How tempting was it to crank Christmas tunes before Thanksgiving? Another season of merry music is under way, and local radio stations shift into that mood in different ways.
WYEZ-FM "Movin'" 94.5 was the first to get festive, but only sparingly, as of Nov. 1. Wally B, its program director and afternoon-drive host, said he and General Manager Will Issacs wanted listeners "to put Christmas in their minds." They conceived a contest for extra marketing of Movin'.
"Catch us playing Christmas songs here and there before Thanksgiving," Wally B said, then after each infrequent tune ended, listeners would race to call for a cash prize.
Although radio stations playing Christmas music early has always been done, Wally B said, "we wanted to give it a new twist."
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As of a week and a half ago, only one case of negative feedback resulted, he said.
Wally B said Christmas can take many formats, such as contemporary, classic, and rhythm and blues.
"Movin' is more like a Top-40 type of station," he said, naming his favorite yuletide song and paying tribute to his parents' Puerto Rican heritage: Jose Feliciano's "Feliz Navidad."
At Movin' studio sister "Easy" FM stations simulcast on WEZV-105.9 and WGTN-100.7, for north and south Grand Strand coverage, respectively, General Manager Matt Sedota summarized his formula for mingling Christmas music this weekend into the daily playlist through Dec. 25.
"We play a big variety of holiday favorites on Easy," he said, "trying to make sure we also feature new releases."
Waiting to see hot releases emerge this season, Sedota said in recent years, he's found joy in playing works by artists such as Andrea Bocelli, Kristin Chenowith and Diana Krall.
"There really aren't too many Christmas songs," he said, "so we like to have a big variety of the songs. Everyone has a different take on them."
Johnny Walker, music director at WGTR "Gator" 107.9, one of five FM stations owned by Qantum of Myrtle Beach, said the country outlet always begins Christmas airplay today, the day after Thanksgiving.
"We want to help get people in the holiday spirit since it is the biggest shopping weekend of the year," Walker said. "That next Monday, we'll back it down to one Christmas song per hour. We'll gradually increase that to up to four Christmas songs per hour Christmas week."
Gator goes all Christmas for 30 hours starting Christmas Eve, which includes airing Bob Kingsley's "Christmas in America" program noon to 6 p.m. two days in a row. Walker said Kingsley, a longtime weekly countdown host, "interviews country stars and plays their favorite Christmas songs, and talks about different Christmas traditions."
Walker, who was eager for Lady Antebellum's release of Christmas music, said listeners also seem to gravitate to the comedy side in making requests for "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" by Elmo & Patsy and Jeff Foxworthy's "The Redneck 12 Days Of Christmas."
"But we get requests for all kinds of music," Walker said, "including the touching 'The Christmas Shoes' from Newsong and the sentimental favorite from Alabama, 'Christmas in Dixie.'"
At WLFF-FM "The Coyote" 106.5, one of a handful of local Cumulus-owned stations, Night Train, the program director and morning host, said country artists "go out of their way" to put out Christmas collections.
He called Faith Hill's "Joy to the World" CD, released in 2008, and Sugarland's "Gold and Green" from a year ago, as solid new entries, and "Camouflage and Christmas Lights," on comedian Rodney Carrington's "Make It Christmas" album last year, a tear-jerker.
From a decade ago, "Merry Christmas From the Family" by Eddie Montgomery and Troy Gentry, makes Night Train laugh.
"There are certain songs you've got to have every year," he said, stopping on "All I Want for Christmas Is You," recorded about 20 years ago by Vince Vance & the Valiants.
"That is probably the biggest country Christmas song," Night Train said. "We cannot play it enough."
Country stations also make room for the traditional standards by the likes of Bing Crosby and Johnny Mathis, blending with country giants such as Kenny Chesney, Alan Jackson and George Strait.
Still, "a hard 6" on Christmas evening remains the cutoff time for the carols for the season, Night Train said.
"As a rule, that's what country does," he said.
Going Christmas 24/7
WMYB-FM "Star 92.1" went 24/7 with all Christmas music on Thanksgiving Day, continuing through Dec. 25.
Mark McKinney, operations manager for NextMedia's five stations in Myrtle Beach, said with Star's adult contemporary format, "people have come to expect" its marathon, a tradition begun a decade ago.
"It's proven successful for many stations around the country," he said.
People locally must like it, as shown by a spike in ratings at this time of year, McKinney said, "and that is an added bonus."
The song that Star listeners want to hear the most remains Burl Ives' "A Holly Jolly Christmas," said McKinney, remembering its part in the Rankin-Bass "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" TV special that debuted in 1964.
NextMedia's WRNN-FM "Hot Talk" 99.5 again will carry Mannheim Steamroller's "An American Christmas" special noon to midnight Dec. 24, with host Chip Davis.
"It's stories and music surrounding the holiday," McKinney said, "which fits on the news-talk station."
WGNI-FM 102.7, with a 100,000-watt Cumulus powerhouse whose signal reaches from Wilmington, N.C., past Georgetown, went round the clock with Christmas music on Nov. 17.
Mike Farrow, the program director and afternoon host, said usually the station starts its marathon on Thanksgiving Day.
"We just got to thinking that the country is in such doldrums right now," he said. "The one thing about Christmas music is it really does lift the collective spirits for the community of listeners. Why not kick it in earlier?"
After the first day, the few negative calls ceased, Farrow said.
He laughed when asked for WGNI's most requested songs: "I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas," recorded by Gayla Peevey at age 10 as a fundraiser for her local zoo to acquire such a mammal, and the runner-up, Lou Monte's "Dominick the Donkey (The Italian Christmas Donkey)," from 1967.
"These are your novelty, 'Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer' kind of songs," Farrow said.
Noting a trend, Farrow has seen more country Christmas music cross over into more adult contemporary realms such as WGNI, where he has spent 22 years.
"Country is not as country as it was," he said, "and it's embraced by more of the masses."
Farrow appreciates how so many musicians, from "the heaviest metal rockers to the weirdest singer you can think of" tend to record a Christmas album.
"There is more Christmas music available than any other kind of music," he said. "People just love it."
Farrow said people also attach memories to certain songs and that they last a lifetime.
"It really is such a warm, fuzzy thing," he said. "Nobody can be in a bad mood for too long if you immerse yourself in Christmas music."