“Christmas isn’t going away, and we’re going to have this discussion every year.”

Two decades ago I remember saying those words to my talented friends Jim Hoge and Dean O’Neal at Z88.3 in Orlando. I remember saying them because we DO have that discussion every year. With every station.

Their situation was unique in that the Z was on a fast growth curve, and it was rare for a Christian station to abandon its regular format and play nothing but Christmas tunes. Besides, there was already a mainstream AC doing all Christmas and they were #1 in the market. (That AC program director was also a tall, skinny kid from west Texas with an ever so manly radio voice).

Within a few years not only had the Z more than tripled its weekly 6+ cume, but had tied the Mainstream AC station in Women 25-54 shares.

Obviously Christmas music wasn’t the only reason for the Z’s remarkable growth, but clearly Jim and Dean seized an opportunity to transform the format’s biggest competitive disadvantage (playing generally unfamiliar music) into a competitive ADvantage.

This week’s Frost Advisory includes an interview about Christmas music programming I did with Andrew Curran, President and COO of DMR/Interactive, published in AllAccess.com this week.

AA: For all the positives associated with going Christmas, stations are flipping their format, which typically drives away a significant portion of their year round core audience. How do stations calculate the risk vs. reward?

John: Clearly a switch to all-Christmas music programming isn’t the right strategy for every station. For some stations the competitive landscape may make the transition daunting. In markets where a heritage station owns the Christmas music position, one has to evaluate whether the “reward” of being second or third in the category is a “win.”

For others, the entry into their market of a syndicated Christian format can make a local station reluctant to abandon their format and risk handing over their loyal Christian AC fans (and perhaps donors) to a shiny new competitor. Those syndicated brands have shown restraint in not flipping to all-Christmas because of the difficulty in generalizing a successful national strategy with so many variables at the local level. What works for Waco probably won’t work for Walla Walla.

AA: As it relates to the “reason for the season,” Christian stations are well positioned to make that direct connection. Are there meaningful programming strategies that separate Christmas music stations from those playing holiday music or does it amount to a distinction without a difference?

John: To be competitive a Christian station needs to play the songs the broader market expects to hear at Christmas. Otherwise, why go all Christmas? While “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” may be beyond the boundaries of the brand (an appropriate exercise with every song), it’s important that a Christian station play the Christmas hits if it is to attract new listeners.

What most distinguishes a Christian station from its secular competition during Christmas is what happens between the songs. A Christian station needs to create compelling messaging and strategic initiatives that communicate its brand values to new listeners. In other words, the “what” may change, but the “why” stays consistent. Christmas music programming allows a station to become 100% familiar instantly, while doubling down on the Christ-centered core value of the why the station exists.

I can’t think of any other programming strategy that allows for a station in any format to accomplish those two goals simultaneously.

AA: Year round, contemporary Christian music stations offer listeners an inspiring and uplifting experience for their workday, regardless of whether someone spends their Sunday morning sitting in a pew or sitting in a Starbucks. The format offers an oasis from all the nastiness and division that exists, especially in politics. How are stations capitalizing on this opportunity?

John: We live in peculiar times. Even as I write this the House impeachment hearings have begun in Washington, D.C. A drive for ratings has driven TV news networks to deliberately choose a partisan slant on their coverage and conversation. Consequently, trust in the news media is at an all-time low and social media has given voice to anyone throwing spit wads. This has created an environment of negativity and bickering that has turned many people off. More and more people simply want to escape the noise and a Christian radio station has the opportunity to be an antidote with inspiring stories and songs of hope.

AA: You’ve said whether or not someone likes Classic Rock, core artists like Aerosmith and the Eagles are embedded in our culture and people are already familiar with them. However, a similar mainstream awareness does not typically exist with contemporary Christian music outside the occasional crossover artist, whether it was Amy Grant or Michael W. Smith 30 years ago or Lauren Daigle today. How do stations overcome this hurdle or is it more about turning a perceived weakness into a strength with listeners?

John: A Christian radio station won’t attract new listeners by becoming more like other formats any more than Harley-Davidson will attract more buyers by trying to be more like Suzuki or Starbucks trying to be more like Folgers. This faulty logic is a symptom of tactical thinking.

Strategic thinking is about embracing what your brand stands for. Harley-Davidson understands that its brand values of freedom, independence, and community transcend the use of the product. Even those who don’t own a Harley desire to wear the gear. Simon Sinek says, “People don’t buy what you do they buy why you do it.” Communicate your station’s “why” at Christmas and you’ll attract people who share that “why”. Embracing strategic initiatives that communicate those ideals after the Christmas music ends, is the best way to introduce new listeners to your regular format.”

Hopefully you’re having this discussion at your station. Because Christmas isn’t going away.