This Year, The Most Wonderful Time For Christmas Songs Was ... In July Stations have been playing Christmas music earlier than ever this year, as a way of luring in listeners during the pandemic. One Indiana station was doing it in July.

In Pandemic, The Most Wonderful Time For Christmas Songs Turned Out To Be ... In July

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Do you complain about all the Christmas music on the radio but then really secretly love it? Radio stations see their ratings jump when they play it, and they began even earlier in 2020. Here's NPR's Jim Zarroli.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: Christmas music makes people feel good. So what does a radio station do in a year when everyone's miserable and out of work? It starts playing it earlier.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE NEED A LITTLE CHRISTMAS")

JOHNNY MATHIS: (Singing) For we need a little Christmas right this very minute...

ZARROLI: Radio stations this year began playing Christmas music on Veterans Day, Halloween. One Ohio station started up in September. Then there's Majic 95.1 in Fort Wayne, Ind. It was decking the halls in July.

CHRIS DIDIER: We knew that the world was topsy-turvy. We just knew from playing Christmas music over the years that there's something special about it that people connect with.

ZARROLI: That's Chris Didier, whose on-air name is Captain Chris. His station played Christmas music for a few hours every evening this summer. If you find the notion of Christmas in July a little jarring, you're not alone. Just ask Jerry Ryan. Ryan has a unique place in the history of radio.

JERRY RYAN: I'm the guy who you can blame for all this obnoxious Christmas music (laughter) on all these radio stations.

ZARROLI: Thirty years ago, Ryan was vice president and general manager at KESZ-FM, an adult contemporary station in Phoenix. He was competing against bigger stations owned by huge corporations. He had to find a way to make the station stand out, so he came up with an idea.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S BEGINNING TO LOOK LIKE CHRISTMAS")

BING CROSBY: (Singing) It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas...

ZARROLI: Starting right after Thanksgiving, KESZ began playing Christmas music nonstop. Consultants told him he was crazy, at least until the ratings took off.

RYAN: Well, the next year (laughter), let me tell you, once those consultants saw what happened, they started pitching it to every one of their clients. It started popping up all over the country.

ZARROLI: Today, hundreds of stations play Christmas music this time of year, and Ryan is credited with inventing the format. Ryan realized that Christmas songs can create a powerful emotional bond with audiences. People who don't listen to the radio all year long will tune in to hear Christmas music - men, women, people of every demographic - and they mostly want to hear standards, songs they've been listening to since they were kids.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER")

GENE AUTRY: (Singing) Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer had a very shiny nose.

ZARROLI: Ryan is retired from commercial radio now, but he still has strong opinions about what works with audiences, and he doesn't think people usually want to hear Christmas music before Thanksgiving.

RYAN: I don't think there's a heck of a lot of emotional value to Christmas music outside of that particular time.

ZARROLI: But maybe this year is different. Captain Chris says that when Majic 95.1 started playing Christmas music in July, it went over really well.

DIDIER: We got incredible feedback, lots of calls, lots of emails, people saying, yes, thank you for doing this. We really love the Christmas music.

ZARROLI: Emily Boldon, vice president of adult contemporary radio at Cumulus Media, adds that her stations have seen the same strong response. Boldon has a theory about what's happening. She says listeners associate Christmas with the year ending, and this has been a really terrible year.

EMILY BOLDON: I think everybody is trying to rush the holiday this year just so we can get beyond it. The audience was just ready to get to the end of 2020 as fast as possible this year.

ZARROLI: Jim Zarroli, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCKIN' AROUND THE CHRISTMAS TREE")

BRENDA LEE: (Singing) Rocking around the Christmas tree...

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