Media: X marks the spot where music died

It started as London's only alternative radio station. But has XFM finally sold its soul?
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The Independent Culture
THE LAST time Bob Geldof rode in to rescue an apparently unfashionable cause, the issue seemed far more straightforward. But today, the man recently dubbed by the NME as "the worst DJ in Britain" is no longer primarily the passionate activist: he's a businessman who has lent his name and record collection to the rebirth of London's formerly alternative radio station, XFM.

He is actually supervising, his detractors say, the transformation of a station, set up to break interesting new music, into a bland corporate satellite of the Capital Radio Group. Worse, Geldof's production company, Planet 24, is consulting on the entire new sound of the station, a new sound that certainly hasn't found favour with many of the station's hard core listener base. They have set up a protest website, sought meetings with Capital's programming director, Richard Park, and orchestrated a campaign of letter writing to Parliament and the media to protest at what has happened to their station. But XFM wasn't supposed to be like this. This isn't what anyone expected.

After six years of struggle, and no fewer than four unsuccessful licence applications, the alternative radio station XFM finally started broadcasting on 1 September last year. It had been a long hard road for the fledgling station, but at least it had been a journey sustained by die hard supporters, like the Cure's Robert Smith, and by the passionate belief of its energetic founder, Chris Parry.

The fact that he let the station operate on a soft rent out of a house he owned in London's Charlotte Street had also helped. But so too had the dedication of a staff comprised largely of music-obsessed volunteers, of part timers and of the poorly paid. Their dream was simply that their brand of indie music would ride to the rescue of a city's increasingly bored radio-listening youth. A youth that had become progressively more enervated by the seemingly identical brand of adult orientated rock that was being served up by the heavy hitters of the London music scene - the likes of Capital, Heart FM, and Virgin.

XFM was an independent, battling in a cut-throat London radio market that had become a playground of big business. Its DJs, with the exception of its star daytime presenter, Gary Crowley, were not well known. Sometimes, their broadcast techniques revealed a lack of polish, but their commitment was real enough. XFM was not exaggerating when it claimed it was "London's only Alternative". And yet, six months after its launch, it was hard to see quite why it had bothered.

When its first listening figures were released - around Christmas time - they revealed that just 239,000 people were tuning in to XFM every week. A conservative first target of 500,000 listeners had been Parry's aim. It was national grief over the death of Diana, XFM claimed, which was largely responsible.

Unfortunately, three months later, the real picture became a lot clearer. By then, just 219,000 people were tuning in every week. That's considerably fewer than listened to the capital's now-defunct RTL Country station, an ill-fated Country & Western format. Something had to be done.

And on 1 May this year, something was. Capital Radio had just lost out to Chris Evans in the battle for Virgin Radio. But it promptly paid pounds 15 million for a 90.1 per cent controlling stake in XFM. Capital initially changed little of the station's output and, by the time the next set of audience figures were produced in June, it seemed as if the alliance had already begun to weave its magic. A figure of 329,000 still seemed a long way off the 500,000 launch target, but the trend was in the right direction.

And then Capital decided to act. For a while, at the beginning of August, the station simply played wall-to-wall records. Then, when the DJs returned on 24 August, they weren't the same DJs. The records they played weren't the same. They were more poppy, less alternative. XFM, the detractors said, had really sold out. "Every now and then, there is the glimmer of what it once was - Sparklehorse, Polly Harvey, Six By Seven," reports Jez Simmonds, one of the more moderate contributors to the web pages started by the disillusioned former fans.

"More often is the anvil-striking reminder of what has replaced it: Republica, the Beautiful South, Lenny bloody Kravitz." Star presenter, Gary Crowley had led the DJ exodus. In came Bob Geldof and, in the crucial position of programme controller, came Des Shore, who works for Geldof at Planet 24.

The Radio Authority says it is monitoring the output to make sure it complies with XFM's original promise of performance. In the meantime, nurtured on a new diet of bands like U2, Bob Dylan and Van Morrison, the protests of the indie aficionados will just get louder: and XFM's listenership, Capital promises, will just get bigger.