Choirs of Christmas

‘Tis the season for high-school choirs on the radio. Or at least it used to be.

At one of my stations, our chief engineer traveled far and wide over our listening area with two microphones and a cassette deck, recording performances at various schools. Meanwhile, the sales department was pitching sponsors for the eventual broadcast of the shows.

I used to say that the easiest way to sell a high-school sports broadcast was to see which players’ fathers own businesses in town and hit them up first. That’s not true anymore (and it wasn’t especially true back in the day), but high-school sports is nevertheless mainly an emotional buy. Local businesses want to support the local team, and if the money they spend on the advertising doesn’t result in a single sale, it doesn’t matter. Christmas choir broadcasts were the same kind of buy.

The package the sponsors bought was usually pretty simple: they’d get a couple of spots in the broadcast, a certain number of mentions in promotional announcements leading up to the broadcast, and possibly a few additional spots during the regular broadcast day the week or two before Christmas. Packages didn’t cost a lot, but they were easy to sell and they sold very well. Businesses that didn’t usually advertise often bought them to extend holiday greetings.

I preferred not to put a commercial break in the middle of the choir performances. This made it easy from a production standpoint—we didn’t have to figure out where and how to break during each performance, and it was more enjoyable for the listeners, too. One year, however, a particular client (the kind who wouldn’t consider buying advertising at any other time of year, of course) asked for a spot in the middle, and the sales rep said, “Sure, no problem.” Then other sales reps began offering their clients spots in the middle. But nobody bothered to consult the program director, who had already completed production of the shows, because it was December 21st already. And so I arrived at work on the morning of the 22nd to learn that I was going to have to reconfigure the choir tapes to put breaks in the middle of the performances.

I did not take this news particularly well.

Starting sometime in mid-December, we’d air a choir or two each evening around dinnertime, and then on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, we’d repeat the whole lot of them, back to back to back. Quality of the groups would vary widely—a choir from a rural high school might have a dozen voices in ragged unison, while a city high school choir might be four times as large and harmonize beautifully. The songs themselves ran the gamut, from secular favorites to serious classical numbers. There would be plenty of hymns and carols, too, partly because this was years before schools became as skittish about religion as they would become, and partly because this was small-town, white-bread America and nobody cared.

Christmas is a holiday that draws people together. Although we think mostly of families drawing near, it can—and probably should—involve communities too. And when the high-school choir from West Overshoe, population 500, is singing on the radio, pride in the accomplishment belongs to all of West Overshoe. As it should. Or as it did, anyhow. I don’t know whether small-town radio stations do this kind of thing anymore. Perhaps not, given the way so many are automated from elsewhere, with little connection to their local community beyond naming the town in the legal ID.

But in days of yore, Christmas choir broadcasts were small-town radio at its finest, and I mean that sincerely.

5 responses

  1. “Businesses that didn’t usually advertise often bought them to extend holiday greetings.”
    Happy holidays from Jurgensen’s Tire, your headquarters for all your tire needs since 1949!

    (This is a much better post than my comment makes it seem. I have half a mind to scour the little local radio stations I don’t usually listen to, just to see if I hear a choir.)

  2. Our HS choir teacher, Mr. Gears, would drag out a single boom mic and his mono Ampex reel-to-reel machine to record our Christmas program right in the choir room. He must have had the A/V department dub off a second copy. One went to the Red Owl grocery-owned station in the neighboring suburb. After we’d finish performing at some bank or insurance company atrium in downtown Minneapolis, we’d swing by the Capp Towers building, where he’d drop off the second tape at KDWB’s executive offices.

    To hear the choir you were a part of performing on the very top-40 station that meant the world to you was ’60s magic of the purest kind.

  3. I remember that station.

  4. Thus the everlasting war between sales and programming. “Sure, I can put your spot in the football game right before the home team scores” or “no problem, we can run your spot all by itself with no other commercials around it for 15 minutes”.

  5. […] This blog contains thousands of words (maybe millions by now) about listening to music, but far fewer about my attempts at being a musician. That’s because I wasn’t very good at it, and my career ended up a disappointment. A radio story about modest moments of fame achieved by more successful high-school musicians is here. […]

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