News & Politics

It’s Way Too Early for Radio Stations to Be Playing Christmas Music

One of Washington's most popular radio stations switched to its all-Christmas music playlist today. Good grief, it's not even Thanksgiving.

As Washington’s fifth-most listened to terrestrial radio station, WASH-FM 97.1 reaches a broad audience of office drones and car occupants with its adult-contemporary programming. Like any commercial radio station that plays an uninspired mix culled from Billboard charts of the last three decades, it’s relatively easy to ignore in a music environment that includes personal electronic devices and streaming services, but less so at the end of the year.

Starting this morning, as it does in mid-November every year, WASH switched over to an all-Christmas format, clobbering its listeners’ eardrums with jingling bells and shmaltzy yuletide crooning six days before Thanksgiving. It’s Christmas creep run amok, yet again. Heck, there are some lazy households that still haven’t taken down all their Halloween decorations.

WASH’s programming manager, Kenny King, didn’t return phone calls seeking an explanation for his station’s annual format change, but he didn’t really need to—the reasons behind it are obvious. The station’s owner, iHeartMedia, puts Christmas music on about two-thirds of the pop stations it owns throughout the country for at least a month before December 25 because it makes bank. “Our streaming numbers grew by over 20 percent the first two days and our ratings are always top of the ranker,” Steve Geofferies, an iHeartMedia executive, told the Arizona Republic after one of the company’s affiliates in Phoenix made the switch last week.

By comparison, WASH’s November 21 changeover is a lighter offender. That Phoenix radio station queued up its holiday hits on November 13. But both stations pale next to Wildwood Crest, New Jersey’s WEZW, which started its Christmas playlist on October 17, two whole weeks before Halloween!

Five or six weeks of warmed-over standards and contemporary covers of, well, the same standards might juice a radio station for a year-end ratings blitz, but it’s also the most blaring symptom of the Christmas steamroller. We long ago gave up any hope that stores would wait longer than the day after Halloween to go deep on the Christmas decorations and holiday “sales.” Fine. Good on you if you can get your shopping done before Black Friday, but nobody benefits from hearing the same soundtrack on repeat from now until Boxing Day.

Look, I’ve got nothing against Christmas music—objectively or religiously—and I write this as a Jewish guy who agrees with Brian Wilson’s assessment that A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector is one of the finest pop albums ever crafted, regardless of season. Is there a more joyous expression of loneliness in the history of recorded music than Darlene Love singing “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”? No. But I don’t want to hear it in the middle of November.

The other problem with the all-Christmas format, though, has no temporal fix. This holiday season marks a full 20 years since the last new veritable hit found a slot in the usual rotation. Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” is right up there with Love. Since Carey, though, the only “new” Christmas songs to work their way onto commercial radio are garbage-factory covers of decades-old tunes that survive on nostalgia. Sorry, Blake Shelton and Mary J. Blige, you’re not going to out-croon Nat King Cole on “The Christmas Song.” The Crystals‘ version of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” is the only one we need; Bruce Springsteen’s should be tossed in an E Street dumpster. And before anyone accuses me of only dissing chart-topping artists, let me add that Sun Kil Moon’s Mark Kozelek can get bent with his album of standards, too. Yoko Ono and the Flaming Lips just released a cover of “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)”; there’s none of Ono’s or Wayne Coyne’s trademark weirdness, just a bad attempt to imitate John Lennon’s hopefulness. Bob Geldof recently assembled his famous friends to re-record the already execrable charity single “Do They Know It’s Christmas” and managed to make it even worse; it cycled through WASH’s broadcast during the composition of this article, followed by a version of “Santa Baby” by Taylor Swift, who is no Eartha Kitt.

Despite some of my colleaguesbest efforts, it’s unlikely that any of the little-heard, but innovative takes on Christmas tunes will find their way into the mainstream holiday rotation. We’ll have years more of the latest chart-toppers’ attempts to cover the classics while new, gutsier takes on the holiday never get a chance at achieving real seasonal cachet. Lots of people are familiar with Jimmy Fallon’s “I Wish It Was Christmas Today,” which recurred on Saturday Night Live throughout the 2000s; far fewer know Strokes frontman Julian Casablancas turned it into a legitimate song. The rappers El-P and Killer Mike, who perform together as Run the Jewels, released “A Christmas Fucking Miracle” last year. It’s more goofy than festive, and, sure, too vulgar for terrestrial radio, but it’s maybe the best Christmas-themed hip-hop track since Run-DMC’s “Christmas in Hollis.”

In 2010, the Baltimore duo Beach House released “I Do Not Care for the Winter Sun,” an appropriately lo-fi track for the bleakest time of the year. It’s a nice break from the usual, bell-laden songs of the season, but I do not care to hear it—or any other holiday song, mainstream or obscure—before December, and neither should you. If you’re considering tuning your radio dial to WASH-FM, consider this your pre-holiday intervention.

Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed. Find some of his favorite Christmas songs on this playlist, but hold off listening to them for a couple weeks.

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.