Jon Solomon and Robert Drake | photo by Rachel Del Sordo for WXPN | racheldelsordophotography.com
24 Hours of Christmas Music: DJs Jon Solomon and Robert Drake share their experience with holiday marathons
Holiday music is everywhere this time of year. It blares through every store in the mall and every car radio stuck in that 9 to 5 bumper-to-bumper, all in hopes of keeping the mood cheery and festive. But where does that cheer go when the same songs play in an incessant loop to the point where insanity may very well ensue? Simply turn the dial to either 103.3 or 88.5, where two marathon DJs that will be taking over the airwaves for 24 non-stop hours on Christmas Eve.
Jon Solomon and Robert Drake have been doing it for years and it seems there is no end in sight. Solomon, a radio personality for Princeton’s student-run station WPRB, began his holiday marathon twenty-six years ago when he was fifteen years old and hasn’t missed a year since. This year, he even upped the ante to a 25-hour special.
Inspired by Solomon, Robert Drake began his 12-hour holiday show at WXPN 22 years ago, and it eventually turned into a 24-hour marathon. The Key got the chance to speak with both of the DJs about the perks of the marathons, their favorite non-traditional holiday tunes, their shared love for the Dr. Who Christmas special and just how they manage to make it through all those hours without a nap.
The Key: How do you prepare for your marathon Christmas show; what’s your regimen?
Jon Solomon: I spend a lot of time year-round but primarily in the last quarter of the year tracking down material. I would get super bored if I was playing the same records every year so I think I over-do it with the preparation because I want to make sure there’s an infusion of as much new material as possible.
Robert Drake: Well, physically, I take off the day before from work, and I do nothing but nap a lot. Musically, the biggest secret of all, which isn’t much of a secret anymore because I’ve been doing it for so long, is I put almost no thought into what I’m going to do for Christmas Eve. I’ve learned that the more thought I’ve put into it, the more tired I’ll get because things are already planned. I just pick something I want to hear and if that track is three minutes long, I have three minutes to figure out what the next song is.
TK: What routines keep you going throughout the marathon?
JS: I give up coffee from the beginning of December until the 26th. I mostly just drink tea cause it’s a more even keel, the highs aren’t too high and the lows aren’t too low. I give up most sugary sweets – I guess all of them during the same time period so again it’s trying to avoid crashing. During the show itself, there’s more and more good kinds of distractions whether it’s a live listener chat that’s going during the show, or last year when people on Twitter started to see who the most “famous” person that they could get to mention the show during the show. I like to think if there is enough preparation put in beforehand, then the actual doing it isn’t so bad. But then comes hour 17 of the show, I may reconsider that opinion.
RD: I think the thing that’s been best for me, as technology improved, we were streaming the signal which meant that people could listen globally so a lot of people who used to live in Philadelphia who now live elsewhere were streaming the signal and those people are also chatting in the chat room in the middle of the night when nobody else would be up. A handful of years ago we launched the Jingle Cam, which is this HD camera that’s in the studio on me for 24 hours live that people can go online and watch.
TK: So how do you stay awake for so long?! Are naps allowed?
JS: No, no. I’ve talked about the idea, maybe I’d go for 12 hours and then put on a pre-recorded thing overnight and then go for another 12 hours. But that’s part of the fun – you kinda gotta soldier through this thing! So as of now, naps remain off the board. If the show ever became absurdly long, naps would be a paramount.
RD: I definitely don’t. Once I’m here, I’m up and I don’t nap because I feel like if I nap, I get groggy when I wake up. So, I just am up and I barrel through it. There are some special elements. I definitely am afraid to nap because I just know that if I did, I would fall asleep. That would make great TV watching, those people watching on the HD would love to see me sleeping at the microphone, but I don’t think the radio people would like it too much.
TK: What’s your favorite part about the marathon?
JS: Hearing from folks from all over that have opted to make this part of their holidays is really incredible and something that I never set out to do. But it’s become this accidental tradition both in my life and in the lives of others, so there’s that. The last handful of years, my daughter has come down to the studio and I’ve interviewed her on air and as she’s gotten a little older, she’s sung songs and things like that.
RD: I think initially it was the freedom to showcase this crazy collection of holiday music that I had. But then, as the technology kicked in and people were starting to connect globally and interact with me on social media, I started realizing that I was a conduit to connecting people with far away family and friends.
TK: Have there ever been any mishaps while DJing during the marathon over the years?
JS: No, I’ve never fallen asleep on the air, these are all worst case scenarios. I’ve never locked myself out of the studio, the transmitter’s never fallen over. There have been occasional equipment issues or operator errors, but nothing major.
RD: Back when I played a lot more vinyl, Christmas albums tend to take their toll after a while; they’re not the most loved. So that’s my biggest mishap, just the old school technology with vinyl and skips and things. But overall, I think it’s gone pretty well. I’ve definitely never fallen asleep on the radio. There was one year where I was sick and I had to do the show. That was prior to the Jingle Cam, God bless us all for that.
TK: If there were one song you could banish from the holiday music repertoire, what would it be?
JS: Wham!’s “Last Christmas”. It’s super divisive, like the people who love it, love it. I know there’s a website where someone has posted like 27 hours of just people covering “Last Christmas”. I like songs that capture the sentiment of the season, but something about that one is just so irredeemably schmaltzy. People have covered it and I’ve enjoyed covers that people have done, but that’s just been the one that’s been kind of the dealbreaker for me.
RD: I am so over animal novelty songs. Everything from singing dogs to murderous reindeer, like that whole element. Novelty animal-type songs for the holidays just don’t sit well with me and I don’t play any of them. I pride myself over being a singing dog-free zone and grandmas are alive and well, nobody’s killed by reindeer. That’s the only genre of music that I just can’t grasp. It’s cute, I guess for a minute, but the fact that some of those songs are 20-25 years old, just bothers me.
TK: What’s a holiday song that more people should hear?
JS: My favorite Christmas record is this late sixties garage rock compilation called Merry Christmas – Sonics, Wailers, Galaxies. It just seems like that’s one of those records that should be up there that are just part of the shared human experience. Then there’s one of the songs that I always finish with each year by a band called The Law called “What Did Santa Claus Bring You For Christmas” and it’s one of those songs that I never would have heard without WPRB and the awareness of it has increased through my show. But it’s another one of those things- if it only had a chance.
RD: There is a great song that I love and it’s by a singer/songwriter named Ilene Weiss and the song is called “Tree”. The whole song is sung from the perspective of the Christmas tree. The lyrics are so interesting that if you didn’t know it was a song about a Christmas tree, you would think it’s a song about love gone wrong. So it’s a real, poignant love song, but when you step back like it’s about the tree. It’s such a unique way of doing the holiday song.
TK: Have you ever been snowed-in during a marathon broadcast (or stuck due to inclement weather)?
JS: No, it’s been super mild. It’s the sort of thing that I would love it, because it would be a lovely thing to happen in this area, but as long as I can get home afterwards. Once I’m at the station, I’ll come up for air a couple times just to let folks in during the proceedings, but I’m pretty captive during it so if it started snowing at any point, I’d be the person it probably affected.
RD: I don’t think I’ve been snowed in, thankfully Philly’s never really had a white Christmas for as long as I can remember so we’ve been blessed enough that I haven’t gotten locked into the studio. I’ve been able to get out of here on time.
TK: Do you decorate the studio? Why or why not?
JS: I have a couple Christmas-y things that my daughter has made at school- this kind of fallen-apart snowman that I brought the last couple years. Since there’s a webcam going during the show, I think people like to look in and see me wearing a Santa hat but you know, except for little pieces of tinsel here and there in the background, nothing too extreme.
RD: I do decorate the studio and people look forward to it now. There’s certain things I’ve rolled out, like the Jingle Cam and now people expect it. I have to do it. It’s like I’ve created this monster that keeps growing.
TK: Are Christmas songs the main focus or are other holiday and winter songs thrown in the mix?
JS: Yeah, just because that’s mostly what people make, but there are a couple of really great songs about late December and New Years that I’ll throw in. I don’t think the playlist has gotten more orthodox over the era, but definitely when I first started, I would just play the longest songs I could find and now I don’t have to play things just for playing them. I can just play the stuff that I love or listeners love, or hopefully both.
RD: I definitely dabble in songs of the season, both holiday and winter. So there’s a lot of winter songs, a lot of snow, the dark of night kind of stuff because I know there’s a lot of people who don’t celebrate Christmas. And then we have the special pieces that we add to it. I re-broadcast the movie It’s A Wonderful Life with Jimmy Stewart. They did a radio production of it back in the late 30’s and I had that recording of them reading it for radio so I air that at 8 o’clock. People have gotten really into it every year.
TK: What is the day after the marathon like? Aside from sleeping in, what are your traditions?
JS: Well, my wife and I will go out for a nice dinner. Usually, sweatpants will be involved in the rest of the day. I’ll watch the Doctor Who Christmas special that came out while I was asleep and that’s it, just kind of take it easy. It will hopefully be very pleasant and not overbooked at all.
RD: Napping, eating, and napping. And bad TV. Not a lot of talking. My partner John and I, he’s off and I literally plant myself on the couch and there’s a fire and we just watch TV and do nothing. I drink a lot of tea until my voice comes back because usually by the last couple hours, my voice is shot. And of course, I would be remised if I could not end my Christmas watching the Christmas special for Dr. Who. That’s my tradition tradition. I end the day with the Dr. Who Christmas special…then I fall asleep.
Holiday Speed Round!
TK: Peppermint bark or peanut brittle?
JS: Peppermint bark
RD: Peanut brittle, easily.
TK: Snowball fights or snowman building?
JS: Snowman building
RD: Snowball fights, just because I have inner anger. I gotta get it out somehow. That way I don’t curse on air.
TK: Miracle on 34th Street or It’s a Wonderful Life?
JS: It’s A Wonderful Life
RD: Oh, I’m a big Miracle on 34th Street fan. I like older versions, but you can’t beat the original.
TK: Pumpkin pie or apple pie?
JS: Pumpkin Pie
RD: Pumpkin pie. Pumpkin is one of the fruits that no one pays attention to. All year long, people forget about it, except for one month. So I would like to have pumpkin pie in March. That’s my goal.
TK: Hot chocolate or mulled cider?
RD: Oo, that’s easy hot chocolate. Mulled cider freaks me out. I don’t know, it’s like a science experiment, I don’t know what’s going on. Unless there’s booze in it, then of course I’ll have some.
TK: Scrooged or Christmas Vacation?
JS: Scrooged! Scrooged is the best.
RD: Scrooged, easily. I rarely see that on during the holidays. That’s my favorite.
TK: South Philly Christmas lights or South Jersey Christmas lights?
JS: You know, I don’t have much experience with South Jersey Christmas lights, so I’ll say South Philly Christmas lights.
RD: South Philly, all the way. Now, a disclaimer, I live in south Philly, but even if I didn’t live in South Philly. Only because you have so little to work with and they have the exact same number of lights as South Jersey lights except you only have 100 sq feet.
TK: Candy canes or gingerbread cookies?
JS: Uh, Gingerbread cookies, I had to think about that one. That’s the closest one so far.
RD: Ginger bread cookies. I shouldn’t admit it, but I have a phobia of peppermint. I’m not really a peppermint person, so candy canes and peppermint stuff.
TK: Home Alone or Jingle All The Way?
JS: Do I have to pick one of those? I’ll say Home Alone, but I’m not too enthusiastic about either.
RD: Home Alone, because there’s a good meaning to the movie. And Jingle All The Way is just weird. Arnold ? Everything is weird about it. Arnold being funny freaks me out a little bit. Home Alone is great, Home Alone 2 is a different story, but Home Alone the original is great.
TK: Is there anything else you want listeners to know?
JS: The show is 25 hours this year, so it’s from Christmas Eve at 5 p.m. until Christmas Day at 6 p.m., it streams at WPRB.com. The whole playlist will be up there as the show is happening. I look forward to hearing from folks again this year and I have some surprises up my sleeve that I think people will be pretty excited about.
RD: 1993, my inspiration for doing this show was Jon Solomon because he started four years before me. So when he started the show, I was fascinated with the idea that somebody had this much Christmas music and is playing through things. Cause I thought I was the only freak who collected this stuff in my basement. I always tell anyone who listens, he’s my inspiration on the air for 24 hours. Of course, he’s on the air for 25 hours, I have no interest in doing 26 so I’ll let him have that. He’s definitely the man I look up to when it comes to why I do this stuff.
Tune in this year to become a part of a quirky tradition that has connected people during the holidays for over two decades, becoming something larger than itself over the years. You can find more information on Jon Solomon’s 25-hour holiday marathon at WPRB here and Robert Drake’s The Night Before show here. Here’s to a Christmas Eve filled with some not-so-traditional tunage!