Christmas FM proves the magic hasn’t worn off music radio

Jingle bell time is a swell time for charity station with devoted fanbase

Christmas FM launches its 2019 programme with charity partner Barretstown: station co-founder Garvan Rigby; former Irish rugby player and Barretstown ambassador Gordon D’Arcy; Barretstown chief executive Dee Ahearn; station co-founder Walter Hegarty

Christmas FM launches its 2019 programme with charity partner Barretstown: station co-founder Garvan Rigby; former Irish rugby player and Barretstown ambassador Gordon D’Arcy; Barretstown chief executive Dee Ahearn; station co-founder Walter Hegarty

 

What better tribute can be made to the solid gold joy of Christmas FM, the station that “jingles more bells than any other”, than the honour of its own multi-part, online traffic-optimised headline?

“When is Christmas FM back on the airwaves, what are the frequencies and who is their 2019 charity partner?”

Last Thursday is the answer to the Irish Sun’s first question. The station, which has a 30-day temporary radio licence from Santa’s Grotto, aka the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, counted down to its official launch with an “elf clock” and the promise that it would be soon be “switching on Christmas in Ireland”.

Radio veteran Keith Shanley then obliged by playing a non-controversial season starter, It’s Beginning to Look (a Lot) Like Christmas, as crooned by Bing Crosby. A bit of Bing, and that was it, Christmas FM was off.

In its 12-year history, the volunteer-staffed station, based in the Ballsbridge Hotel in Dublin, has raised almost €2 million for charitable causes. Last Christmas, it generated more than €400,000, its highest sum ever, for Temple Street Children’s Hospital. Its 2019 charity partner is Barretstown, the Co Kildare camp for seriously ill children. This is magical work, and means no one can ever mock Chris Rea ever again.

On various frequencies across Ireland, online and through its app, Christmas FM will duly sleigh-ride its way to St Stephen’s Day, at which point everybody is sick of having their bells jingled and both Christmas and Christmas FM are over for another year. These are the new calendar rules (and also the formula for a hit): get in the mood early and overegg all the pudding all you like, but don’t outstay your welcome.

Amid a bleak midwinter for Irish radio, the station’s cheerful existence can feel like a festive exception. It has been a frosty few years for the sector, with declining spot advertising triggering executive frustrations. While teenagers are more resistant to the medium than ever, Irish people still listen to radio in vast numbers and for long periods of time – a popularity the industry argues is not reflected in Scrooge-like marketing budgets.

Christmas FM is not short of brand love. This year, Cadbury, Coca-Cola and An Post are the main sponsors, with Renault and FreeNow also on board. For these companies, the chance to be associated with 30 days of strictly theoretical chestnuts roasting on an imaginary open fire is evidently too good to pass up.

Licence anticipation

Among social media users, too, Christmas FM is now a tradition that seems to generate greater dollops of anticipation and appreciation each year. On one level, this is a remarkable in 2019. Spotify may represent only a small fraction of total audio listening, but for music listeners, the Swedish streamer and its cousins offer an appealing selection box of tricks.

Users with firm ideas on what reaches their ears can compile their own lapse-free Christmas playlists (ones that prioritise Christmas Wrapping, but take a hard line on Little Drummer Boy, for instance). More casual listeners can browse Spotify’s “Season’s Greetings” tabs for company-generated lists with names like “Christmas Coffeehouse”, “Christmas Cocktail Jazz” and “Metal Christmas”. If you have a Christmas niche, Spotify will try to cater for it.

But it will do this without the humanity that radio has in spades and with nothing like the same degree of serendipity. That thrill when a radio station surprises you with a song you like but haven’t heard in a while, or a song you didn’t know you liked but suddenly sounds perfect, can’t quite be replicated by pressing “shuffle”.

The mood lift from radio listening can come from something as simple as knowing that there other people in other cars or other homes listening to the same thing at that exact same moment as you and loving it too. It might be illogical, as you can’t see or hear them, but knowing that your connection with a song is a shared experience fosters an intangible sense of identity, community, even solace. If that sounds sentimental, then it must be the time of year.

Technology has expanded our ability to control our media consumption. Streaming services market themselves on this premise: Spotify frames the chance to escape the ads, limited track skips and compulsory mobile shuffle mode of its non-paying version as a benefit of becoming a premium customer.

Power and control

But it’s an open secret of on-demand media that consumers don’t always know what to do with the control that’s on offer – too much choice and control can feel like too much hard work. That’s why tech media companies devote so much energy to suggestions, pushes, prompts and recommendations, some engineered by algorithms, some compiled by employees with the power to divvy out the highest profile spots on their platforms. On Spotify, this means a coveted place on its New Music Friday playlist.

And still there will be many who actively prefer the patter, chatter and rush hour traffic updates that come with a station like Christmas FM.

It’s not for the Bing-averse, obviously, but the roster of favoured songs does include some of the more pleasingly eccentric entries in the ever-expanding Christmas canon. Most importantly, it passes the Wham! test, eschewing the pesky “radio edit” of Last Christmas and playing the one with the verse where George Michael sings “My god, I thought you were someone to rely on / Me? I guess I was a shoulder to cry on.”

Radio: it’s not just for Christmas.

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