PHILADELPHIA -- It's not even Thanksgiving yet, but on radios nationwide it's beginning to sound a lot like Christmas.
More than two dozen FM music stations ditched regular programing this month in favor of an all-Christmas-music format, with plans to keep the carols coming until Dec. 26.
Somewhere between 200 to 300 more are expected to follow suit in the next few weeks, ensuring that listeners from Pennsylvania to Dixie's sunny shore will either get that fix of "Home for the Holidays" they've been craving - or go mad from repetitions of "Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer."
The changeovers mark a dramatic shift for many of the stations trying them.
Just a few years ago, it was unorthodox for DJs to start spinning holiday tunes more than a day or two before Christmas. Playing "Deck the Halls" before Thanksgiving was considered downright taboo - worse than opening all your presents on Christmas Eve.
But the number of stations experimenting with the format has surged since 2001, and programers say it's for one simple reason: ratings.
"It has been a proven home run in market after market," said Brian Check, a regional vice president of programming for Clear Channel Communications at WSNI-FM in Philadelphia.
"Maybe it's the mood of the country. Maybe after 9/11, and with the war, people want an early pick-me-up, I'm not sure," he said. "But audience demand is what's driving this."
The shifts, which have happened almost exclusively at adult-contemporary stations that normally play easy-listening pop, have sent ratings soaring almost everywhere they have been tried.
This year the trend has even touched off holiday music arms races, with rival stations angling to see who would go all-Christmas first.
Last year, WSNI - Sunny 104.5 - became Philadelphia's first station to try a full month of Christmas songs, and was rewarded with a ratings bonanza.
This year, rival WBEB-FM, one of the city's most listened-to stations, was determined not to be left out. Both stations went all-holiday within a few hours of each other on Nov. 12.
"I probably spent most of the first six months of this year wearing out a pair of shoes kicking myself in the rear end for not doing it last year," said Blaise Howard, vice president and general manager of WBEB, which is also known as B101.
In Kansas City, KUDL-FM and adult contemporary rival KSRC-FM both flipped the all-Christmas switch on Nov. 14. San Francisco's KBAY-FM and KOIT-FM made the change on Nov. 18, as did WLIT-FM and WNND-FM in Chicago. New York's WNEW-FM started on Nov. 13, with rival WLTW-FM expected to follow soon.
As might be expected, the changeovers haven't pleased everyone.
Nancy Esbensen, of Havertown, Pa., posted a protest petition on the Internet after the two Philadelphia stations made their switch.
"By the time Christmas gets here, we are going to be sick and tired of hearing 'Blue Christmas' on the radio. And that would be a shame," she said. "There is a time and a place for everything, and Thanksgiving is the cutoff."
Two New Orleans stations, WCKW-FM and rival WLMG-FM, jumped to the all-Christmas format early this week, but switched back when listeners complained.
Philadelphia's WBEB and WSNI both acknowledged that they received many complaints that they started too early.
"In all my years of programing, I've never had to handle such a polarizing issue as Christmas music," Check said, although he quickly added that similar criticism last year melted by early December.
The phenomenon does beg the question: how early will the stations go?
One Charlotte, N.C., station, WSSS-FM, started playing Christmas music at the stroke of midnight on Halloween.
Tom Taylor, who edits the daily industry newsletter Inside Radio, said the trend may continue as long as people keep feeling the need for an emotional lift.
"There's the economy. There's the war. A lot of people could probably use a little smile, and what gets people smiling more than Christmas?"
On the Net:
Sunny 104.5 petition: http://www.petitiononline.com/sunny25/petition.html
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