It was more like an orchestral freight train than a simple musical intro--a steam engine of brass instruments blasting out of the radio speakers on Nov. 16--and then came the voice of everyone's favorite Christmas-sweatered crooner, Andy Williams, ushering in 1,119 hours of nonstop Christmas music on Boise's 107.9 Lite FM.
"It's the most wonderful time of the year..."
There's no subtlety in the 1960s-era chestnut of a pop tune, deemed the fifth most popular holiday song of all time by Billboard magazine.
"It's the hap-happiest season of all..."
Lisa Adams, Lite FM's program director and morning drive host, wouldn't have it any other way. In early November, when Boise Weekly visited her broadcast booth at Townsquare Media's Boise headquarters (the corporation recently acquired six Treasure Valley affiliates from Peak Broadcasting), we couldn't help but notice that her studio was already adorned with plenty of Christmas decorations. Which prompted the question: When, exactly, did she put up all of her lights and Christmas tree?
"Five years ago," she said with a laugh. "Don't laugh at me! I'm a Christmas freak. People ask, 'Are you kidding me?' But I just to have to do this."
Adams took the programming reins of Lite FM and sister station WOW Country 104 FM in 2008, and one of her first priorities was to gin up the station's all-Christmas-all-the-time ratings.
"We came screaming out of the December 2009 ratings in our numbers of adults, ages 25 to 54," said Adams. "Our listening audience usually triples, even quadruples, with the Christmas format. When I walked in the door a few years ago, Lite FM probably had about a 39,000 weekly cume (the total number of different persons who tune to a station for at least five minutes). But that peaks to over 100,000 with our Christmas format."
And there you have the No. 1 reason why so many of the nation's radio stations think it's the hap-happiest season of all. Love it or loathe it, the 24/7 Christmas format--which gained steam right after the turn of the 21st century--is a Christmas T-Rex, translating into a generous, albeit temporary, bump in ratings and increased sales revenue.
"And I'm seeing a lot of my counterparts in other cities flipping to Christmas music earlier and earlier," Adams told BW.
Indeed, Milwaukee's WZTI-AM began jingling it bells as early as Oct. 31. Hundreds of other stations across the United States followed, including Lite FM, which went chestnuts beginning Nov. 16, continuing until midnight Dec. 25.
But further down the dial, the radio hosts at Boise's Journal Broadcast Group said they're anxious to capitalize on Lite FM's seasonal fixation.
"There's definitely an opportunity for me to take some of their audience," said Ron Harris, Journal's radio operations manager, who shepherds Variety Rock KJOT 105.1 FM; K-Hits 107.1 FM; The River 94.9 FM; and The X 100.3 FM. "If our stations can become someone's new favorite while the other guys are playing nothing but Christmas, I win. It gives me a dramatic opportunity."
It's not as if Journal broadcasters don't have the Christmas spirit.
"Christmas is a very careful balance," said Tim Johnstone, The River's program director and midday host. "We're never playing more than two Christmas songs an hour. And our listeners have told us they don't want to be hit over the head too early. There's a definite pushback to the Christmas creep."
But Johnstone quickly added that The River's "biggest night of the year" was a big slice of fruitcake--the station's annual Concert for Cause, slated this year for Wednesday, Dec. 18, at The Knitting Factory.
"Concert for Cause perfectly encapsulates what The River is all about, and this year's headliner, Tyrone Wells, is releasing his new Christmas CD just in time for the concert," said Johnstone. "Plus, The River is one of the few stations in the Treasure Valley to give airplay to the Idaho artists from the annual Idaho Ho Ho CD [Johnstone is also a co-producer on this year's compilation]. As we get closer to Christmas, the holidays mean more and more to our listeners."
"We're doing something that we call the 'No Christmas Music' format. Our listeners told us that they want The X to be the one place where they're not hearing all of that stuff. As a matter of fact, we're giving away prizes, including a PlayStation and Xbox, to people who catch any Christmas on our airwaves. We make a big deal out of the fact that we're not changing our music at all. We'll rock through Christmas, no matter what happens."
Down the hall at Journal Broadcasting's Variety Rock KJOT, they'll be sticking to their classic rock format this season after a one-and-done attempt with a holiday-themed format in 2012.
"We tried the all-Christmas last year," said Variety Rock and K-Hits Program Director Jim Allen. "And yes, there were lessons learned. And we're staying right where we are. Somebody else can do the all-Christmas thing."
That "somebody else" is Lite FM. Adams said that in addition to all of the Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole favorites, the holiday rotation will include an increasing amount of Christian-based music as they get closer to Dec. 25.
"Boise is wonderful because it's such a conservative market," said Adams. "How do you separate the religion from the holiday? You don't."
Each year, more pop artists are being added to the rotation: new Christmas CDs were released this year by Kelly Clarkson, Mary J. Blige and even the Duck Dynasty clan (don't laugh, it debuted at No. 1 on the Country album charts).
"What can I say? You can never play enough Christmas music," said Adams.