PORTLAND, Maine (AP) -- The holiday classics haven't changed that much -- radio stations still turn to Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole and Burl Ives to spread yuletide cheer. But your chances of hearing them on the radio are growing fast.
As of Monday, 399 stations from Maine to Hawaii were playing Christmas tunes around the clock to bring in listeners and advertising dollars. Portland has two stations competing over holiday listeners, and some cities have as many as five or six.
Most of the programming kicked off after Thanksgiving; the earliest station made the switch in October before trick or treaters made the rounds.
"It's gotten to the point of ridiculousness," said Tim Moore, operations manager at Portland's WHOM-FM, which began broadcasting its holiday programming on the day after Thanksgiving.
Ridiculous or not, Americans can't get enough of it, said Tom Taylor, editor of Inside Radio, a trade publication owned by Clear Channel.
The number of stations playing those timeless holiday songs already outnumbers the previous record of 386 in 2003, the first year Inside Radio began tracking the numbers, Taylor said from his office in Trenton, New Jersey.
"Christmas music, for most people, puts a smile on your face. Even if you resist it for a while, you can't hold out forever," he said.
The deluge of Christmas airplay may yield a few humbugs, but it succeeds nearly universally in boosting ratings, industry officials say.
For listeners, the nostalgic music creates a soundtrack as they shop, wrap presents, decorate trees, bake cookies and go to parties.
"It's like a counterpoint to all of the misery in the world. That's the only thing I can figure out," said Phil Crosland, executive vice president of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers in New York.
Behind the holiday cheer and goodwill are strong ratings: Portland's WHOM sees a 38 percent bump in the number of listeners after it switches its format from adult contemporary to 24-7 holiday music.
In New York City, WLTW-FM sees a 25 percent increase in listeners even in one of the most nation's diverse markets, said Jim Ryan, programming director.
In Milwaukee, WMYX-FM saw a jump of nearly 50 percent last year despite holiday competition from three other radio stations, said Brian Kelly, operations manager. The year before that, the station's listenership grew nearly 100 percent in December.
"People from the outside may ask why we do this," Kelly said. "The answer is because it works, and that's what our listeners want."
The vast holiday treasure chest includes offerings from artists as varied as Jessica Simpson, B.B. King, Barenaked Ladies, Regis Philbin, Bruce Springsteen and Twisted Sister.
At WHOM, it's Moore's responsibility to review the countless new holiday offerings each season. Most of them end up in the trash bin because they can't compete with "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," "Frosty the Snowman," "Let It Snow" and other classics.
Occasionally, newer artists manage to break into the rotation. A couple of recent examples are Josh Groban's "Believe" from the movie "The Polar Express" and Faith Hill's "Where are you Christmas?" from "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," he said.
But listeners seem to prefer the old songs like Crosby's "White Christmas," Cole's "The Christmas Song," Ives' "A Holly Jolly Christmas," Bobby Helms' "Jingle Bell Rock" and Brenda Lee's "Rockin' Round the Christmas Tree."
"It's a sad fact and a sad reality that there are 30 to 50 Christmas songs that research really well. We already know them," said Moore. "They don't want Clay Aiken's version of 'White Christmas.' They want Bing Crosby, for the most part."
'It kills me every year'
For some, it's just too much.
"It's terrible. It kills me every year. It's the same songs over and over," said Jake Millett, 21, of Portland, who's subjected to it every Christmas Eve at his grandmother's house. He rolled his eyes when a co-worker talked about "the holiday spirit."
At the other extreme is Stacey Milliken, who can't get enough. She likes the fact that oldies station WYNZ is giving WHOM some competition this year, and she flicks back and forth between the two stations while driving in her car.
"I think it's a great idea. It gets everybody in the spirit, but I can completely understand how some people would get sick of it," said Milliken, 30, of Portland.
It's hard to say exactly when the trend began, but one consultant traces it to the 1980s when he began recommending that radio stations play holiday music on the day after Thanksgiving, a time when Americans flock to malls to begin their Christmas shopping.
Eventually it got to the point that many adult contemporary stations extended the holiday music from Thanksgiving to Christmas, said Dan Vallie, president, chairman and CEO of Vallie Richards Donovan Consulting, who's a pioneer in recommending the format.
"I think it's one of the most significant and successful programming strategies in the past couple of decades," Vallie said.
The holiday change can make sense for a radio station trying to stand out in a time of change: radio advertising has been flat and radio executives worry about listeners migrating to podcasts, MP3 players and satellite radio.
"A 30-day music format change is evidence of the need by radio stations to chase dollars in a shrinking ad environment," said Laura A. Martin, senior media analyst at Soleil Securities in Pasadena, California.
Though it's an inexact science, a bump in ratings typically means a bump in advertising rates.
And advertisers likely see a correlation in either goodwill or sales by getting involved in the holiday format, said Matt Feinberg, senior vice president and director of radio for Zenith Media in New York.
"It's a tradition," Feinberg said. "From an advertiser point of view, it's an evergreen special they can buy into."
The top 10 Christmas songs played on radio the week after Thanksgiving:
1. Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree, Brenda Lee
2. A Holly Jolly Christmas, Burl Ives
3. Jingle Bell Rock, Bobby Helms
4. Feliz Navidad, Jose Feliciano
5. The Christmas Song, Nat King Cole
6. White Christmas, Bing Crosby
7. Please Come Home For Christmas, The Eagles
8. It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year, Andy Williams
9. Happy Xmas (War Is Over) John Lennon
10. It's Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas, Johnny Mathis