The Joy (and Pain) of Radio-Station Christmas Shows
The Joy (and Pain) of Radio-Station Christmas Shows

With Thanksgiving in the rear-view mirror, it's time to turn our attention to another time-honored tradition: radio station Christmas shows.

While most of the press coverage goes to the monstrous major market extravaganzas like the Jingle Balls held by Clear Channel's twin towers of WHTZ (Z100)/New York and KIIS(Kiss-FM)/Los Angeles, the fact is stations across the country put on holiday shows without the resources and pull of the major markets.

For those program directors, a station Christmas show is at best incredibly stressful and at worst can be career limiting, which begs the question, why do it?

"You want to do a successful event that makes money and brands your radio station," says Sue O'Neil, Operations Manager for Entercom Top 40 WKSE (Kiss 98.5)/Buffalo

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Christmas in July
The first step to having a great holiday show is building a great lineup says Clear Channel Seattle Operations Manager John Peake, "Booking talent is the number one challenge. Each year we want to have the perfect bill that delivers on the [KBKS (Kiss 106.1)] audience's expectations."

That process starts long before turkeys start getting nervous about the holidays. Successful show planning begins in the summer when programmers start talking about the holiday schedule with labels and managers. That means programmers have to try and figure out which acts will be relevant in December while the listeners are still on summer vacation.

And that's where a lot of stations get into trouble says Mike Easterlin, VP of Promotion at Roadrunner Records.

Not only is Easterlin working with acts like Gym Class Heroes and Cobra Starship who are playing a myriad of holiday shows this year, but he has worked with stations on assembling Christmas concerts in a variety of formats.

"Program directors often fail to understand the difference between radio acts that sound good on the air and touring acts that have an established fan base and can sell tickets," says Easterlin. "Every year you'll have a couple of shows stiff because they didn't load themselves with enough touring acts to balance out the radio acts."

For anyone who isn't confident in their ability to build a strong lineup, Easterlin suggests working with a promoter that already does business in the market, "if you are going to get into the concert business get in with someone who knows the concert business."

Once a station decides on an artist for their holiday show it's important to carefully lock down all the details says O'Neil. Everything from price and performance length to the band's rider, "It's important to know what you have to cover. Are they getting pickles on their sandwiches or just meat?"

That also includes arranging for meet-and-greets, how many tickets the band will need and backline which can vary widely, "An artist that just broke doesn't have the same equipment standards as one that's been doing it for five years and plays to 5,000 people every night," says Easterlin.

When fall rolls around and the lineups are locked in it's time to put the tickets are on sale and make magic for the listeners.

But ticket giveaways and meet-and-greets are just the beginning.

Peake says his station is using social media to drive listener interest and tune-in, "We activate our Facebook and Twitter accounts to get the word out about the show by sharing information about the artists and announcing ticket giveaways."

O'Neil adds that the artists themselves should be promotional partners, "Bands can help you market the show. They can post messages on their Facebook and Twitter accounts."

But Easterlin finds one important difference between the biggest shows and smaller market efforts is interaction with local press outlets, "When you are in a medium market and get four or five acts to show up that's a big story."

He suggests budgeting money to hire a publicist; someone who has experience and connections with the local media and can get them out to cover the show, "I realize most stations don't have the bodies to take on that extra work but not looking outside of the station for exposure can really be a missed opportunity."

Then comes the actual event, a night for the station to shine.

"We 'own it' on site," says Peake. "We broadcast live from the venue, we announce the bands live from the stage and our sponsors set up booths throughout the venue."

O'Neil also adds a number of special touches to make the night more than just another concert such as balloon drops, seat upgrades, presents from local retailers and even a local charity selling blinking Santa Claus hats, "there's so much going on it's crazy."

Like any good party, a station show starts with the hosts, "I encourage the staff to go get pretty," says O'Neil. "Wear a good outfit. Get a hair-cut. They are going to be standing up in front of 14,000 people."

Once the doors open she expects them to be out in the crowd talking to listeners giving away prizes and sharing the experience on their Facebook pages.

For Easterlin, show time has a different meaning; taking care of his artists, "These are human beings who do break down especially during this Christmas show run."

He asks that stations keep that in mind and do everything possible to make the artists comfortable so they will be able to handle promotional commitments for the station and getting up on stage to perform.

Another Approach
For stations that don't want to get into the show promoting business, one answer may be aligning the station with a nearby market's show like Joe Roberts, the program director at Cumulus Top 40 KHOP/Modesto has.

Being wedged neatly between Sacramento and San Francisco the station routinely gives away tickets to shows in the bigger cities throughout the year.

Come holiday time, Roberts teams with Entercom Top 40 KDND/Sacramento, giving away tickets to their holiday show so the station can be associated with big name acts without the challenge of trying to lure them to town.

"A lot of these shows are selling well but not as great as they were five years ago," says Roberts. "So this works for everyone. My station gets to be part of a big show and the presenting station has an easier time getting a sellout."

But for programmers who do have their own show and are facing less than stellar ticket sales, Easterlin says all is not lost.

He suggests talking to the labels about artists that can pump up ticket sales, "It's stunning how many acts are sitting at home not doing anything that could sell a ton of tickets."

Quite often it's performers who haven't quite broke at radio yet or don't have a current hit that could do a lot to pump up a show's box office receipts, "I understand that it may be an artist you don't play but this isn't about airplay, it's about selling tickets right now," Easterlin says.