That’s Christmas to Me

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(Pictured: Pentatonix onstage in 2022.)

(This post contains my personal opinions only and not those of the company I work for. I wouldn’t presume to speak for them, and nobody should ever presume that I do.)

I spent maybe 25 or 30 hours programming Christmas music for my radio station’s 98 Hours show this year, finally finishing it at 12:30 on the afternoon of Christmas Eve. Observations follow:

—The Christmas-only library includes lots of Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Johnny Mathis, and the like, which goes back as far as the 1950s, along with more contemporary stuff. And it’s the stuff from the last 10 years that’s the hardest to schedule, because of the dense, loud production I’ve harped about recently. You almost have to schedule it to follow a commercial break; you can’t put it next to Sinatra, that’s for damn sure. And even putting it next to a commercial break doesn’t always take the curse off. I scheduled very little of the contemporary stuff between 6PM Christmas Eve and noon Christmas Day, based on how people would be using the show during that period. When you’re sipping wine and admiring the tree on Christmas Eve, or enjoying a quiet Christmas-morning cup of tea, you don’t want Kelly Clarkson yelling at you like a 3AM car alarm.

—Adult-contemporary radio goes all-in on Christmas music during December; a version of “Last Christmas” by the Backstreet Boys has been the #1 AC single all month. It’s completely unnecessary and a butt-ugly production besides, but it was never not going to be a hit. On the other hand, a lot of adult-contemporary artists get their hands on a Christmas song and think it’s 1952 all over again. David Foster and Katharine McPhee released a version of “Jingle Bell Rock” this year with a big-band arrangement, which all month long created the reverse of the adult-contemporary scheduling problem I described in the preceding paragraph. It sounded as jarring next to anything not-Christmassy as Kelly Clarkson sounds next to Johnny Mathis.

—If you’re an established artist hoping to get airplay, cover a familiar Christmas song. The radio Christmas canon is mostly set in stone, and the smartest course is to take advantage of it. That goes double for a new artist. Yet every year, record labels pitch original Christmas songs recorded by artists nobody’s heard of. That’s a hard way to make a living, although maybe getting a few thousand Spotify streams in December is the end, and whatever radio play you can get is a means to it. (The last new group/new song to enter the canon was “That’s Christmas to Me” by Pentatonix—in 2014.)

—On the subject of “Last Christmas,” I took myself out of Whamageddon by scheduling the song for one of my radio shows earlier this month. “Last Christmas” has never bothered me. It’s one of the least-interesting records in Wham’s discography, but it’s a vibe at Christmastime, so it’s fine.

—I also scheduled “Same Old Lang Syne” for my show on a recent day. (Technically, the scheduling software did it, and I was too busy to replace it.) It’s been a couple of years since I heard it, and you know how it is: sometimes you revisit an old thing and find that your opinion of it has changed. That did not happen with “Same Old Lang Syne.” It still sucks. Every time you say that on social media—and I did—people rise to defend it. “It’s a true story!” Well so what? Even a true story can be told poorly. I do not believe for one damn second that those two people did what they did and said what they said the way Dan Fogelberg told it. The truth of the incident does not excuse his failure as a storyteller.

—After spending so many hours scheduling Christmas music, I am now unable to see the title “Let It Snow” without saying “le tits now” in a Sean Connery voice. In addition, I found it humorous—and cathartic at moments of frustration—to incorporate the word “fucking” into titles: “Hark the Fucking Angels Sing,” “Fucking Around the Christmas Tree,” etc. I am also 12 years old.

My goal for the Christmas show was to make it sound as though it had been programmed by a human being, not merely coughed up by an algorithm, and for the most part, I’m pleased with how it turned out. My professional satisfactions are small by definition, but this is one of them.

6 thoughts on “That’s Christmas to Me

  1. Mitch Winder

    And this is why you’ve been my favorite Saturday DJ for more years than I care to mention. (Wish we could turn the clock back and lose the 7 PM start time.)

    The dog and I listened for a brief time Christmas Eve. Well done, sir.

  2. Wesley

    I caught about 5 hours of the 98 hours and loved it thoroughly. Would’ve loved to have heard the Christmas Eve show, but family obligations required me to spend time with them and little time for myself left before I went to bed.

    Incidentally, Boxing Day after Christmas was a shock to my ears in our local radio market. Curtis Media realigned its frequencies at multiple stations. This meant that the top oldies station added simulcasting on two stations nearby both on the dial as well as within the market to boost its signal at the edges. Despite the main oldies station’s signal covering only part of the market, it nevertheless ranked fifth overall in the November 2022 Nielsen Audio ratings with a 5.1 share.

    At the same time, the second highest-rated FM oldies station converted into simulcasting a contemporary hits format from a station mostly outside the market. Going from hearing Bing Crosby Christmas today to Rihanna with a swooshing intro between songs definitely was jarring to me, to say the least.

  3. Leo Edelstein

    (Bias alert, I worked at Magic 98.)
    No radio station music director spent more time organizing 24 hours, must less, 98 hours of Christmas Magic than Jim Bartlett. Christmas after Christmas, Magic 98 WMGN’s music variety is topped only by Santa for unbelievable accomplishments. Where else in North America can you hear classics likeThe Nutcracker Suite by Tchaikovsky, voices of Nat King Cole, Burl Ives, Chicago, Bing Crosby, David Bowie w/Bing, Frank w/Bing, Barbra Steisand, Kenny G?

    Thank you, thank you Magic 98. Standing clear of Xmas tunes until December 22nd. Then, the amazing Christmas music choreography begins. Good to the last needle drop on Christmas Day.

  4. mackdaddyg

    Part of me thinks you are probably the only person in the whole country who actually programmed your Christmas tunes with any sort of care. That’s very impressive on your part, but it’s sad that nobody else cares about how radio sounds anymore. Throwing all the music into some sort of computerized blender is such a sad state of affairs.

    Also, “you don’t want Kelly Clarkson yelling at you like a 3AM car alarm” is just a lovely phrase to read. Thank you for that. I don’t know why, but it amused me greatly.

    1. Thank you, mackdaddyg, and everybody else for your kind words here. My model for 98 Hours was the old WLS Holiday Festival of Music, which was a brilliantly curated long-form program. It’s been many, many years since I had the sense that radio in general cares *how* it plays Christmas music.

      On another matter, it’s clear that Kelly Clarkson is talented. But she believes, or she’s been told somewhere along the way, that the only way to express heightened emotion is through greater volume, and she’s not the only one. It renders some of her stuff barely listenable, and in the case of some of her Christmas music, unplayable.

      1. Mitch Winder

        I thought I was the only one that concerned myself with such things. Comparing volume to emotion is like saying hot sauce is a food group.

        I marvel at certain things in certain songs. A really good song to me has a story embedded in the music that’s hidden behind the lyrics. (I have a list of favorites.) The music is the emotion for me.

        Anyway, thanks for allowing us to be a part of what makes a real live professional DJ. I’m glad iHeart didn’t do away with all of them.

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