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Bringing Cheer to Our Ears: Holiday Music On The Airwaves Is Another Annual Tradition

4 minute read | November 2016

With the season of giving fast approaching, shopping, food and holiday music seem to be on everyone’s mind. The decorations are going up, families are planning their get-togethers and holiday tunes are making their yearly appearance, helping everyone unwrap a festive jolly spirit.

Holiday music has proven to be a huge success around the country on the radio airwaves. Over the last several years, the number of radio stations that swap out their regular formats during the holiday season has been rising, with some stations making the switch as early as Halloween. Of the 1,942 AM/FM radio stations Nielsen BDSradio monitored in 2015, 171 stations made the switch, giving listeners more than enough variety on the radio dial to get in the holiday spirit.

So which markets and formats are making the switch? The change isn’t ubiquitous, but many stations that are flipping the holiday switch seem to be reaping the benefits of increased listeners.  

Adult Contemporary = Your Music Hub for the Holidays

Adult Contemporary (AC) stations lead the way, making the switch more than any other format. AC accounts for 43% of all holiday music airplay and has the largest music library of all, with almost 2,800 titles. Christian AC follows, making up 22% of the holiday music airplay, with 432,000 spins and 1,763 titles.

Classic Hits, Country and Adult Top 40 round out the top five formats, with a combined 20% play of holiday music airplay.

Making the switch to all-holiday music seems to be paying off. According to Nielsen Audio, holiday music significantly increases the share of listening for the format. Between the November and Holiday survey periods from 2012 to 2015, AC stations saw their share of audience among listeners 6 and older jump an average of 72%, compared to the rest of the year. And the combined audience to the top AC holiday music stations across the top 10 markets has grown from 27 million weekly listeners (6 and older) in 2012 to 30 million in 2015, an 11% increase. This equates to a total of 3 million more Americans tuning in to all-holiday music stations over the three-year period.

The Appetite for Holiday Music Grows Across Markets

However, it may be surprising that the top three markets—New York, Los Angeles and Chicago—don’t make the top five list when it comes to markets with the most holiday music airplay. Rather, Cleveland, Ohio, tops that list with 48,000  plays, as three stations in Cleveland generate more than 12,000 spins of holiday music. Columbus, Ohio, ranks No. 2 with 47,000, and Detroit, Mich., ranks No. 3 with 46,000 plays.

The Classics are Here to Stay

It may seem like you’re hearing the same holiday songs being played over and over again during the holiday season, and you are. The top 10 most-played holiday songs make up less than 1% of the total library, but garner 19% of the airplay. So, who tops the holiday music charts? And how do sales and on-demand streaming differ?

Although new artists are reproducing their own versions of classic holiday tunes while creating new ones as well, the charts seem to have a fondness for the classics,  as they continue to top the charts.

During the holiday season, stations that switch to all-holiday are out with the new and in with the old. Adele, who’s song “Hello” typically tops the chart for U.S.-based AC stations, said goodbye to her ranking during the 2015 holiday season when Mariah Carey’s rendition of  “All I Want For Christmas Is You” took over. Mariah’s song, which is now more than 20 years old, also ranked the highest in the number of streams, with approximately 44 million on-demand streams during the 2015 holiday period.

As for the most popular song on the air, “Feliz Navidad,” released in 1970 by Jose Feliciano, led  last year with 31,000 spins. It also ranked high online, coming in at No. 16 with roughly 13 million on-demand streams.

When looking at sales, two versions of “Mary, Did You Know” are the No. 1 and No. 3 sales leaders, with Jordan Smith’s version, released in 2015, leading the pack with roughly 188,000 digital units sold.

Making The Switch: Creating Opportunities

With more stations making the switch to the all-holiday format early each  year, marketers have a huge opportunity to reach shoppers before the holiday season. The stations and formats in Ohio are key examples of how undeniably powerful the switch is. As for the music and artists who are driving this change, classic hits and their artists are making a comeback this holiday season, shaking up and displacing current hits that typically top the charts.

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