Yes, we are still nearly two weeks from Thanksgiving.
And yes, we’ve yet to see any sort of snowfall.
But there it was, bright and early Friday morning, streaming out of thousands of alarm clocks and filling the cars of commuters in the chilly autumn air:
It’s true. Some local radio stations – WJYE-FM 96.1 and WTSS-FM 102.5 among them – began their holiday music programming on Friday.
And not just a little bit, like a Frosty or a Rudolph song here and there. We’re talking around-the-clock carols and pop-star warblings about chestnuts, stockings and cheer.
And, two of the area’s top deejays say they’ve gone the 24/7 holiday trend one better.
Tom Ragan, morning co-host of WEDG-FM 103.3, claimed his show started playing Christmas music in September when he and Ted Shredd played the top five worst Christmas songs from 2012. This week, Shredd and Ragan continued to play holiday music – at three times the normal speed. Ragan said they will continue to play three holiday songs at triple speed every 20 minutes until they get bored.
“It’s insane, but we’re competitive, so we decided that if they’re going to play Christmas music, we will play more and that would mean speeding it up three times faster,” said Ragan. “If they played one song, we already played three. ‘Jingle Bells’ by the Barking Dogs easily comes in at 30 seconds.”
It all led to lots of incredulous conversation in workplaces and homes on Friday, as well as too-many-to-count Facebook postings along the lines of this one, which popped up on the Facebook page for one of the radio stations playing the music:
“Ugh, nothing worse than being surprised by Christmas music on the alarm clock. See you in 2013 ... ”
What’s going on? That was the question on the minds of many Western New Yorkers – some of whom have not put away their Halloween decorations yet, let alone gotten out their Thanksgiving decor.
But one local radio professional broke down the situation this way: The music gets played because it drives advertising dollars into the stations that play it – and people don’t mind listening to it. For the most part.
“I think it’s really geared toward advertising,” said Mark Scott, former news director at WBFO-FM who now works part time there. “But there must be people who want to hear it.”
Oh, there are. On the 102.5 FM Facebook page, comments like “What the heck?” and “TOOOOOOO EARLY!!!” were offset by other postings expressing delight at the idea of Nat King Cole and Brenda Lee before the turkey, stuffing and cranberries.
“This music makes my day,” one listener wrote on the page.
Sue O’Neil, operations manager at 102.5 FM, said on Friday said, “We started at 12:01 this morning I started getting emails in September from people asking us to switch, so for some people, this may be early. For others, it’s not early enough.”
An average radio hour can air a dozen songs, said O’Neil. And holiday songs are relatively short at 2 to 2½ minutes, so you can jam as many as 20 Christmas songs into an hour-block of time. In 2000, said O’Neil, 102.5 started playing holiday music earlier than in previous years – on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving.
“The next year was 9/11, and people were so shattered by the Sept. 11 terrorist act that the music really resonated,” O’Neil said. “It was about spirit. It was about good will.”
It’s also about ratings and advertising revenue, she admitted.
“The ratings are off the charts, O’Neil said. “There is a reason that radio stations do it. The ratings book ends in early December. To go Christmas the day after Thanksgiving would be OK with some people, but we would only get a couple of weeks of the ratings book.”
Not all stations are participating in the unofficial “Christmas Music Wars.”
John Hager is program director for WGRF-FM 96.9 and operations director for WHTT-FM 104.1, both owned by Cumulus Media. Hager said holiday music will not be played until Black Friday on 104.1, a station that plays classic hits and oldies. On 96.9, a classic rock station, it won’t be played until well into December. “We feel it’s too early to start now,” Hager said. “Our listeners are not coming to our stations for Christmas music.”
The early Christmas music fits into a larger cultural shift – at least upstate – to Christmas seasons that seem to come earlier and earlier each year.
At this time last year, people at Walmarts were buying wreaths and garland and holiday ornaments. Artificial trees were on display in local home stores. Department stores had Christmas-themed sections and decorations.
It’s the same this year, and there might even be a touch of poignancy in the reactions of people to Christmas decorations and music.
Considering that we’ve just been through a bruising election season, who can blame people if they are looking for a little cheerfulness and conviviality?
“A lot of my friends on Facebook are loving it,” said WBFO’s Scott. “I was surprised by the number of people on Facebook who were glad to have it.”
At the University at Albany, William Husson, a professor of communication who specializes in pop culture, said that the Christmas creep of holiday music and decor into the period before Thanksgiving is noticeable.
“I’m going to be a little bit of a softie here,” he said. “People love Christmas music. It’s soothing. It’s cheerful.”
Husson said there are arguments to be made about the over-commercialization of Christmas in terms of early and non-stop advertising.
But, Husson said, maybe the music is something different.
“I don’t think it says anything bad [about us],” he said. “Of course, as with anything, there are lines beyond which things get a little silly.”