(Above: The Edge of Christmas, Oglio Records. Another one from my collection.)
I don’t want to give the wrong impression: I don’t dislike Christmas music. In the last piece I talked about how some of the music of the season isn’t helping those who are having emotional issues. (Fun fact: in each of the last three stores I’ve been in since writing that piece, a version of “Blue Christmas” has played in each one.) I could see how one would get the impression that the music is the full problem.
No, my problem is with radio programmers. When I left commercial radio in 2009, I set out to break many of the “rules” of radio programming. (It worked: in 2012, radio expert/consultant/music fan Sean Ross gave a presentation at the Great Lakes Broadcasting Conference in Lansing, MI on radio programmers who successfully break the rules, and I was thrilled to hear my name in the presentation.) One of the tried and true rules is to offer a short playlist. The theory behind doing so is to gain the largest number of listeners (cumulative audience) without worrying about how long they tune in (time spent listening, or TSL). I was a TSL programmer. I wanted the audience I attracted to spend longer periods of time with the station, to make them passionate about the programming – to keep them guessing a little bit. Today’s “all-Christmas” stations offer no surprises. They typically have a list about a hundred songs deep, and spin ’em over and over until about noon on the 25th of December.
Why can’t we dig deeper? Why not play songs that don’t get a whole lot of attention, but can keep the audience guessing a bit? Why not inject a little “edge” into the programming? Modern programmers are still looking at David Bowie and Bing Crosby’s duet – which was progressive at the time – as an example of “See, we’re edgy!” Nonsense. Here are ten examples that, if aired, will spark some discussion/e-mails/complaints/revisions of resumes:
“Do You Hear What I Hear“, Bobby Lloyd & the Skeletons – We aired this song on WCFL/Morris, and I’ve worked it in once or twice since then. It’s effectively a mashup of the old 1963 Bing Crosby standard with the Kinks “You Really Got Me.”
“Presents For Christmas,” Solomon Burke – This should be in the rotation of an oldies station, anyway. This 1967 offering brings more than a little soul to the season.
“Let’s Make This Christmas Mean Something,” James Brown – Speaking of soul, if you do not own the whole Funky Christmas LP, you need to go and get it right now. Just to have a copy of “Santa Claus Go Straight To The Ghetto” would be worth it. The rest of the album is better.
“Sock It To Me Santa,” Bob Seger and the Last Heard – Long before the Silver Bullet Band delivered arena rock anthems, they were downright danceable. This Christmas song is no exception.
“Merry Christmas, Baby,” Beach Boys – The rest of the Beach Boys Christmas Album gets all the attention. You’ve no doubt heard “Little Saint Nick” and “The Man With All The Toys” from it, and if you were less lucky, “Frosty the Snowman.” The best track on the album is this one.
“Fairytale of New York,” The Pogues featuring Kirsty MacColl – This one’s just not going to get airplay on American radio. Across the rest of the British empire, however, you’ll hear it. I first heard it when it was suggested I needed to add it to the Christmas pile when I programmed 89FM in Gisborne, New Zealand, and hadn’t thought about it again until almost 20 years later when British exchange students asked about it at GVSU. This defines “non-traditional Christmas song.” Unless, of course, you need another example, which would cause me to point to
“The Christians and the Pagans,” Dar Williams – Happy Solstice! This song tells the story of what happens when a lesbian pagan couple sits down at the table with their Christian family – and find common ground. If I were still programming in 2016, I’d put it on, sit back, and wait for the complaints.
“Michigan Christmas,” Brian D’Arcy James. THIS was my “secret weapon” in my last two jobs in Michigan. It’s a lovely song that extols the virtues of everything my audience held sacred. There’s probably something similar about your hometown. It’s your job to find it.
“What Christmas Means To Me,” Stevie Wonder – Believe it or not, this also used to be a “secret weapon” record. It wasn’t until retailers like Target started using it in their ad campaigns a few years ago that it picked up attention. You can NOT hear this song and remain in a crummy mood – and that’s precisely the emotion that should be triggered this time of year.
“Green Chri$tma$,” Stan Freberg – Leave it to one of the greatest creators of radio advertising we’ve ever known to come up with a biting satire of the commercialization of Christmas. When this was created in 1958, a number of radio stations wanted no part of it lest their advertisers become offended. When I added it to rotations in the 90s and 2000s, the same concerns existed. I played it anyway, because the same sentiment is valid. If only Freberg was able to address the assault of pop-ups and native advertising. (While you’re adding Freberg, seek out “Christmas Dragnet.” Most folks call ’em green onions…)
Programmers: what are your Christmas “secret weapons?” Listeners: what are the songs you wish your local station would play, but never do? Feel free to chime in and add a comment below.