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Sunday 5 February 2023 Dublin: 1°C
# behind the tinsel
'It's nostalgia - it's like no other radio station I've ever been on': Inside Christmas FM
The staple of Irish Christmas listening is in its fifteenth year — and has a new studio.

YOU WOULD BE forgiven for thinking that after 15 years at the helm of Christmas FM, the station’s veteran staff might be a bit weary of the festive hits that propelled their station to success.

However, as co-founder Garvan Rigby explains, he continues to “love all Christmas songs equally.”

Having recently relocated to a new home in Liffey Valley’s Clayton Hotel, the station is now what Rigby calls “quasi-national” in its FM format, and available globally online.

Halfway through its second decade, Christmas FM now boasts 10 million annual streams, more than half of which come from outside of Ireland.

“Even in May and June, people are listening online.”

So, how did we get here?

“The idea came about in August 2008 when four of us – me, Paul Shepard, Walter Hegarty, and Daragh O’Sullivan were sitting in the pub. The BAI was making temporary licenses available, so we thought, ‘what could we do with a 30-day radio station?’”

After briefly considering other themes, such as disco, the quartet prudently settled on Christmas, and have seen the idea grow into a staple of Ireland’s festive culture. 

Nowadays, all of the station’s costs are covered by sponsorship deals with major brands, such as Coca-Cola, Cadbury’s and An Post, whose products decorate the studio and give it the feel of a post-Christmas living room. The Leo Suite of the Clayton Hotel is being used rent-free in exchange for the occasional on-air shoutout for Dalata Hotel Group. 

It’s a business model that allows Christmas FM to focus on raising funds for charity.

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“Our listeners are very generous,” says Ann-Marie Walsh, a presenter and part of the core management team. “Over the last 14 years, they have donated over €3 million.”

Typically, the station partners with a single charity each year, but Walsh explains that the station has set a goal of raising €1 million over the next three years as part of their Magic of Christmas Initiative, in partnership with Barnardo’s, Barretstown, Make A Wish Ireland and the Community Foundation for Ireland. 

A key element of the fundraising is the station’s Donation Day, which is a radiothon from 7am to 7pm during which regular programming is sidelined, to give service users and charities a chance to communicate their stories to listeners. 

“On that day the phones will be hopping, the studio will be full, we’ll be giving regular updates about the donations coming in,” Walsh says. 

While the station represents a major Irish success story, its popularity is hardly a mystery.

“It really is a beacon for a lot of people at Christmas. It’s a comfort factor, it’s nostalgia. It’s like no other radio station I’ve ever been on,” Walsh says. 

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Asked how things have changed in the last 15 years, Rigby says:

“There’s a lot more work. We’re looking after prize-winners in January, doing reports for sponsors, planning in March and April. The core management team of seven or eight is working part-time on Christmas FM throughout the year.” 

In recent years, certain Christmas lyrics – such as those in Baby, It’s Cold Outside and Fairytale of New York – have come under scrutiny, with some stations playing a censored version of the latter. Rigby says that Christmas FM has not received much communication from listeners on the subject.

“We’ve had a few people ask about it. We review all songs every year, it’s something we keep on review all the time.” 

While the station operates on a library of “a few hundred” songs, Rigby says they are always trying to add covers by Irish artists – and the occasional new Christmas hit, or unearthed gem.

With some pride, Rigby says: “José Feliciano’s Feliz Navidad … That was a song that never really got played in Ireland. I would say 15 years ago, that song had almost never been played in Ireland. Now it’s one of our most popular, it’s in the top five.” 

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