It’s been a few years since I wrote about the WLS Holiday Festival of Music, a program the Chicago AM radio giant ran from the late 60s into the 80s on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. I first heard it in 1970, and I’m pretty sure there’s never been another radio program so perfectly crafted for its purpose. I have several hours of the 1980 broadcast in my library, and it’s a pleasure to hear it every year.
Although WLS was a Top 40 station, it was never monolithically aimed at kids. At various points in the 70s, it was downright housewifey during middays, even giving away household appliances. In the 80s, it was practically an album-rock station at night. The Holiday Festival of Music was similarly broad. It included Bruce Springsteen’s “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” and “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” but also made room for Andy Williams and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. It all fit together, and that’s because it was made to fit. The Holiday Festival of Music did not merely aim to fill airtime—it set out to create a mood, and it did so in unexpected ways. Segments on the history of various Christmas traditions sat side-by-side with Bible passages and even prayers. One particularly powerful segment from my 1980 recordings is a long reading from the works of Catholic monk, writer, and philosopher Thomas Merton.
Thomas Merton, people.
(A segment of the Holiday Festival of Music is here. It aired at midnight, as Christmas Eve turned to Christmas Day, Thursday, December 25, 1980.)
Lots of radio stations fail on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day because they don’t take the time to do what WLS did so well—to curate their Christmas programming. They just rotate the same songs they’ve been playing since Halloween (or whenever), with production elements in between that don’t differ much from the rest of the year. The argument in favor of this is as follows: as long as it’s plausibly Christmassy, nobody will care. But that’s not true. Radio listenership actually spikes on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day—or at least it did in the days before streaming. People want no-fuss aural wallpaper, and what you play matters. A couple of Christmases ago, at my parents’ house, we turned on the DirecTV holiday music channel, and it was painful. The music selection was ridiculous: playing Justin Bieber and Ella Fitzgerald in the same quarter-hour is a crime against humanity. After a while, we turned it off. Over the years, I’ve heard other radio stations in other places get turned off for the same reason. It takes more than shuffle to set a mood.
When I was a program director, I did my best to curate the holiday programming, although it was a challenge when I was at the mercy of a program supplier. In Macomb, our Christmas library would contain bog-standard Top 40 stuff until Christmas Eve, when we’d bust out some ancient tapes that contained more traditional carols and chorales, Andy Williams and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. In small-town Iowa, we carried a satellite-delivered format that generally went wall-to-wall Christmas for a period on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. As I recall, it was decently done, although at least one year we replaced part of it with a syndicated Christmas show. Another year, the service announced that it would drop Christmas music entirely and go back to the regular format at 4:00 in the afternoon on Christmas Day. I immediately got on the phone to complain: “I’m a small-town station. If I stop playing Christmas music that early, people are going to burn my building down.” Mine must not have been the only call they got; by the end of the day they decided they’d play four Christmas songs an hour from 4:00 through midnight. Not ideal, but good enough.
I have said many times that one of the stations I work for, Magic 98 in Madison, comes as close to the spirit of the Holiday Festival of Music as we are likely to get in a world such as this. The show, “98 Hours of Christmas Magic,” starts at 10PM on Thursday night and runs through Christmas night at midnight. You can stream it right here.