Ever since dogs started barking “Jingle Bells” and “Santa Got Run Over By A Reindeer,” Christmas music has given country (and rock) format programmers and personalities a big headache.
Thanks to PPM panel measurement which can follow the same group of people’s radio usage for many months and years, we now know some things about what drives the country format’s annual fall swoon at the expense of Adult Contemporary and Christian stations going “all Christmas music.”
1. As Mike O’Malley told Inside Radio last week, studies of country listeners going back more than a decade consistently find that less than 20% of country P-1 listeners say they’d be very interested in having their country station play all Christmas music while half tell researchers they wouldn’t be interested at all, making going solid Christmas tunes a very risky tactic in a competitive country battle unless your company owns two country stations. In that case, it can benefit them both, one gaining 35+ female tuning and the other one acting as an alternative for younger and male country music fans. The more new music intensive you are, the more dangerous it can be to go more than a month without exposing and familiarizing the core with fresh music. When you go back to playing the country hits you need to refamiliarize your core with it, which can hurt familiarity scores that drive TSL and passion as the new year - and a new PPM month - begins.
2. In diary markets it has always appeared that all-Christmas helps the upper-demo contemporary get a cume boost in the first month of two of the Winter survey. Now, thanks to PPM, we know that’s more a result of top-of-mindness impacting what people write in diaries than it is real usage. Once, all-Christmas was seen as a strategy. Now, we know it’s just a tactic. In PPM, normal listening patterns resume on December 26 and don’t have any residual impact in January or February. Thus, in a PPM market any station contemplating solid Holiday music in November and December needs to pre-sell the event in advance. Diary measurement may make it appear that buying those great Christmas season ratings in January and February is a bargain, but PPM proves that would be overpaying.
3. PPM permits a microscopic view of usage patterns not possible in diary surveys as long as the sample is large enough to be reliable. As a result, aggregating multiple markets, it’s possible to uncover precisely what drives month-to-month changes in cume and average quarter hour. Most months, any sudden changes are likely driven by sample weighting alterations or households coming into or leaving the panel. As Christmas music starts to dominate one or two stations in a market, it’s now possible to dig into it directly and see exactly how each station in town’s average monthly users react. What we see appears to be more than a sample wobble. It looks “real.”
4. A&O&B has been carefully studying PPM, thanks to the help of direct marketing and rating analysis vendors, from the very first month of PPM measurement going all the way back to the first tests of the technology in Wilmington and Philadelphia many years ago. Here’s what we’ve observed, thanks to help from Arbitron and Nielsen analysts: the normal pattern of daypart and day-to-day recycling tends to continue as usual for a healthy country radio station. However, non-stop Christmas music on a station that always shares 25-30% of the country station’s audience month after month does something astounding during the Holidays. It creates NEW DAYPARTS for itself, times of the day and days of the week from that group of panelists when the country station’s average listener wasn’t even using radio in most months!
5. PPM “time spend exposed” (TSE/AMA) per hour for that country station when under attack from a 100% Christmas music competitor remains steady. Morning show, at work and weekend usage are generally more or less unchanged. Except for one group of listeners, the ones who seem to want to get into the Holiday spirit as they prepare for Christmas. They go Christmas shopping, wrap presents, decorate the house, the workplace. They host and attend parties. They plan for the family event. They continue to listen to their usual morning show, don’t listen much less than normal to their favorite 24/7365 country station, but they also find themselves using the solid Christmas music station a lot - as much as an extra day a week of their total time with radio - at lunchtime when they go out to shop, in the evening and over every weekend at home when they wrap presents, decorate the tree, write Christmas cards and organize their wardrobe for a busy Season Of Giving.
To deflect such a tactic when half the audience really doesn’t desire all-Christmas is next-to-impossible, though you can, we’ve found, at least minimize the damage — by creating your own extra special, lifestyle-driven extraordinary depart usage drivers.
The challenge, of course, is that playing 500 popular Christmas songs over and over for six weeks is relatively easy when compared to the creativity, innovation and hard work it takes to build enough of the kind of content that can compete with it in listeners’ minds for six to eight weeks every year.
Attempting to cure your first headache can make for a pretty big second one too.