THINK TANK: The Christmas Freeze

For those outside of the radio business, the term “Christmas Freeze” sounds like it could be a dessert after a holiday meal.

But in reality, “Christmas Freeze” is simply the annual seasonal shutdown that hits radio station playlists across the country in and around December, ranging anywhere from 2-to-8-weeks in length (depending on the station and format.)

For artists trying to get airplay on a new release in the fourth-quarter, this freeze can loom large, especially for acts that have yet to really establish themselves at a specific format. For songs that have just started to gain momentum with a small handful of adds, running headlong into the Christmas freeze may feel like hitting a brick wall, as there’s no real chance of seeing rotation upgrades or of gaining new supporters until January rolls around. And in fact it can actually damage a campaign by ‘burning out’ a few stations on specific songs along the way.

So why does this freeze happen? For the most part, it comes down to a few reasons that are interconnected — staffing concerns, seasonal programming, and changing listening patterns.

With only a few “non-ratings” windows available during the year for on-air staff to book vacation, there can be a mad scramble in December as people try to use up their remaining allotment of days. If the Music Director isn’t already pulling an air-shift, chances are they may be tapped to help provide relief covering a time slot. This increased work-load, combined with the added need to produce music logs several weeks in advance (as well as possibly creating year-end stunt programming, ie: “The Top 100 Hits of 2013”), usually results in the cancellation of weekly music meetings and the adding of new songs to the playlist.

Furthermore, as much as people may say they’re tired of hearing Christmas music, research reveals that the opposite is true. Holiday music connects deeply on an emotional level and can help improve listener retention, which is why nearly every station will play at least some festive material during December. Depending on the station, getting these songs on-air causes a varying degree of additional work for the MD, ranging from hand-scheduling a selection of Bing Crosby, Burl Ives and Harry Simeone Chorale favourites, to completely rebuilding the hourly music clocks and implementing an intensive Christmas-heavy format that will play out for weeks on-end. This shift of energy towards creating a unique seasonal listening experience means the MD usually has little or no time to evaluate new “regular playlist” material coming across the desk.

Understanding that listeners’ home, work, and social routines become disrupted heading up to and through the holidays, MD’s are cognizant that introducing unfamiliar material during this timeframe may not find the audience that’s usually available for programming like “New Music Shows” or “Jam-It-or-Slam-It”-type features. Once listeners are back into their regular post-New Year routine, needless to say, stations get back to exposing new music.

Of all the radio formats, Mainstream A/C experiences the longest playlist freeze, simply because those stations tend to become the ones that go “All Christmas” in their respective markets. And much like the “Christmas Creep” phenomenon that happens at retail, where the decorations and sales displays appear in-store seemingly earlier every year, the rollout of 24/7 Christmas at Mainstream A/C in Canada has been following a similar pattern, starting earlier and earlier (though not as enthusiastically as what happens in the USA, where stations there had already started flipping to “All Christmas” as early as mid-October.)

On the surface, the annual radio Christmas freeze may seem like a delayed roadblock for those trying to improve their chart ranking and build a huge hit. But perhaps it’s best to look at it as more of an opportunity to put the music business aside for a short time, something that allows focus to be shifted to family, friends, laughter and celebration, all without wondering where a song is sitting on the Building Airplay charts. Consider it a small gift from your local radio station.