Holiday music coming soon

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Posted by on October 20, 2008 at 10:31:27:

Merry Xmas ... And Bah Humbug New Year

We're getting close to the most wonderful time of the year, when upwards of 300 stations flip the format switch and segue to all-Christmas music. Typically, the rush begins on or around Thanksgiving—so before that tryptophan-induced nap of yours is over, at least one station in a market near you will likely be pumping out Burl Ives and Brenda Lee for the next five weeks.

Clear Channel's KESZ (KEZ)/Phoenix is generally regarded as the first large-market station to play all-Christmas music in 1999. That move was seen as a maverick, almost novelty gimmick at the time, but has since become a consistently reliable tactic that almost always guarantees a spike in seasonal listening.

Most of those employing the tactic—the majority are AC stations—have become an unstoppable fall ratings force, robbing cume from nearly every other station in the market and piling up shares that easily distance them from all competitors.

Simply put, it works every time.

The poster children for all-Christmas are big stations in major markets, such as Jerry Lee's WBEB/Philadelphia and the Clear Channel triumvirate of KODA/Houston, WLTW/New York and KOST/Los Angeles.

During the past two years, as Philadelphia and Houston have entered the era of electronic audience measurement with Arbitron's PPM ratings service, researchers have taken listening data from this specialized temporary format and put it under a microscope, to better understand audience patterns and the types of people who tune in all-Christmas stations. Direct Marketing Results president/COO Tripp Eldredge, who works closely with Ty Henderson, a research partner at the University of Texas, tracked the migration patterns of radio users in the five weeks before, during and after the Christmas season. Additionally, tapping into a year's worth of pre-currency ratings that preceded New York's Oct. 6 commercialization, the pair has included Big Apple PPM data in the mix and come up with some consistent patterns for all three markets, all with the blessing of and partnership with Arbitron.

With panelists remaining in the sample for months on end, one of the "real values of PPM," according to Eldredge, is that their behavior can be observed through time. This was impossible with the diary service, where a new batch of diarykeepers entered the sample every week. "We've never had information past one week and oftentimes that wasn't very accurate," he says.

Study Period
Christmas is an ideal study period, according to Eldredge, since it provides a real-time experiment during a major programming change that happens at virtually the same time all over the country. Examining the listening patters of three stations (KODA, WBEB, WLTW) allowed Eldredge and Henderson to consider variables. The three five-week periods were selected in order to remove what Eldredge calls "the random wobble. Some weeks go through the roof and others are small."

Not surprisingly, the all-holiday format triggers a massive audience increase. KODA doubled its 27,600 AQH persons during the five-week Christmas period, according to Eldredge. Prior to Christmas, KODA was running with a 197,000 P1 cume; during Christmas, it shot up to 375,000.

Typically, Eldredge says, "we would wonder if it is more occasions or more time—but we see that the average number of occasions goes down from 21 to 16 per week. However, time per occasion goes from nine minutes to 11 minutes."
Eldredge and Henderson wanted to understand how KODA gets such a groundswell of new P1 listening, so they traveled back in time to see where they came from. One-third were KODA P1s, one-quarter were rock listeners, roughly 20% were P1s of news/talk, 9% arrived via country or AC, and a few came from Christian stations.

In other words, two-thirds were not existing KODA P1s and the vast majority were lured from rock or news/talk outlets. WLTW's and WBEB's newfound P1s had similar formatic origins. Still, "each market had its own peculiarity," Eldredge says. "Houston's was Christian, Philly was country and urban, and New York was also urban."
But in all three markets, each station saw a massive increase in ratings, followed by "a New Year's hangover,"

Eldredge says. Post-holidays, KODA's ratings were flat or below what they had been before the switch. KODA lost nearly 200,000 P1s after Christmas—more than they gained, Eldredge says. The conclusion: "It has a positive but also a negative effect."

Archeological Dig
Still not finished with this electronic archeological dig, Eldredge and Henderson went deeper and began tracking new and existing P1s. Looking at every listener KODA had in the five weeks before Christmas, they discovered that a whopping 43% of what Eldredge refers to as "the deep or super P1s" go away while KODA is in all-holiday mode and "they don't come back in the five weeks after holiday programming."

But that bad news is offset by some spectacular news. The station nearly doubles its P1 cume with listeners who migrate from those other formats. On the other hand, "in five weeks, after the new P1s go back to their usual choices, it leaves an interesting structural change to the audience." Left with 43% fewer heavy P1s, KODA's AQH drops because those rock and AC listeners don't use radio as much; overall they're not very good radio listeners, according to Eldredge.

A similar pattern emerged in New York and Philadelphia. The latter's WBEB lost one-third of its prime P1s but gained 244% in new P1s during Christmas and swelled up to almost 88,000 AQH persons (up from 37,000). Likewise in New York, where Eldredge says WLTW lost half its prime P1s but more than made up for it in new P1 reinforcements.

In all three cases, prime P1s fade during Christmas music by an average of one-third to one-half, "and most did not return. Instead, stations gain huge prime P1s and afterward end up flat or slightly better after Christmas music ends." WBEB was an exception, fading less at the end than the stations in Houston or New York.

Read much more from "Merry Xmas...And Bah Humbug New Year" in this week's R&R (Oct. 17, 2008).

(R.J. Curtis, Radio & Records)

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