When listeners in Fort Wayne, Indiana, tuned into Majic 95.1 in July, they heard something both unexpected and all-too-familiar. The station was playing Christmas music. In the heat of summer.
With the pandemic making life miserable for people, the station was looking for a way to appeal to listeners and boost its ratings, and Christmas songs can be a dependable way of doing so.
"We knew that the world was topsy-turvy and we just knew from playing Christmas music over the years that there's something special about it that people connect with," says Chris Didier, operations manager at Majic 95.1, whose on-air name is Captain Chris.
All over the country this year, stations have been playing Christmas music much earlier than normal. One Memphis station started doing it right after Halloween. Another in Youngstown, Ohio, was decking the halls in September.
The radio industry has been hit hard by the pandemic, with ratings falling as much as 50% at first, although they have since rebounded somewhat, says Mike McVay, a radio industry veteran who now works as a consultant.
"There was an incredible drop in listening, mainly because of listening habits. A lot of people who listen to radio listen in their car, and suddenly if you're working at home and not commuting, that changed that," he says.
Station officials figured that starting the holidays a bit early might be a way to lure listeners back home.
After all, Christmas music has been a reliable source of ratings gold since around 1990, when 99.9 KEZ, an adult contemporary station in Phoenix, created the format.
"We had every consultant, every research person that I could think of, before we did it told us, 'You are crazy. Do not do it.'" says Jerry Ryan, former vice president and general manager at the radio station.
But the format turned out to be an enormous success, and within a few years hundreds of stations were playing non-stop Christmas music for 24 hours a day.
As the industry discovered, Christmas music can create a powerful emotional bond with an audience, bringing in listeners of all demographics, who want to hear vintage tunes like "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and Elvis Presley's "Blue Christmas."
Still, there have traditionally been limits to how far radio stations have been willing to go.
KEZ, the Phoenix radio station, traditionally began to air Christmas songs right after Thanksgiving, and Ryan says doing so much earlier than that can be jarring for an audience.
"I don't think there's a heck of a lot of emotional value to Christmas music outside of that particular time," Ryan says.
Not this year, however.
In an unprecedented year marked by the pandemic, many stations say the earlier start to airing Christmas songs has actually been a success with listeners.
Take Majic 95.1, for example.
"We got incredible feedback. Lots of calls, lots of emails, people saying, 'Yes, thank you for doing this, we really love the Christmas music,'" says Captain Chris of Majic 95.1 of its decision to play holiday music in July.
Emily Boldon, vice president of adult contemporary radio at Cumulus Media, which has some two dozen stations employing the holiday format, says she's seen a similar response.
And she has a theory about what's happening. She says listeners associate Christmas with the year ending, and this has been a really terrible year.
"I think everybody is trying to rush the holiday this year just so we can get beyond it," Boldon says. "I really truly believe the audience was just ready to get to the end of 2020 as fast as possible this year."
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Do you complain about all the Christmas music on the radio but then really secretly love it? Radio stations see their ratings jump when they play it, and they began even earlier in 2020. Here's NPR's Jim Zarroli.
JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: Christmas music makes people feel good. So what does a radio station do in a year when everyone's miserable and out of work? It starts playing it earlier.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE NEED A LITTLE CHRISTMAS")
JOHNNY MATHIS: (Singing) For we need a little Christmas right this very minute...
ZARROLI: Radio stations this year began playing Christmas music on Veterans Day, Halloween. One Ohio station started up in September. Then there's Majic 95.1 in Fort Wayne, Ind. It was decking the halls in July.
CHRIS DIDIER: We knew that the world was topsy-turvy. We just knew from playing Christmas music over the years that there's something special about it that people connect with.
ZARROLI: That's Chris Didier, whose on-air name is Captain Chris. His station played Christmas music for a few hours every evening this summer. If you find the notion of Christmas in July a little jarring, you're not alone. Just ask Jerry Ryan. Ryan has a unique place in the history of radio.
JERRY RYAN: I'm the guy who you can blame for all this obnoxious Christmas music (laughter) on all these radio stations.
ZARROLI: Thirty years ago, Ryan was vice president and general manager at KESZ-FM, an adult contemporary station in Phoenix. He was competing against bigger stations owned by huge corporations. He had to find a way to make the station stand out, so he came up with an idea.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S BEGINNING TO LOOK LIKE CHRISTMAS")
BING CROSBY: (Singing) It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas...
ZARROLI: Starting right after Thanksgiving, KESZ began playing Christmas music nonstop. Consultants told him he was crazy, at least until the ratings took off.
RYAN: Well, the next year (laughter), let me tell you, once those consultants saw what happened, they started pitching it to every one of their clients. It started popping up all over the country.
ZARROLI: Today, hundreds of stations play Christmas music this time of year, and Ryan is credited with inventing the format. Ryan realized that Christmas songs can create a powerful emotional bond with audiences. People who don't listen to the radio all year long will tune in to hear Christmas music - men, women, people of every demographic - and they mostly want to hear standards, songs they've been listening to since they were kids.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER")
GENE AUTRY: (Singing) Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer had a very shiny nose.
ZARROLI: Ryan is retired from commercial radio now, but he still has strong opinions about what works with audiences, and he doesn't think people usually want to hear Christmas music before Thanksgiving.
RYAN: I don't think there's a heck of a lot of emotional value to Christmas music outside of that particular time.
ZARROLI: But maybe this year is different. Captain Chris says that when Majic 95.1 started playing Christmas music in July, it went over really well.
DIDIER: We got incredible feedback, lots of calls, lots of emails, people saying, yes, thank you for doing this. We really love the Christmas music.
ZARROLI: Emily Boldon, vice president of adult contemporary radio at Cumulus Media, adds that her stations have seen the same strong response. Boldon has a theory about what's happening. She says listeners associate Christmas with the year ending, and this has been a really terrible year.
EMILY BOLDON: I think everybody is trying to rush the holiday this year just so we can get beyond it. The audience was just ready to get to the end of 2020 as fast as possible this year.
ZARROLI: Jim Zarroli, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCKIN' AROUND THE CHRISTMAS TREE")
BRENDA LEE: (Singing) Rocking around the Christmas tree... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.