Christmas on the Radio

Sophisticated broadcast automation and satellite-delivered formats have freed a lot of DJs to get Christmas off. The station goes on auto-pilot, the last person out locks the door, and nobody comes back until the 26th. Some younger broadcasters may never have worked the night shift on Christmas Eve or the morning show on Christmas Day. Too bad for them. True radio lifers will tell you that working those shifts is how you earn your stripes as a full-fledged member of the jock fraternity, sitting behind the board on Christmas, away from your family, tracking albums by the Ray Conniff Singers and reading sponsors’ holiday greetings.

Stations approach Christmas Eve and Day programming in various ways today. Some take great pains to put together special music programming, or they run syndicated holiday specials. (My station is doing “98 Hours of Christmas Magic” from 10pm tonight through midnight on the 25th; I’ll be on from 3 to 7PM US Central on the 23rd, so stop by.) Other stations figure any old music is fine, from Handel’s “Messiah” to “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,” as long as it’s plausibly Christmassy. One station in the group I work for plays no Christmas music at all.

A small-town station I worked for spent a great deal of time and effort traveling around to high schools in its region recording Christmas choral concerts for playback over the holiday. The high-school choirs proved to be a sales bonanza because small-town businesses were usually eager to sponsor their local choir. It could also end up a monumental pain in the ass, thanks to one of Bartlett’s Laws of Radio: The less money a client is going to spend, the more trouble the client will put you through.

A choir sponsorship cost next to nothing, so our problems satisfying the sponsors were next to infinite. They were supposed to be paying only for name mentions before and after their choir was on: “This presentation of the West Overshoe High School Choir is brought to you by Ed’s Diner and Veterinary Service.” But some sponsors would insist on a lengthier message, or perhaps a full 3o-second spot—for the same price, of course. Some would insist on being mentioned in the middle of the show in addition to the beginning and the end. Confronted with these requests and eager to bag the commission on $50, the sales reps would say, “Sure, no problem.” And as soon as the other reps found out what one of their colleagues was doing for his clients, they’d want to do the same for theirs. The program director—yours truly—was never consulted, of course. One year, I found out on the morning of Christmas Eve, well after the show had been set up and the jocks briefed, that the entire choir series would have to be retooled to accommodate this kind of thing. The next year, after I took careful steps to see that it wouldn’t happen again, it happened again. But every year, when all the hassle was over, the choirs gave the station a beautiful vibe, and it was easy to imagine families all over the area tuning in.

Speaking of a beautiful vibe, it’s time to bring you a slice of the WLS Holiday Festival of Music, the greatest Christmas radio program of all time. We featured several segments of this show last year, and we send all thanks and praise to our friend Miles, who sent me his tapes of the 1980 show. This bit runs about 25 minutes, and gives you a full ration of Christmas choirs.

Holiday Festival of Music, midnight Christmas Eve/WLS, Chicago, 1980

2 thoughts on “Christmas on the Radio

  1. pd

    I seem to remember a Christmas weekend of 30 years ago when there were terrible storms and I was one of 4 or 5 people that could make it in to my part-time home from college for the holiday gig at WSDR Sterling-Rock Falls with studios in Sterling & Dixon. That meant from Friday evening until Sunday midnight I worked 6 hours on, 6 off. That was also the only time I’d worked a station that stayed full power day & night due to the emergency. Kind of funky, drop to night power to play a few commercials then back up to full boat to continue programming.

    Most memorable was a conference phone call between myself & 2 other Plattevilleans (TCW & JR) on the air at our respective stations making radio happen that holiday….PD

  2. Miles

    Thanks for the mention, jb. Indeed, this time of the year is when I face Chicago from Daytona and give a huge salute for the WLS of old, for giving us what you aptly described as “the greatest Christmas radio program of all time”. A lot of folks I’ve met over the years question that statement when I mention the show, but but are immediately won over after they hear just how well it was done. It’s Christmas day now, jb, and the cds that you made for me from the tapes are going non-stop in the house. This is one show that you never want to un-hear!

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