Christmas FM, Ireland’s Christmas station first hit the airwaves in 2008 as a Dublin-only operation. The idea for the station had been born out of a discussion over drinks on a warm august evening, a mere three months earlier.
The four principals had all worked individually on radio projects over a long number of years and were looking for a new challenge by pooling their experience and expertise. The idea of a Christmas station was one of several suggestions!
The fact that the format was extremely popular especially in the US was a determining factor, along with the time of year which hopefully would provide a goodwill factor. The idea of a socially conscious station was important to all involved, so it was decided to incorporate a charity element into the format.
With only three months to a potential launch and an even narrower window to apply for a broadcasting licence, the pressure was on. Combined with this, there were the practicalities of finding a studio premises, outfitting, equipment, staff, financing and all the other necessities of launching a radio station. Also, the economic downturn by this time had the country in its grip – not the best time to be launching a new project!
Despite the many challenges and timeframe, the station launched on the 28th November 2008 from the Clyde Court Hotel (the old Berkeley Court) in Ballsbridge on 89.9FM in Dublin.
It was fortunate to have the great “Shakin Stevens” available for the press launch. Sponsorship of the station’s costs was provided by Top Gifts who generously (some would say bravely) took a punt on what was a completely unknown quantity. Staff had been recruited across the DJ and radio industry, all of whom donated their time free of charge to aid our charity partner, Childline (ISPCC).
At the end of our licence run, €30,000 had been raised via the text line and donations made by Christmas FM listeners. It was with mixed feelings of relief and regret that we signed off on the 26th December. Little did we realise that this was just the first step on a journey that has brought us to our tenth year and a total raised for charity in excess of €1.25 million!
From the beginning there has been a very focussed approach to the format and music content which has been refined over the years. While there is a plethora of Christmas music (‘The Christmas Song’ alone has over 600 versions!!) available we were conscious that listeners would be expecting the traditional favourites.
Equally, these could not be recycled endlessly no matter how often requested to avoid listener fatigue. While over the years additional music has been added to the playlist, the core list has essentially remained the same. Every year sees a couple of new or old favourites come to the fore however the perennial favourites such as Mariah Carey, The Pogues, etc still dominate the listeners top five.
The one song that still divides the listeners almost 50/50 is Christmas Shoes. You either love it or hate it!!
Some surprising hits have surfaced over the years such as Straight No Chaser with The Christmas Can Can which was introduced by our late colleague, Jim Kenny. Surprisingly enough there has been a great reaction from listeners of all ages to crooners like Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, all of whom are constantly requested. This subsequently prompted us to launch the digital station Christmas FM Classics to cater exclusively for this group.
Christmas FM has been extremely fortunate from the outset to have the services of an exceptional group of broadcasters all of whom donate their time. Many are or have been professional broadcasters with national, local and community radio and take time out at what is a busy time of year to contribute to the success of the station.
Most people do not realise that, for every voice heard on air, there are probably three times as many volunteers behind the scenes. In fact, the volunteer rota now exceeds 100 individuals who are involved in research, production, news, traffic, promotions, social media and a myriad of other areas. Without their dedication Christmas FM simply would not happen.
During the “quiet” time of the year, the station operates radio production/media training courses which are open to any member of the public with the intention of identifying new and future talent for the Christmas FM family. This has proven very successful with a number of students becoming presenters on the digital channels before transitioning to the main station. Many others have contributed behind the scenes by conducting interviews, producing inserts and editing content.
From humble and hasty beginnings in 2008, the station has adopted a growth strategy which has positioned it as a quasi-national operation with 12 transmitter sites throughout the country. While the original intention had been to run a Dublin-only Christmas station on a one-off basis, the success of the project made it clear that an appetite existed both with listeners and staff for a longer-term project.
Immediately after closedown in 2008, the decision was made to apply for a further licence in 2009 with expanded coverage. With a longer lead-in period and lessons learned, it was hoped to make the service even more engaging and entertaining for the listener.
In year two, Cork was added to the network with additional regions being rolled out in subsequent years. Following a number of moves, the station found a permanent home in the Ballsbridge Hotel in 2013 which allowed the team to build a permanent studio and production facility along with office space.
This was hugely beneficial as it meant they could now avoid the annual task of building studios from scratch, not to mention disassembling them early in the New Year. With an increased workload due to expansion, time was becoming even more precious as everyone concerned had “day jobs” to pay the bills!
As well as the traditional FM service, the station has put a huge effort into developing its digital footprint which now encompasses a number of online stations, website, apps and social media. Christmas FM now has over 84,000 followers on Twitter and almost 100,000 page likes on Facebook!
The Christmas FM approach to the festive season is twofold. Firstly, and in the main, to provide a family-friendly radio station that celebrates all things Christmas. To do this, they rely on sponsors who cover the operational costs of the station. Sponsors over the years have included numerous blue-chip companies such as EBS, Lidl, Centra, Cadbury, Tesco and An Post.
The second strand of the “mission” is to raise awareness and funds for its charity partner. Very often, awareness of what the charity is about is just as important as the money raised as it gives people a deeper understanding of what exactly their contribution means in terms of services provided. This in itself can act as a trigger for people who may have been hesitant in contributing or had misconceptions about the process.
From a modest €30,000 in 2008 the station raised a phenomenal €365,000 in 2016 through the generosity of the listeners bringing our 9-year total raised to €1.25 million. The Irish charities that have benefitted to date are:
2008: ISPCC. – €35.000
2009: Simon – €70,000
2010: Barnardos – €86,000
2011: Focus – €117,000
2012: ISPCC – €100,000
2013: Aware – €85,000
2014: Age Action – €107,000
2015: Make A Wish – €278,000
2016: Focus – €365,000
With the operational costs covered by sponsors, all monies raised through the premium rate text line, website and call centre go direct to the charity and are fully transparent.
Christmas FM is now officially ‘Ireland’s Christmas Station’ and hopes to bring the magic of Christmas to people around the globe for many years to come!