Sooner or later each Christmas season, you’ll hear something by Mannheim Steamroller. Their first Christmas album appeared in 1984; succeeding albums followed in 1988, 1995, 2001, and 2007. (Several compilations and live albums have also come out between 1997 and now, more than I can keep track of.) The albums tend to conform to a particular pattern: each one contains an amped-up stadium-rock version of a familiar song and a shimmering, slowed-down ballad version, something that sounds Elizabethan, a bit of choral music, and so on.
I worked at an elevator-music radio station for three years in the late 80s. (Long story short: It seemed like a good idea at the time.) And when A Fresh Aire Christmas came out in 1988, we were excited. Here was an instrumental Christmas album that was guaranteed to be a hit, and it fit our format better than any other station in the market. The Steamroller’s version of “O Holy Night,” a hushed and reverent number that closed the album, seemed perfect for us. And when we played it, the phones lit up.
You wouldn’t think that the elevator-music audience would use language like we heard on the telephone. People hated it. Our audience was very particular in the way they defined Christmas music, and Mannheim Steamroller was coloring outside the lines. (We didn’t stop playing “O Holy Night,” but we stopped talking about it.)
In the days before stations started playing Christmas music in October, our 36-hour wall-to-wall Christmas show starting at noon on Christmas Eve, and with few commercials, was a very big deal. We were pretty sure, although there were never any numbers to prove it, that we were #1 in the market for that golden day-and-a-half every year.
The rest of the year, the station struggled to make itself relevant—to snag decent ad buys from agencies, to convince clients that our listeners were not all living in nursing homes—but the struggle brought the jocks and the sales staff together. By Christmas 1988, the end of my second year, we were as tight a group of people as I’d ever worked with. Somebody described us as having a M*A*S*H mentality, the way people on the front lines stick together in wartime, fighting for each other, both against the enemy and against their own commanders—in our case, the station’s ownership—as necessary. And so on Christmas Eve 1988, we closed the office at noon, loaded the Christmas tapes into the automation, and had a staff party in the office—lots of food, a few drinks, and plenty of camaraderie.
One of the sales reps had become—and remains, all these years later—the older brother I never had. Another was an artist with a degree from Notre Dame. I shared an office with a woman who had never set foot in a radio station before taking her sales job; as a result, she had no preconceived notions, which made her innovative (she once asked me if I’d ever written a commercial for artificial limbs), and she was completely fearless. The jocks were good and the program director had us working like a well-oiled machine. Within one year, it would all go to hell, but that Christmas Eve is one of the best memories I have of the place.
I seem to have drifted from my starting point. Anyway, Mannheim Steamroller. Ubiquitous at Christmastime.