Three days before Thanksgiving, it was already beginning to sound a lot like Christmas in Oklahoma City.
At 6 a.m. Nov. 19, two radio stations, KMGL-FM 104.1 and KXXY-FM 96.1, flipped the switches on their all-Christmas formats and out came the “Jingle Bells.” In past years, most radio stations that could fit Christmas music into their format — usually adult contemporary and country stations such as KMGL and KXXY — started seasoning their playlists with holiday songs after Thanksgiving, but would only shift to an all-Christmas slate around 6 p.m. on Dec. 24.
Steve O'Brien, program director at KMGL, said he thinks that the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks created a desire for more traditional holiday music.
“I think at that time, we were all kind of reaching for something,” O'Brien said. “Something that would take us back to simpler times and memories, the time when you were opening the Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots on Christmas morning. And again, during the recession of '08. We found that during both those times, people were gravitating toward something that would make them feel warm and fuzzy again.”
Tom Travis, director of programming at KXXY, inaugurated the station's entry in the festive format with Gene Autry's version of “Frosty the Snowman.” It was the first time KXXY has attempted the all-Christmas format in 10 years, and it is one of 100 Clear Channel stations nationwide that went holly-jolly in 2012.
“Honestly, we did it just to do it,” Travis said. “We thought, why not take a little different approach to it and play more of the standards, the traditional stuff, along with more of the country stuff?”
Other stations such as KYIS-FM 98.9 have gone all-Christmas in the past. This year, KXXY and KMGL launched their formats simultaneously. O'Brien said his station moved up their start date a few days — in 2011, KMGL launched its holiday playlist on Thanksgiving.
“Every year it's a little bit different,” O'Brien said. “Sometimes it's the competitive nature of the market, sometimes it's a gut feeling.”
A long-running country station in the Oklahoma City market, KXXY favors a 60-40 split between traditional holiday favorites and country Christmas songs, Travis said.
“Some of those Christmas standards, they kind of transcend format,” he said. “Especially at Christmas time, because there are so many titles and so many songs, traditional songs, that have been done by multiple people.”
Travis said he worked to find the balance between traditional and country, making his list and checking it twice for songs that could work with KXXY listeners. Love-it-or-hate-it propositions such as Elmo and Patsy's “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer” get the nod on both stations because they have become accepted and expected holiday traditions. But Travis said that songs such as John Lennon and Yoko Ono's “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” were judged as too far outside KXXY's usual format and listenership.
KMGL also programs a balance of traditional tracks by Bing Crosby, Nat “King” Cole and Frank Sinatra, alongside more recent Christmas fare.
“Last year, Michael Buble put out a new Christmas CD, so we culled some cuts from that,” O'Brien said. “This year, you have Rod Stewart, you've got Lady Antebellum. Even Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta have one out this year. I wouldn't say there's a formula, but you're definitely trying to choose the best. I would say the ones that seem to resonate the best are the familiar ones.”
At KMGL, those songs include tracks from the 1980s, including Eurythmics' popular version of “Winter Wonderland” along with Band Aid's “Do They Know It's Christmas?” and Wham's “Last Christmas.” KMGL promotions director and on-air talent Jennifer Leigh said the most popular songs are ones that nearly every artist with a Christmas album records, such as “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “Silent Night,” but Leigh said there is one track that stands out for her.
“I would say ‘Christmas Wrapping' by the Waitresses for a New Wave '80s Christmas — that's the one for me,” Leigh said. “When I hear that, it's time.”
KMGL afternoon deejay Jessi Stone said her kickoff for the holiday season is a more recent new tradition: a cappella group Straight No Chaser's chaotically comic version of “The 12 Days of Christmas.”
“I like it, but I love comedy, though,” Stone said. “I love to laugh during this season because I hate cold weather. It makes me smile.”
Beyond inspiring good cheer, the all-Christmas format can provide ratings boosts for stations around the country. In a Dec. 9 news story in the Hollywood Reporter, Arbitron, the national auditor for radio listenership and ratings, reported that some major-market stations, such as KOST-FM in Los Angeles and New York's WLTW-FM, saw their ratings during the Christmas period double in 2011.
Travis said that “KXY” would welcome such good tidings. More “cume,” or the estimated number of listeners who tune in during part of the day, is always on local stations' wish list.
“We're hoping to gain more audience,” he said. “We're hoping to get more cume than KXY had before.”