmas. At that point, we had a meeting and decided that we weren't going to let Sunny get away with that. If anyone was going to claim the title of holiday music, it was going to be Y102.5."
Rivers, a Kansas City native, recently relocated to Charleston in April from a long-running job at a Clear Channel station in Orlando with the task of "taking the oldies format to the next level to attract a younger audience, while still trying to keep ahold of the 45-55 demographic." Well, that explains the presence of "Another One Bites The Dust" and "Don't Stand So Close to Me" next to "Suspicious Minds" and "I Want to Hold Your Hand."
Sunny 96.9 FM currently presents themselves as "The Christmas station: holiday cheer 24 hours a day, seven days a week, right now!" How exciting.
Apparently, both Citadel and Clear Channel want to "win the Christmas title" against any competition in any market. In Charleston, the battle between the two means a double dose of torturous cheer.
"It's definitely a pretty short play list," admits Rivers, "but we're trying to present it just like any Top 40 station back in the '60s or '70s would have presented Top 40 music, where you'd hear the same songs every three or four hours. It will be interesting to see how it turns out. All the research says we will win the fight. But in the end, will we have shot ourselves in the foot? We're going to have to do a whole big thing and get our listeners back in January after it's all over.
"All the music we play is pretty heavily researched, and that includes all the holiday songs" says Rivers. "All the standard stuff continues to test through the roof."
Ah, but will all this excessive Xmas spiffle keep anyone tuned in past Thanksgiving? Maybe if they added Spinal Tap's "Christmas with the Devil" once in a while...