Santa playing ukulele

Thorough and Pointless Radio Station Study: Christmas Edition!

Santa playing ukulele
Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

The very day after the Thorough and Pointless Results of My Radio Station Presets Study was published, Pittsburgh had its “Light-Up Night,” immediately making 1/5 of my study impossible to test on your own: that Formerly-Oldies-Now-Primarily-’80s station switched over to 24-hour Christmas Music for the next month-and-a-bit.

I am a big Christmas geek, as I’ve mentioned every year, but I do draw the line at Christmas music before Thanksgiving. My daughter has no such scruples and would switch the radio over to that station whenever she was in the car with me that next week. Which wasn’t all that often. Two ten-minute drives to school and a 15-minutes-each-way drive to an appointment. And yet, we noticed, some rendition of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” managed to come on during every one of those drives.* That settled it. I needed to know what habits this station has making its Holiday Hits playlist, too!

I waited to start counting until Black Friday, though. I wasn’t actually listening to it, but it’s the principle of the thing.

Stats to Take With a Grain of Driveway Salt

I started my data-gathering as I had done before, pasting the playlists posted on the radio station’s website into a spreadsheet. And since I was only looking at one radio station this time, it was much simpler. Only, halfway through the week, I encountered a hitch.

Though I wasn’t really analyzing the data during the collection period, I couldn’t help noticing titles as I copied and pasted them. It struck me as weird that they seemed to be playing the Glee cast’s cover of “Last Christmas” constantly, but never playing the original Wham version. Then, while running errands Tuesday morning, Wham’s “Last Christmas” came on my car radio. I laughed and double-checked the radio station. Oh, so they finally got around to it. But when I got home and copy/pasted the morning’s songs, there was still no Wham on the list. The time each song was played is posted along with them, so I scrolled specifically to the time I’d been in that particular parking lot. “Last Christmas” still wasn’t there.

The next day in the car, I caught “Mary’s Boy Child,” and I thought, yay, they’re switching things up a bit! They haven’t played this one before! But same deal— when I got home and onto the computer, the song wasn’t on the list. In fact, nothing was listed at the time I’d heard it. I’d noticed gaps in the time listings, but I’d just assumed they were commercial breaks. Long commercial breaks. 24-hour Christmas music rakes in the advertising money.

So the day after that, I sat at my desk and played the radio live while refreshing the playlists. And indeed, several songs an hour simply never showed up on the list. Within the first hour—during which I counted 14 songs (and, indeed, a couple of absurdly long 10-minute commercial breaks)—I caught five songs that had not appeared on the playlist before… and they still didn’t show up on the list now. Really? I thought. You’re going to mess up my experiment like that? My spreadsheet ended up showing 1597 total plays, but if 14 songs an hour is typical, that means 755 plays (nearly a third!) are unaccounted for!

Now how can I report on how odd it is that they didn’t play such and such song or another? Maybe they have played that song, but since I wasn’t listening at that moment, I have no way of knowing! Here is a short list of songs that did NOT show up on the playlist, but I did hear played by the station in question, over the course of the week:

  • The originals of “Jingle Bell Rock,” “White Christmas,” and “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting)”— lots of cover versions made the list, but I’d found it highly suspicious that Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole were missing until I heard them with my own ears
  • Additional covers of “The First Noel,” “Do You Hear What I Hear,” two additional covers (besides the original) of “Last Christmas,” and two more “Santa Baby”s
  • And specifically, Springsteen’s “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” which seemed just too ubiquitous to not have made the list
  • Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime,” which had worried me something for awhile there. I know, it’s a very love-it-or-hate-it song (even I used to hate it until I suddenly got it— decades after the guy became my favorite singer-songwriter in history), but it was important, because a) he IS my favorite singer-songwriter in history and b) “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” had been played 34 times that week (original and two covers), and look, I just don’t like you pitting my boys against each other like that (Paul’s better). (Okay, “Happy Xmas” is a better SONG than “Wonderful Christmastime,” that’s fair, even if I GET the latter now and they’re meant to work in entirely different ways.) Still.
  • Speaking of my favorite singers, my other favorite voice in the history of music was curiously missing from the playlist, too: Karen Carpenter. And as I SAID in my last radio survey, you only get to hear the Carpenters on the radio anymore at Christmastime, so that was a disappointment to see. But listening, I heard that angelic voice twice, on “Home for the Holidays” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” I can only assume they’ve played her original “Merry Christmas Darling” at some point I haven’t heard, too
  • They also played the last song on my favorite Christmas album, the Muppets and John Denver singing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” For that matter, before I even started keeping track, my daughter and I had heard John Denver singing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” on that station—which also doesn’t appear on the playlist. And at the rate they replay other songs, they surely must have played that one again, too.

So I’m sorry that I cannot, for one, tell you your exact chances of surviving Whamageddon (but, considering they even play the Glee version between two or three times a day, you probably lost already). Let’s see what we can extrapolate from what did make the online playlist, though.

It’s the Most Plentiful Song of the List

If you tune in to the 24-hour Christmas station for any length of time, the chances are very high that you’re going to hear Andy Williams singing “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”** It appears on our gap-filled playlist 43 times over the course of one week. That’s just over six plays a day, or once every four hours—and that’s assuming every play was counted by the playlist generator in the first place! (The songs that did and did not make the list seemed pretty consistent, though, so I assume it has to do with the metadata in the tracks themselves). But the music doesn’t play on a consistent, well-spaced loop: in one two-hour listen to the station I heard it twice. On top of that, Peabo Bryson’s cover was played an additional 15 times, bringing your chances of hearing “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” in any form just over once every three hours.

Andy Williams is also the guy responsible for “Happy Holiday/The Holiday Season,” which may have some of the stupidest lyrics of any holiday song ever but that’s beside the point because it’s also a relatively frequently-played number (though in this case only 12 times—not quite twice a day). But if the radio station has an Andy Williams Christmas album, why should they stop there? There are nine Andy Williams tracks on the list—the rest covers of traditional standards—giving him a total of 103 plays over the course of the week or almost 15 times a day. Does anybody even mention Andy Williams in any context outside of Christmastime anymore? Otherwise forgotten, still reigning King of Holiday Pop Music.

Of course, the new(er) reigning Queen of Holiday Pop Music is Mariah Carey, the third most-played artist, on the basis of just 4 songs. (The second-most-played artist was bandleader Ray Conniff’s choir and orchestra combinations from the 1950s, who also share the top-number-of-tracks slot with Andy Williams, at 9.) Yes, that has a great deal to do with “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” which was played 36 times that week, but that’s only just over five times a day, putting it in fourth place for most played track (it was also covered twice, but those covers weren’t played much, and so it’s only the fifteenth most-played composition, total).

Ahead of “All I Want for Christmas,” tied for second most-played track with 38 plays each, are Dean Martin’s “Let It Snow” and José Feliciano’s “Feliz Navidad”—which makes José Feliciano the most-played artist with only one song on the list. Dean Martin had three songs on the list, just one of the many old-fashioned crooners who seem to dominate the station: Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Tony Bennett, and their musical descendants like Harry Connick Jr and Michael Buble. The station that rarely plays ’60s music anymore the rest of the year has no problem going way back in December!

There were 166 individual tracks listed, but 70 unique songs—composition, not recording—meaning plenty of songs were covered by different artists—just over half, according to the playlist (but I can already count six in the “only one track” list that I HAVE heard alternate covers of). The most frequently played song is “Frosty the Snowman,” whose (at least) seven covers were played (at least) 93 times (or, just over every two hours). The most-covered song is “Winter Wonderland,” with 8 different recordings represented—though, being that “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” has 7 listed covers and I heard an 8th one (Springsteen) that didn’t make the list, that one is at least tied. (The Pointer Sisters’ cover isn’t on the list, either, and that’s one I’ve heard a lot in the past, so “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” may actually pass “Winter Wonderland” in covers. But who knows how many other “Winter Wonderland”s didn’t make the list, either?)

Mix and Mingle Up These Jingling Beats

I was curious what types of songs were played the most, too: considering how often “Frosty” and “Winter Wonderland” were played, did the station tend to lean on winter-as-opposed-to-Christmas songs to appease a broader audience?*** No-but-yes, I discovered, when I compared tracks, songs (compositions), AND plays:

  • 101 of the individual tracks played would be considered secular Christmas songs—songs directly about Christmas but not the religious aspect thereof. That’s 61% of the tracks played. Those tracks are made up of 51 unique songs, or 73% of the compositions, and were played 964 times, or 60% of the playlist.
  • 36 of the tracks were Winter songs, about snow or cold but not about any particular holiday (unless you count the versions of “Sleigh Ride” that substitute “Christmas party” for the lyric “birthday party”). That’s 22% of the tracks. But there were actually only 7 unique Winter songs accounted for—10% of compositions. So those seven songs tended to be covered more than the more overtly Christmas songs in the first place.  But the station did give them a bit of a boost, too: they were played 406 times, 25% of the list. So, yeah, Winter songs did tend to get a little disproportionate attention, even if they weren’t dominating the list.
  • But the station isn’t avoiding religious Christmas songs, either. There were 27 specifically Jesus-themed tracks (16%) made up of 12 unique songs (17%), but these were played only 181 times, or 11% of the playlist—so definitely relatively less. And “Do You Hear What I Hear?” was the most popular of those twelve songs, by the way!

And then there’s “Linus and Lucy.” You know, the Peanuts theme by Vince Guaraldi. Obviously, the Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack is popular, but the only other song from it on the playlist was “O Tannenbaum,” which wasn’t even played as much! I did hear “Christmastime is Here” once, without it making the playlist, so it’s possible others were played and not listed, too. But still. Just because “Linus and Lucy” is on the Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack doesn’t mean it’s actually a Christmas song! It’s on every Peanuts soundtrack! Why did they choose to play that one so much instead of any of the other actual Christmas songs on the soundtrack? Relatedly—it didn’t make the playlist, but I did hear it, and I’ve definitely heard it other years—why do so many people insist on covering “My Favorite Things” as a Christmas song? It seems Billboard thoroughly researched that question a couple of years ago, but they still only really determined how it started, not why so many people kept it up.

As for who is getting played, there’s some improvement over the sorry female representation present on the radio the rest of the year. On this list, there were 48 strictly male artists played 978 times, or 61% of the playlist—during the rest of the year, men dominate 85% of the list instead. This time there were 20 female artists representing 417 plays, or 26%,  and an additional 11 mixed-group artists and female/male duets, 192 plays or 12% of the list.

Here They Are as in Olden Days

As with the rest of the year’s music, I wanted to see the stats on when the tracks being played were from, so I found years for each one. But rather than analyzing the results by decade, I’ve split these tracks into four eras, instead:

  • Pre-British Invasion (1946-1962): 43 tracks, 481 plays (the earliest on the list is probably Nat King Cole’s “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” but I could be wrong, because he’d recorded several “Hark!”s over time, so if not that, it’s Gene Autry’s “Here Comes Santa Claus”)
  • Post-British Invasion 1960s: 38 tracks, 391 Plays
  • ’70s-’90s: 47 tracks 460 plays
  • 21st Century: 38 tracks, 258 plays

“Pre-British Invasion” is kind of a misnomer. Being a Beatlemaniac, I usually think of 1963 as an era marker when it comes to pop music. But in this case, it wasn’t the British Invasion**** that ushered in a new musical era: it was A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector.  Or maybe in every case it was actually the Kennedy assassination that ushered in a new era in general, and the cultural change all followed? But at any rate, Spector’s Wall of Sound pop-Christmas collection actually came out on the day of the Kennedy assassination, and kind of bombed at the time, being that people were distracted. Nonetheless, there’s a clear shift in the Christmas music at this point. The first era on this playlist is primarily crooners, and straightforward arrangements, with a little jazz and late-era big band thrown in. Only two tracks in this time period—Elvis’s “Blue Christmas” and Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”—hint at the rock and roll era, and really “Blue Christmas” is more blues than rock anyway. But after A Christmas Gift for You, pop stars now tended to rock up their Christmas song arrangements, sometimes outright borrowing Spector’s arrangements (like the extended refrain to “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”), and some of the biggest more-modern originals, like “All I Want for Christmas” and Kelly Clarkson’s “Underneath the Tree,” are direct stylistic callbacks to the Wall of Sound tracks. Granted, 1963 also gave us Andy Williams’s first Christmas album, which feels more of the previous era, and Dean Martin and Tony Bennett have more than a few on the list in the rest of the decade. But from then on we’ve got mostly pop stars singing pop arrangements, with a few experimental artists like Mannheim Steamroller and Trans-Siberian Orchestra thrown in.

Nostalgia is a big factor in Christmas music. While the radio likes to stay away from “old” music the rest of the year, in December, the older, the better. The few 2019 tracks were only played once or twice each, and often in the middle of the night—as if the station was sneaking them in. If we play this and nobody complains, maybe we can play it again?

I learned some interesting things in the process of tying a date to all the tracks:

  • Some songs were more recent than I knew: “Sleigh Ride,” for example, rather than being from the turn of the 20th century as I’d always thought, is from the late 1940s, and the most famous instrumental recording is still the original conducted by composer Leroy Anderson himself.
  • Other songs were older than I thought: “Up On The Housetop” is from 1864, despite sounding just like one of Johnny Marks’s children’s Christmas songs from nearly a century later.
  • Speaking of which, Johnny Marks wrote a ridiculous amount of 20th century Christmas standards, including not only “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” but the entirely different-sounding “sequel” “Run Run Rudolph,” popularized by Chuck Berry, too!
  • Gene Autry popularized most of the sing-alongy children’s songs of the mid-20th century, most notably “Here Comes Santa Claus,” “Frosty the Snowman,” and “Rudolph.”
  • “Santa Baby” is only three years younger than “Frosty the Snowman.” Maybe it’s the way children learn “Frosty” so much younger than they learn “Santa Baby” that makes “Frosty” feel like a traditional carol while “Santa Baby” just feels like a novelty song for the radio.
  • At least three different Christmas now-standards were written during a heat wave in July 1945 (“The Christmas Song,” “Sleigh Ride,” and “Let It Snow!”).

All I Want for Christmas Radio Is…

The 24-hour Christmas Music station could stand to boost its variety. In the course of a week, each track was played an average of 10 times, each song 22 times, or 3 times a day. That’s average: the songs played just once counterbalance the “Most Wonderful Time”s and “All I Want”s. It’s the endless covers that get old fastest. This afternoon we heard one cover of “Last Christmas” on the way to our appointment and a different cover on the way home an hour later. It’s one thing when a cover brings something new to the song—a unique arrangement or distinctive sound, like the tracks from the Christmas Gift for You album (there is plenty of room for Leroy Anderson’s original orchestral version of “Sleigh Ride,” a nice straightforward vocal version, and the Ronettes’ Wall of Sound version). But a lot of the covers sound more or less like karaoke. I’m not sure we need all the straightforward covers of all the 1950s crooners, and we really don’t need five different “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”s. I’d rather the station stick to the most iconic tracks: the original or most famous recordings of songs, and additional covers only when they put their own unique spin on it.

But wait, you say: if we take out all the boring cover tracks, doesn’t that make even less variety? Only if we don’t add more compositions to the mix! But how is that possible? you continue. There are already 70 unique compositions on this playlist: how many different Christmas songs can there be?

More than they’re currently playing. Out of curiosity, I compared this playlist to my own Christmas music collection. In my collection of only 126 tracks, there are 95 unique compositions. And only 38 of them appear in the radio’s playlist! There are 57 additional songs beyond the 70 the radio has been playing, which would bring us up to 127 songs—meaning if the station played just one version of each of those songs, they’d still need to add only 39 additional covers to bring the track list up to its current length.

And, as negative as I seemed about covers a few paragraphs ago, there are plenty of covers that put their own spins on the songs so they don’t sound like karaoke. Different styles, unique voices (hey, let Karen Carpenter sing one of everything!), unusual arrangements. Sitting here just now I remembered two different totally unique arrangements of “Jingle Bells” I enjoyed in my childhood but haven’t heard in years: a very fast version by Barbra Streisand and the one that’s dogs barking. Both of those totally qualify as unique covers, and they’re not too annoying on the ears, either. No, not even the dogs! I recommend more instrumentals, too—they are almost always more pleasant on the ears than a singer you’re not into. There’s a lot of classical music in my collection, and maybe that’s not the pop radio station’s thing, but I’m sure Mannheim Steamroller’s done some Handel and Tchaikovsky covers. There’s plenty of opportunity for mixing things up.

Also, it could be worse. Maybe they did play “Dominic the Donkey,” but I haven’t heard (nor were they on the playlist) “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” or “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth” or most other screechy novelty songs. (I did hear “The Chipmunks’ Christmas” on a different station this morning, but I don’t really mind that one in small quantities, anyway. I also heard “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” on the Christmas station without it making the list, once, but I have a weird affection for that one, too.) And they only played a boring “Twelve Days of Christmas” twice, and as far as I can tell have also wisely forgotten about “Christmas Shoes.”

But I’ve got to be careful here because now somebody’s going to come back at me with, “Yeah, they really need to stop playing ‘Wonderful Christmastime’,” and what will be my defense? Christmas is tied up with nostalgia, and everyone has the particular songs that meant a lot to them growing up that they will always love, no matter how many other people think they’re annoying. I still think the 24-hour Christmas station has room to improve, but I have to admit that the nature of that improvement is bound to be subjective.

*She noted it each time. She would gleefully announce, “We’re singing this in chorus! I still don’t know the words!” every time.

**a song my daughter’s full name fits into remarkably well, meaning I feel the need to sing it at her whenever I hear it, which means she gets it all the time

***Though I can’t imagine why anyone would be listening to the station at all right now if they didn’t want to hear specifically Christmas songs.

****OR WAS IT? Ironically—or maybe the opposite of ironically? Coincidentally?—as influential as A Christmas Gift for You turned out to be, it didn’t really take off commercially until it was re-released in 1972… by Apple Records. You know, the label the Beatles created.

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1 thought on “Thorough and Pointless Radio Station Study: Christmas Edition!

  1. I am from the UK, but live in Maine now. I don’t think we have a Christmas music only radio station, but we do have a lot of Christmas music that is almost unkown over here, except in my daughter’s house. A couple of years ago, I wrote a little blog about my top ten British Christmas tunes. Also, last year, I found three new release albums over here. Really good ones too.
    I would like to hear more variety on our local Christmas station but I have a whole load of cds for that. Great article. Lot of work went into that. Finally, I have to say I prefer Glee’s version of Last Christmas. Don’t judge me.

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