Every year when KOST-FM (103.5) switches to nonstop holiday music, its ratings boost makes other stations look as weak and wan as Charlie Brown's Christmas tree. This season, KOST's audience figures came in as large and gaudy as the pink aluminum tree of Lucy's dreams.
During the holidays, KOST claimed 10.2% of the Los Angeles-Orange County listening audience ages 6 and older, according to numbers released Tuesday by the Arbitron ratings service.
That crushed second-place KIIS-FM (102.7), the pop station that garnered a 5.5% audience share — a total good enough to win the ratings crown almost any other time of the year. Instead, the Top 40 outlet lagged far behind KOST and its nonstop offerings of Burl Ives, Bing Crosby and Mariah Carey during the survey period from Dec. 6 through Jan. 2.
Since 2008, Arbitron has divided the year into 13 four-week ratings periods, one named for each month plus the year-end "holiday" segment. In the Holiday 2012 survey, KOST not only won the overall crown, but also claimed every chunk of the day that Arbitron measures individually: mornings, middays, afternoon drive, evenings, overnights and weekends.
At the end of every year since 2001, KOST has flipped its playlist from adult-contemporary soft rock to continuous carols. The move perennially guarantees a ratings boost — but never before to this extent. KOST so dominated the airwaves this past holiday season that it became the first station to snag a double-digit rating — at any point in the year — since Arbitron switched from quarterly surveys in 2008. KOST's previous best showing was 9.3% during the 2010 holidays.
"I think over the years, KOST has managed to further refine what it's done during the Christmas period," said Andrew Jeffries, vice president of programming for KOST and seven sister stations in Los Angeles owned by Clear Channel, the nation's largest radio chain.
"We're constantly looking at what Christmas songs we're playing," he said, and weighing old chestnuts against new releases from the likes of Michael Bublé or Rod Stewart. "It's an endless supply of changes."
For the second year in a row, KOST had direct competition from KTWV-FM (94.7), the adult contemporary and smooth jazz station known as "The Wave." In 2011, the Wave saw its ratings drop from November to December after it switched to nonstop Christmas music. Station officials tweaked the playlist and the ratings rebounded somewhat by year's end. In 2012, both KOST and KTWV made the switch Nov. 15, and by December the Wave had jumped from a 14th-place tie to 11th.
Then KTWV leaped again, up to fourth during the Holiday survey period, increasing its share from 3.1% to 4%. The previous year during that time, the Wave finished sixth at 3.7%.
"Last year was the year of laying the foundation and letting the audience know this was where they could find their holiday music," said Jhani Kaye, KTWV program director. "This year was the year of growth and traction."
During the most recent ratings period, KOST's cumulative audience — the number of listeners who tuned in for least five minutes per week — topped 4.56 million. It was the biggest total for any station this year, but not KOST's all-time high. During the holidays in 2010, the station topped 4.91 million.
Last year KOST rode its holiday high into the new year, and finished first in January 2012 — tied with talk station KFI-AM (640) — and then placed second in February. The key is getting holiday listeners to stick around after the stockings are stashed and the wreaths recycled.
"It's an incredibly important time for the radio station," Jeffries said, and KOST's preliminary research on listeners shows "there will be more stickiness this year than last. We'll be in a wonderful place this year."
With a broad appeal, KOST can draw away listeners from stations of many other genres, as well as entice non-radio listeners. He compared the effect to the legion of people watching the Super Bowl who paid no attention to the NFL the rest of the year. For KOST, he said, Christmas "is our Super Bowl."
And yet, as big a slice of the pie as KOST gobbled up, there was still plenty for others.
KTWV showed listeners' healthy appetite for Christmas music. And KIIS, which for most of 2012 was the top-rated station in the market, maintained its audience — the pop station has held 5.5% or 5.6% of total listeners every ratings period since October, a share good enough to win the horse race during most months. And its audience total stood at 3.6 million, about where it has been all year.
But those normally impressive numbers were no match for KOST this Christmas.
Jeffries said, among other things, that he thinks an improving economy has brightened people's outlook and made them more willing to embrace the season. They're less anxious about what the new year might bring, or whether in 2012 Santa Claus would be able to leave anything under the tree, and instead "looked at him with a glint in their eye and a smile on their face."
"You go back a few years, there was a lot more anxiety around money and work. I think there's probably a sense of relief. I think people felt better about life in general in 2012 around Christmastime than in the past few years."
Kaye added that cooler weather this year compared with last also helped get people in a holiday mood.
"The audience has told us loud and clear that they really enjoyed the music presentation this holiday season," Kaye said. "In all likelihood, they can count on it continuing for many years to come."
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