"A Rational Conversation" is a column by writer Eric Ducker in which he gets on iChat or Gchat or the phone or whatever with a special guest to examine a music-related subject that's entered the pop culture consciousness.
The holiday season is not just a boom time for retailers and portly older men with bushy white beards, it can also mean big ratings for radio stations. Across the country there are stations, usually ones in the adult contemporary format, that switch to playing Christmas music all day long. Not surprisingly, on Christmas radio, tradition rules. That means the playlists are dominated by songs and standards that are decades old. Artists and labels still keep putting out new Christmas music, but making a lasting impression on listeners isn't easy.
Ducker talked to Darren Davis, the Executive Vice President of National Programming Platforms at Clear Channel, which owns over 800 stations around the country from a variety of formats, about the science behind how their stations go about adding new Christmas songs to playlists and which of this year new tracks stood out.
ERIC DUCKER: How many Clear Channel stations make that transition to all holiday programming during the year?
DARREN DAVIS: There are over a hundred that flip to all Christmas music at some point. Some of them flip as early as Nov. 1st; most of them flip around Thanksgiving time and then there are some that don't do it until a few days before Christmas. When I think about stations that become Christmas stations, I'm not thinking about the ones that do it for a couple of days. I tend to think about the ones that do it from Thanksgiving to Christmas, and that number is around 80 to 90. It's different from year to year.
When do they stop? When's the switch back moment?
Late Christmas day is the time we start going back to regular programming. It doesn't tend to be a hard stop. We continue to sprinkle in the Christmas songs through the 26th and 27th in a lot of cases.
How far in advance do you start coming up with playlists for these stations?
We start in August doing research on Christmas songs. We do new research each year to retest all the old Christmas favorites to see if people are tired of any of them or if any of them that maybe haven't played as much are fresh again and are ready to come back into a heavier rotation. And as we work with artists and record labels, we have put the message out there that we want them to come to us early so they can be part of this process. I was meeting with the folks with Mary J. Blige way back in the spring. They came to us and said, "Mary J. Blige has a new Christmas album, she's working with David Foster. Here are some rough cuts for you. We'd like to get your programmers' input on which ones you think are potentially the biggest hits." And that collaborative process really works great. And [Blige's] got a top five Christmas single this year, and that's the first time she's ever had a Christmas hit, and it's because we worked together early.
So we start the research process early and figure out a shell of what we think we want to play, and then there are songs that start trickling in during September and October, and even as recently as a couple weeks ago. The playlist, of course, gets adjusted as the season goes on based on additional research that we've done, based on feedback from the audience in terms of texting and phone calls and email comments and also we can we look at the thumbs data (thumbing up songs and thumbing down songs) on iHeartRadio. We use that each week to make sure that the playlist is changing.
There's one more change. When we start playing Christmas music in early November, we make sure, by and large, that it's very upbeat. It's not terribly religious songs at that point. The more religious songs start to filter in as we get closer to Christmas, especially the slower stuff.
How much differentiation is there within the playlists between the 80 to 90 different stations?
With every station there are differences, and there are always regional differences. I've been doing Christmas music going back to 1998 when I was in Washington, D.C. I was a program director in Washington, D.C. and I was a program director in Houston, then Detroit, then Chicago. I've been in all these different parts of the country. I grew up in California. I've seen research in every different place and more than any other style of music or any other format, Christmas music tends to be very similar from state to state and from city to city. The hits are the hits. People want to hear their typically old familiar favorites.
Of course there are a handful of old, peculiar songs that are special to each region. Like in Detroit there is a song by Karen Newman called "Christmas Eve on Woodward Avenue." Nobody outside of Detroit has ever heard that song, but in Detroit that song tests very well and people love it and they play the heck out of it. In Chicago there's "Domenick the Donkey," but most people don't know "Domenick the Donkey." I don't know if you've ever heard the song by Gayla Peevey called "I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas."
In Washington, D.C. people look at you like you're a hippopotamus if you bring that up; they don't know what you're talking about. Whereas in Chicago, again, that's a very popular song. "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" — there are some markets where that is a favorite song, but there are other markets where it does very, very poorly and we don't play it.
I want to go back to the testing and incorporating of new songs. How many new songs do you try to bring into the playlists each year?
As many as there are. There is not a huge flow of Christmas songs out there to begin with. There's very little that we don't end up playing in some form or fashion. Some end up in more of a heavy rotation than others. There just isn't a huge amount of brand new Christmas material. I'll tell you that when it comes to playing new music, obviously we do that every day of the year on all of our radio stations, but there is never a time [other] than Christmas when we're more focused on the tried and true familiar favorites.
If you go back 20 years, people would pepper in Christmas songs here or there, but there weren't stations that flipped to all Christmas music. The very first one was KEZ in Phoenix, which is our adult contemporary station there. Prior to 20 years ago, nobody would have done that. But what we've seen after 20 years of doing it is that it really is all about the familiar favorites. This entire tactic of playing Christmas music is all about warm feelings, fond memories and singing along.
The holiday is all about tradition, it's the reason the Charlie Brown special on ABC and the Rudolph special have big ratings every year. People like to see those and remember where they were 30 years ago or 40 years ago watching those exact same specials. It's the same things with the songs. Not only do people want to hear "Holly Jolly Christmas" very frequently, they want to hear the Burl Ives version of "Holly Jolly Christmas" very frequently. As artists come out with new Christmas projects, they've really learned over the years that an occasional original Christmas song is okay and every once in a while one will break through, but the ones that really have the best chance of cutting through and getting widely accepted are covers of Christmas classics. Two years ago Michael Bublé came out with a new Christmas album — once again, the label came to us six months ahead of Christmas and said, "Hey, here's the project, take a listen, what do you think? Which songs are the biggest potential hits?" And there were actually four songs off of that album that we embraced and said we thought could be huge, and we played all four of them. And I believe all four went into the top ten on the Christmas chart that year, which was awesome, and we were happy to help with that, because he's such a great artist and the album was awesome. And I believe all four were cover songs.
[This year] there's a new song from Kelly Clarkson, "Underneath the Tree," that is not a cover. It's doing very well. We're playing that in a very heavy rotation across the country and it's in the top five, nationally. But on her Christmas album she also did a cover of "Blue Christmas" and "Please Come Home for Christmas," and we're playing those two. Johnny Mathis has a new song for this Christmas, he's back and that's doing well. I mentioned the Mary J. Blige. Straight No Chaser, that's a group of guys, they tend to sing a cappella, and they did a remake of Paul McCartney doing "Wonderful Christmastime." I think they took Paul's original vocals, but they added their background vocals and their fun five-part harmony. That's a big hit this year, too.
Is it important to have new songs if people mainly want to hear the old favorites?
Well, it's always important to keep peppering in new material in any format, whether it's a top 40 station during the year or a Christmas station during the holiday time, otherwise things will become stale. We need to keep growing the library of material that we have, so it's definitely important. We would never want to turn off that pipeline and play the exact same thing over and over again.
So let's say you have a new song that you think is great, what's the process of getting people familiar with it?
The first people we get familiar with it are our programmers and brand managers inside of Clear Channel. They are our format experts and have done this [for] a long time and they've become experts at predicting what songs the audience might like. That's their job after all, right? We get their input, first and foremost, but we start research back in August every year to test these songs. A lot of that is done over the telephone, a lot of that is done online — that's where random samples of people across America get to hear songs and give their feedback on them. All of those things go into us deciding what we're going to play. And once we've decided what songs will or won't be part of the playlist, the next decision is how heavily they should be played. Not all songs are played the same amount. Some play very, very frequently, some play just occasionally. All those data points go in to helping decide that.
So if you see a positive response to a song, you'll start bumping up how much it's played?
Absolutely. When we get a lot feedback that's positive about a song, we'll play it more. When we get a lot of feedback that's negative about a song, we play less of it. It's always changing.
Of newly written Christmas songs, what's the biggest one in recent memory?
If you go back to Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas is You," that was almost 20 years ago. That is hands down the biggest Christmas song that has come around in 20 years, and even still it has become one of the top five Christmas songs in America. And that's very rare, that a new song comes along and it becomes that popular that it starts taking the place of Bing Crosby, Burl Ives, Brenda Lee, Bobby Helms ... But that song has done it.
Josh Groban, his Christmas songs are very, very popular. Those are some top spinning songs. His version of "O Holy Night" is a big song for us. The Michael Bublé stuff from a few years ago, those still look really great in our research and the audience feedback is really excellent, so we still play a lot of that. But nothing is bigger than the Mariah, though.
What's been the most popular, breakout song this year?
The two that are really leading the back are Kelly Clarkson's "Underneath the Tree" and Mary J. Blige's "This Christmas." They're actually sitting at the top of the Christmas chart nationally right now, and they're certainly sitting at the top of our list with our Clear Channel Christmas stations.
Can I just ask, do you like Christmas?
I'm obsessed with Christmas. I've got my Rudolph figurines here in the office. I've only got ten of them out, but I've got the whole Rudolph set.
It's been a long time since I've day-to-day programmed a radio station, but my fondest memories of programming were at Christmastime. That was the time when we would take the staff out to see Christmas movies and we were doing the cookie exchange and it was already my favorite time of year. It was always the time when our rating were the highest and we were number one in the city.
The ratings double and triple during Christmas music time. It's just the most remarkable phenomenon. As you get into the week leading into Christmas, fully 30 to 40 percent of every female in a metropolitan area will be listening to the Christmas station on the radio. It's amazing. It's not a young person phenomenon, it's not an old person phenomenon, it's not a man or woman thing. It's everybody.
People tend to think that if the Christmas playlist contains a lot of older songs that it's going to attract an older audience, and that isn't the case at all. When you look at the ratings that come out in January and see how the Christmas stations did, they'll be number one with 18 to 34-year-olds in the market. It's just something that everybody seems to love.