- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 25, 2003

Thanksgiving? Forget about it. On radios in the Washington area and other cities, it’s beginning to sound a lot like Christmas.

More than 100 FM music stations ditched regular programing this month in favor of an all-Christmas-music format, according to Inside Radio, an industry publication. Most stations will keep the carols coming through Dec. 25.

“I can’t explain why this works, but it works,” said Bill Hess, program director of WASH-FM (97.1), a soft-rock station in the Washington area that began a 36-day holiday-music marathon Nov. 19.

More stations across the nation are expected to join in during the next few weeks, ensuring that listeners get their fix of “Home for the Holidays” — or go mad from repetitions of “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.”

Just a few years ago, spinning holiday tunes before Thanksgiving was considered taboo, worse than opening all the presents on Christmas Eve.

But the number of stations jumping on the all-holiday sleigh has surged since 2001, and programmers say it’s for one simple reason: ratings.

Almost exclusively making the switch are adult-contemporary stations that normally play easy-listening music, such as WASH. Ratings have soared almost everywhere the format has been tried.

In many cases, audience levels stay up after the holidays.

“Christmas music tends to be played in offices, shopping malls, retail stores. Once those places turn their dial to the all-Christmas station, it tends to stay locked in,” said Tom Taylor, Inside Radio’s editor.

This year, the trend has touched off a holiday-music arms race, with stations competing to see who would go all-Christmas first.

WASH, one of eight stations in the Washington area owned by Texas conglomerate Clear Channel Communications Inc., began playing holiday music several weeks before Christmas in November 2001.

It faces competition this year from local classical-music station WGMS-FM (103.5), which Bonneville International Corp. owns. WGMS is expected to switch to classical versions of holiday tunes Friday. Its slogan: “Holiday music the way it was meant to be.”

Chicago, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Kansas City, Mo., and other cities are also home to two or more stations trying to outdo each other with all-Christmas music formats.

Stations are jumping the gun earlier this year because Thanksgiving comes late in November and the ratings period ends early. Arbitron will close its fall ratings book Dec. 10, five days earlier than in 2002, Mr. Taylor said.

“If you wait until Thanksgiving this year, you only get 13 days of Christmas music in the book,” he said.

The format turns some listeners into Scrooges.

“By the time Christmas gets here, we are going to be sick and tired of hearing ‘Blue Christmas’ on the radio. And that would be a shame. There is a time and a place for everything, and Thanksgiving is the cutoff,” said Nancy Esbensen, a Havertown, Pa., resident who posted a protest petition online after two Philadelphia stations made their switch within a few hours of each other.

Two New Orleans stations flipped to the all-Christmas format early this week, but switched back when listeners complained. One Charlotte, N.C., station started playing Christmas music at the stroke of midnight on Halloween.

“How early is too early is a gut call. My sense is a week before Thanksgiving is about as far as you can push it,” Mr. Hess said. WASH has received a handful of calls from angry listeners, but before making the switch, it received e-mail from listeners wondering when the holiday music would begin, he said.

WASH’s playlist features pop Christmas music such as the Carpenters’ “Merry Christmas Darling” and John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over),” Mr. Hess said. A few days before Dec. 25, it will introduce traditional tunes such as “Silent Night” into the mix, he said.

“Right now, we’re just trying to bring everyone into the tent,” Mr. Hess said.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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