Forget what the calendar says. Christmas arrives around Thanksgiving, at least on musical wavelengths.
Two radio stations with strong signals that cross much of the Grand Strand -- WGNI-FM 102.7 of Wilmington, N.C. and WXLY-FM Y-102.5 of Charleston -- went all-Christmas with their playlists before Turkey Day. That’s the day when WMYB-FM Star 92.1 of Myrtle Beach turned totally yuletide through Dec. 25.
Many other stations ease into the mode on Thanksgiving weekend, playing one Christmas song per hour, then stepping up the frequency as Santa’s big day approaches.
BJ Kinard, program director for NextMedia’s Star 92.1 and WKZQ-FM 96.1, said in this, his second year, of heading Star’s marathon, he and colleagues talked up until the day before Thanksgiving as to what hour to kick it off: midnight that evening.
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Getting in the mood for Christmas fit, for instance, with the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade airing on television the next morning, Kinard said, happy to continue Star’s merry-thon tradition begun seven or eight years ago.
Asked which tunes rotate on everyone’s speakers, Kinard named some “tried and true” classics for starters: Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas,” Jose Feliciano’s “Feliz Navidad,” Bobby Helms’ “Jingle Bell Rock” and Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.”
Other artists through the years have added their own color, such as “Merry Christmas, Baby” by Bruce Springsteen, Kinard said.
“That one’s not as old,” he said, “but that’s become a must-play song.”
With artists popular today putting out their takes on Christmas songs, the playlist stays refreshed.
“You can play something such as a Justin Bieber version just to spice it up a bit,” Kinard said.
Other famous novelty numbers such as “The Chipmunk Song” get a place at the table, “but you don’t need to hear that all of the time,” Kinard said.
“You have some songs that you play more than others,” he said, adding he hopes they prompt listeners to reminisce, or bookmark new remembrances from a song they might not recognize.
“You want them to hear the Beach Boys’ ‘Little St. Nick,’” Kinard said, “and go back to the first time they heard that song, what memories that brings up.”
Kinard thought of Thanksgiving when he was growing up, “and decorating while listening to Christmas music. He said it “evokes emotions.”
The father of two said his passengers ages 9 and 5 “love the Christmas music” in the car on daily commutes.
“They want to hear this all the time,” Kinard said. “They enjoy it, and they sing it. That makes me enjoy it more.”
The elder child, who had been introduced to Taylor Swift’s version of “Last Christmas,” heard the original artists’ recording from the mid-1980s and told her day: “They’re doing the Taylor Swift song,” Kinard said.
That prompted his rejoinder, “No, that was a Wham! song.”
Kinard also applies the philosophy of playing “songs you know by artists you know.”: Scanning the horizon, Kinard sees Michael Buble “kind of becoming the Bing Crosby and Andy Williams” of this age.
“He’s going for the new standard for Christmas music as the next generation comes in,” Kinard said. “His versions of some of the songs will become standards for kids of today. Just like back in the 1990s, you could not go wrong with Harry Connick Jr.’s Christmas albums.”
Don’t expect Christmas music on Star’s sister station, WKZQ, but you can find a sprinkling on the other rock sibling, WYAV-FM “Wave” 104.1, where the occasional Christmas songs might come from artists such as U2, Bon Jovi, the Eagles, and Barenaked Ladies.
Softening the season
At Fidelity Broadcasting’s WEZV-FM “Easy” 105.9, which simulcasts on WGTN-FM 100.7 in Georgetown, Matt Sedota, the general manager, said he starts feeling Christmassy at home every August, when he gets his own CDs out. This year, Rod Stewart’s “Merry Christmas, Baby” impressed him.
“He has a neat style,” Sedota said, always eager to check out new adaptations to blend into Easy Radio’s Christmas rotation of classics.
He also praised Buble’s series of Christmas covers.
“He’s it,” Sedota said. “You just can’t play enough of his songs.”
Sedota said Josh Groban, Susan Boyle and Kristin Chenowith also have scored silver and gold with their takes in recent years.
“We try to play what people expect,” he said, respectful of the colossal records,” and add some extra spice in the soup.”
The day after Thanksgiving, with Jim Morgan, host of the morning drive show, “we also have some fun,” Sedota said, cracking out some fun ditties such as Lou Monte’s “Dominick the Donkey,” and Mel Blanc singing “Blue Christmas” as Porky Pig.
“People like hearing those things once in a while,” Sedota said.
The a-cappella men’s group Straight No Chaser’s “12 Days of Christmas” also catches listeners’ ears.
“Anytime we play something by them,” Sedota said, “we’ll get callers who ask, ‘Who is that again?’”
Easy Radio counts about 350 Christmas songs in its computer library, with about 50 other CDs well used.
Christmas albums by David Archuleta, Oscar Peterson and Diana Krall, and a CD given personally by Tony Orlando after a concert here a couple of years ago, also have wowed Sedota.
He understands that “only X amount of Christmas songs” exist, but “when it comes down to it, you’re always looking for something a little bit different.”
Judy Garland’s “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” from the movie “Meet Me in St. Louis,” still stops Sedota in his tracks, and Ella Fitzgerald’s collection proved “that lady could swing,” he said.
This time of year also lets the station play artists not heard regularly on Easy from January to late November
“You get to play around with music,” Sedota said. “It’s ear candy. It’s toys for us.”
Easy Radio starts slowly in the first couple of weeks from Thanksgiving on, except for Diane Stokes’ show 6-7 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, where Christmas stays in full tilt.
From one yuletide tune per hour, then gradually two or three hourly in a couple of weeks, then heavier right before Christmas, then all-out on the holiday, Easy Radio moves gradually.
“Our listeners have made it clear to us,” Sedota said, “so we don’t overdo it.”
In the country
Country radio stations also follow a similar tact in channeling Christmas joy, starting slowly.
Brent “Dingo” Crank, music director and morning-drive co-host at Qantum’s WGTR-FM “Gator” 107.9, said the station began Thanksgiving with one Christmas tune per hour, then two hourly this week, and more often as Dec. 25 nears.
“Most of the country stations,” he said, industrywide, “we leave enough in there to enjoy the holidays, ... but the charts are still turning during the holiday season.”
For Christmas flavor, Alabama, Nat King Cole and Dolly Parton represent a few of the artists Gator plays, along with “Blake Sheldon and some of the newer guys.”
Like Sedota at Easy Radio, Crank said spinning tunes by other stars outside of Gator’s format, such as Gene Autry, Brenda Lee and Johnny Mathis lets the station stray a tad and “give a little taste of every genre.”
“Just about every artist does a Christmas album at some point or another,” Crank said. “You never knock our George Strait, Alan Jackson or Garth Brooks, and you will sprinkle in some of these new guys from time to time.”
Crank cited standard tear-jerkers as NewSong’s “Christmas Shoes” and Alabama’s “Angels Among Us.”
“You can’t avoid playing them,” he said. “It’s stuff you have to play it in the season.”
Getting more upbeat, Crank said Montgomery Gentry’s “Christmas in the Family” reigns as the most requested every December at Gator.
“You hate to say it, but it’s real life,” Crank said, referring to split families with remarriage, two Christmas dinners to attend, and other such matters.
“Leroy the Redneck Reindeer” by Joe Diffie is another ditty “to make you smile,” Crank said.
Christmas music gives listeners some relief from the stresses of the season, he said, “to make you forget about layaway plans, and the bills in January.”