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Radio's new mantra: 'Let It Snow!'

All-Christmas music formats, once avoided, are bringing in big ratings. KOST-FM uses one and goes from 10th to first in the ratings.

January 13, 2006|Martin Miller | Times Staff Writer

It's only 345 more days until Christmas and KOST-FM (103.5), and hundreds of other radio stations around the country, can barely wait.

Like more than 300 other radio stations across the country, KOST-FM flips to an all-Christmas music format in November, and for the first time many of them rode it to the top, according to the Arbitron ratings released earlier this week. In its fifth year of adopting the holiday format, KOST-FM rocketed from 10th place to first in the quarterly ratings.

Until the mid- to late 90s, it was almost unheard of for a radio station to switch to an all-Christmas format. The conventional wisdom held that the music wouldn't appeal to at least part of a station's target audience and would contribute to a feeling of holiday overload.

Instead, what radio stations gradually began realizing was that most people love Christmas music, which tends to serve as a "comfort food" for listeners, noted radio consultants. Holiday music also boosts ratings for stations because unlike regular programming, which listeners typically button-push from station to station, once someone tunes in Christmas songs, they usually leave it there.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday January 17, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 60 words Type of Material: Correction
Howard Stern -- An article in Friday's Calendar section about the most recent Arbitron ratings for the Los Angeles market said Howard Stern had the top-rated English-language show in the morning drive-time competition. He was No. 1 among listeners ages 25 to 54. Among all listeners older than 12, Bill Handel of KFI-AM (640) was the top-rated English-language morning host.

"Our clients are now asking how early is too early," said Dan Vallie, head of Vallie Richards Consulting, a North Carolina-based firm that specializes in adult contemporary formats. "Intuition says mid-November would be about the earliest you could do it on a successful station, though some stations have seen rating spikes when they went earlier."

Vallie expects the number of stations experimenting with the Christmas format to grow, particular at soft-rock adult contemporary stations (like KOST-FM), where the change seems to work best.

"Each year the Christmas music success convinces more and more people that it's a slam dunk," he said.

At KFSH-FM (95.9), a Southern California adult contemporary Christian-themed station, switching to an all-Christmas music format generated its best quarterly ratings among Orange County women ages 25 to 54 -- its target audience. The station has never been higher than No. 10 in that market but made it to No. 7 this ratings period.

"The Christmas music helped fuel those numbers," said Chuck Tyler, the station's program director. "We're hoping to tap into that Christmas spirit next year too."

The style doesn't work for every station. KZLA-FM (93.9), a country-western station, switched to all-Christmas music on Nov. 21 for the first time and was disappointed with the results. Its ratings slid a bit from 1.9% to 1.7% between the summer and fall periods. The latest ratings cover Sept. 22 to Dec. 14.

For years, the station had been taking a hit to its numbers because of KOST-FM's Christmas music and wanted to fight back, said R.J. Curtis, KZLA's programming director. "I'm glad we tried this, but we've got to step back and evaluate this," Curtis said. "People who like country like it exclusively and maybe they were sending us a message here."

For other stations, they must grin and bear the Christmas season, which unfortunately for them, seems to start earlier and earlier each year.

Still, they realize, the ratings hit is temporary.

"It's really become appointment listening," said Jeff Federman, general manager at KCBS-FM (93.1), better known as JACK-FM whose ratings dropped slightly last quarter. "It's like a sporting event that goes on for six or seven weeks, but then listeners go back to what they were tuning into before."

It was mostly a merry Christmas too for Howard Stern, who left terrestrial radio in Los Angeles No. 1 in the morning drive-time slot among English-language stations. (His show moved to Sirius Satellite Radio this week). He took 4.7% of the listening audience between 6 and 10 a.m., though his numbers represented a drop from the 5.4% he enjoyed in the two previous quarters.

In other results from this week's Arbitron ratings:

* KPWR-FM (105.9), continued its multiyear run of placing No. 1 in the 18-to-34 demographic. However, the hip-hop station has been gradually losing ground to an expanding field of competitors and fell from fourth to eighth place in the 12-and-older category. "When you accomplish what we have, everybody notices," said Jimmy Steal, vice president of programming at KPWR. "The whole world has moved into the hip-hop quadrant, and we know it's just going to get more competitive in our market, not less."

* KFI-AM (640) remained by far the top-ranked AM station, and the fourth most popular station overall, garnering 4% of the audience with its news and talk formats.

* KLVE-FM (107.5) pulled ahead of a crowded field of Spanish-language competitors. The station ranked second in the 12-and-older category, taking 4.3% of the audience.

* KXOL-FM (96.3), the bilingual station that switched to reggaeton music last year and shot from 18th to second in the last ratings period, saw its numbers drop during this one. The station dipped from 4.2% to 3.6% and fell to seventh place overall.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Radio Ratings

The area's top 25 stations and their average share of audience as measured by Arbitron for the fall months compared with the previous three-month period.

*--* Current Last Quarter 1 KOST-FM 4.4 3.1 2 KLVE-FM 4.3 4.2 KIIS-FM/KVVS-FM 4.3 4.4 4 KFI-AM 4.0 4.0 5 KROQ-FM 3.9 3.8 6 KSCA-FM 3.8 3.5 7 KXOL-FM 3.6 4.2 8 KPWR-FM 3.5 4.0 9 KLAX-FM 3.3 3.7 10 KTWV-FM 3.2 3.0 11 KCBS-FM 2.9 3.4 12 KHHT-FM 2.8 3.0 13 KRTH-FM 2.7 2.7 14 KBUE-FM 2.6 2.3 15 KABC-AM 2.4 2.5 KKBT-FM 2.4 2.5 17 KBIG-FM 2.3 2.3 18 KLSX-FM 2.2 2.5 KSSE-FM 2.2 2.3 20 KRCD-FM 2.1 1.6 KLOS-FM 2.1 2.1 22 KYSR-FM 1.8 1.8 23 KNX-AM 1.7 1.7 KZLA-FM 1.7 1.9 25 KJLH-FM 1.6 1.5

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The ratings survey covers people 12 and older listening between 6 a.m. and midnight, from Sept. 22 to Dec. 14, 2005.

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