It’s a Christmas miracle! Why Elf Radio is DAB+ Station of the Year

Elf Radio was the winner of Radio Today’s DAB+ Station of the Year in the Station of the Year Awards put on in conjunction with RCS. In this series, Vivienne Kelly will speak to all winners to find out what it is that sets them apart. Here, Viv and Nozz get together to break down just why Elf Radio is so special.

I first met Brett ‘Nozz’ Nossiter at the 2018 ACRAs down in Melbourne.

His recollection is that somewhere between the 1,000 awards, 1,001 drinks and 1,002 canapés, I finally cottoned on to his role at Australian Radio Network’s (ARN) iHeartRadio and said “So what the fuck is Elf Radio?”

This, via my version of events, seems unlikely, as I distinctly remember spending the evening prior to the ACRAs speaking to a fellow iHeartRadio employee about the good, the bad, and the frankly confusing elements, of Christmas music.

Whatever went down at the South Wharf near the Convention Centre on Friday, October 19, 2018, and then at the ACRAs on Saturday, October 20 – and probably into the early hours of Sunday, October 21 – has since been dwarfed by my astonishment about just how passionate Elf Radio’s fans really are. All. Year. Round.

Requests, questions, queries and passion start pouring through in full force from as early as August – which also bleeds into trade media comment sections – as keen listeners wonder when it’s coming back. Why not now? Why not sooner? Why not in Adelaide? Why not always? Why not forever?

So what is it about Elf Radio? I mean, Christmas may only come but once a year, but it does come every year – even in 2020 when the world’s on fire.

“People love Christmas,” Nozz says simply when pushed on why this station elicits such passion, such popularity, such pleasure – even in a pandemic.

He notes the station was already around when he joined ARN in 2015, but even he was astounded by what he was taking on when he looked to pour more energy into the product.

And then there’s that powerful and potent force – nostalgia. Even those 2018 ACRAs seem like a lifetime ago – a more innocent time – such is the power of nostalgia and sense of change at the moment.

Elf Radio in 2020 (post continues below audio):

So combine that overwhelming need to remember a better time, that panic about the speed of change in the world, that notion of a simpler time pre hand sanitiser, pre-COVID and pre-lockdown – with everything families love about December, the end-of-year slowdown and the Christmas narrative – and you can start to perhaps understand the power of Elf Radio.

“The mental image when I pull it together is always a family putting the tree up together and that’s the music they that they play,” Nozz says. “So it’s not like I’m targeting 18 to 34-year-old Christmas shoppers with a blue car who live by the beach or anything like that. I’m not going for those sorts of demographics. It’s family and it’s Christmas love.”

Of people’s ongoing love for the station, despite the repetition of the tradition every year, he adds: “I think it’s the same reason that people love watching Love Actually every Christmas. There’s those things that people love doing every year, and it’s part of the tradition.”

So now I have my head around the appeal, the audience and the awe that the station is trying to inspire, but how? How do you evolve a station when the themes, stories and dates can’t change too much without distorting the very uniqueness of the event? Love Actually’s one thing, but Elf Radio doesn’t have Bill Nighy.

Nozz says there’s no need to overcomplicate it 

“There’s a mountain of Christmas music out there, but the hardest part I think is trying to make sure that it has a positive flow,” Nozz says, noting some Christmas songs are a bit heavy and low tempo.

“I try and put it through the filter of ‘If a family is listening to this song, or this station, will it make them smile? Will it make them happy? Will the kids play around the tree?’ And that sort of thing. And so we tried to filter out stuff that would be a bit low tempo or a bit down.”

And there’s no shortage of new Christmas music this year. With artists stuck in lockdown and largely unable to tour, perhaps they all just thought “Bugger it, I’ll make a Christmas album”, according to Nozz, but also, there’s just something about this time of year which gets to people.

There’s Mariah Carey’s ‘Oh Santa!’ featuring Ariana Grande and Jennifer Hudson – which has already garnered over 12 million views on YouTube in less than a week.

Closer to home, Delta Goodrem has released a Christmas record Only Santa Knows, and will be doing a takeover of Elf Radio as part of the promotional efforts.

Jonesey & Amanda – or Brendan Jones and Amanda Keller, the Sydney-based Breakfast hosts of ARN’s WSFM – will also be doing a countdown of some of their favourite Christmas songs, giving listeners a story to accompany their songs.

Despite the opportunities, integrations and new releases, there’s no need to overcomplicate it, Nozz says.

“I don’t think there’s any point in trying to reinvent the wheel from scratch every year,” says Nozz, noting he spoke to a friend who assured him they could listen to Carey’s ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’ on repeat every year – same, TBH.

“Controversial,” he adds, despite my enthusiasm for the proposition. “I don’t know if I’d pull a station together like that, but there are certain benchmarks that there’s no point trying to pull out or away from, and just lean into it. People love ‘Last Christmas’ by Wham!, they love Mariah Carey, and they love Bublé, so it’s more around the packaging as opposed to the song selections.”

This packaging could be what sets Elf Radio apart from its streaming competitors. What’s a Spotify playlist if it doesn’t have strong audio imaging? Personality? And a bit of the Nozz factor.

“I still love listening to these kids who have these missing front teeth who can hardly say ‘Elf Radio’ [on the station],” Nozz says of how the station connects with its fans and separates itself from an impersonal playlist. “When you have a playlist on Spotify, it is a curated list of songs, but there’s no personality or colour around it. And we have a little bit of fun calling it the North Pole’s #1 Hit Music Station – because it is,” he insists. “But it instills it with personality, which is probably the point of difference.”

And this, he says, is radio’s key proposition.

“As an industry, with radio, we’re more than just a list of songs pulled together with a logo. There’s a lot more colour that comes into it.”

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