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How Did Christmas Music Impact the Ratings This Year?

February 9, 2021

If you are an avid follower of ALL ACCESS, you know that The Ratings Experts from RESEARCH DIRECTOR, INC. pen a monthly ratings column. We are fortunate to look under the hood of the data for the top fifteen PPM markets. This affords us a somewhat wide perspective on ratings trends.

One trend that jumped out this past survey was the enormous flow of P6+ cume that went to stations that flipped to all holiday music. While this may seem like a Captain Obvious statement, what seems most remarkable is that, while the holiday stations reaped enormous rewards, the phenomenon of holiday music did not increase overall market cume. People were switching stations, however non-listeners were not attracted to the medium.

Some of this can be explained by the fact that more than 80% of the P6+ population in any given market already listens to radio on a weekly basis, so adding cume to the market is a pretty big ask.

Still, the P6+ cume changes are stark. The table below illustrates that fact.

Market Station
Station Cume
Market Cume
New York WLTW-FM +22% -12%
Los Angeles KOST-FM +31% 0%
Chicago WLIT-FM +41% -1%
San Francisco KOIT-FM +33% -2%
Dallas KDGE-FM +48% -1%
Houston KODA-FM +32% -1%
Washington, DC WASH-FM +40% 0%
Atlanta WFSH-FM +33% -4%
Philadelphia WBEB-FM +44% -2%
Boston WMJX-FM +45% 0%
Miami WLYF-FM +13% +2%
Seattle KRWM-FM +49% +1%
Detroit WNIC-FM +47% -2%
Phoenix KESZ-FM +40% -1%
Minneapolis KQQL-FM +53% -1%

As you can see, with the exception of WLTW-FM and WLYF-FM, all holiday-themed stations increased their cume by more than 30%. And, the two stations that didn’t see an increase were already their market’s cume leaders. This begs the question: Is this a pandemic-related occurrence? We decided to look at 2019 to see if there were any substantive differences between the years.

Market Station
Station Cume
Market Cume
New York WLTW-FM +20% 0%
Los Angeles KOST-FM +39% 0%
Chicago WLIT-FM +42% +1%
San Francisco KOIT-FM +59% 0%
Dallas KDGE-FM +57% -2%
Houston KODA-FM +28% +1%
Washington, DC WASH-FM +29% 0%
Atlanta WFSH-FM +33% -2%
Philadelphia WBEB-FM +46% 0%
Boston WMJX-FM +45% 0%
Miami WLYF-FM +9% +1%
Seattle KRWM-FM +38% 0%
Detroit WNIC-FM +43% 0%
Phoenix KESZ-FM +45% -1%
Minneapolis KQQL-FM +38% +1%

Keep in mind, there is a bit of an apples-to-oranges comparison here. The 2020 Holiday survey was five weeks long and twelve of the thirty-five days were after Christmas. The 2019 survey was the standard four weeks and only seven of the twenty-eight days were post-Christmas.

Many in our industry thought the pandemic would create an even larger appetite for the relief that holiday music can bring.

That was not necessarily the case. Of the fifteen markets we monitored, only three stations saw a dramatically larger cume percentage increase from December to Holiday 2020 as compared to December to Holiday 2019: WASH-FM, KRWM-FM, and KQQL-FM. A couple experienced noticeably less of an increase from December to Holiday 2020 compared to December to Holiday 2019: KOST-FM, KOIT-FM, KDGE-FM, and KESZ-FM. The rest were fairly consistent year over year.

The market cume differences were also not very pronounced. Except for New York, which lost 12% of its cume from December 2020 to Holiday 2020, none of the markets changed more than 4% in either direction.

Ultimately, holiday music was as powerful during the pandemic as it is during “normal” times.

Here are our takeaways:

Stating the obvious, the all-holiday format is a huge cume draw. However, rather than attracting new listeners to radio, it just rearranges the furniture. Since no one has been able to find the magic formula for sustaining that massive cume influx, those listeners will presumably fall back into their previous habits after the holidays. How quickly that happens varies by market.

If you compete with a Santa station, this verifies your gut feel – there is no defense. Just ride out the storm, stay true to your brand, and wait for the flock to return. They usually do.

This raises the question then of how valuable it is to flip the format in early November. While the holiday-themed stations do see a lift, the real impact does not begin until after Thanksgiving.

Finally, there is a real positive to take away from all of this for the radio industry. We live in a time when Christmas music is ALWAYS available. The pure plays like Spotify and Pandora run multiple holiday channels, as does SiriusXM. We know that use of smart speakers is on the rise and these online channels have the ability to heavily impact radio listening. Yet, with all those options, people keep choosing radio.

All this to say that we have good reason to keep reminding the advertising industry of the undeniable power of radio.

-Steve Allan, Programming Research Consultant