On Air: World record holder

Since Capital took over XFM, things have been going from bland to worse. Not for DJ John Kennedy, though
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The Independent Culture
Somewhere in New Zealand a chap called Peter King makes records. That is, he hand-cuts music on to clear plastic discs one at a time, in editions as small as 20, sometimes in strange sizes such as eight inches in diameter. He listens to each one twice to check quality. And eventually, on the other side of the world, a man called John Kennedy plays them on the radio.

For the last year Kennedy's show on XFM, The Midnight Ramble (his patter is perhaps not the slickest), has been simply the best, most eclectic show on British radio, playing 50 tracks a night from stars such as the Manic Street Preachers and Prodigy to bands with names like Yossarian and Clockwork Voodoo Freaks, alongside classics from Bob Dylan, Fela Kuti and Grandmaster Flash. He has been known to observe with a straight face: "The bassoon is the instrument of now". All sound is here, from the pages of The Wire to Smash Hits.

Unfortunately, last week saw the official announcement by the new owners of Capital Radio, "London's Only Alternative", of their new line-up of DJs and programming plans. Innovation is out, and stalwarts such as Keith Cameron, Ricky Gervaise and the world's oldest teenager Gary Crowley, untempted by the offer of the graveyard shift, 1am-6am, have walked.

Worse, the bosses aim to introduce a 24-hour-a-day playlist system, stifling still further the opportunities for new music to find a place on the airwaves.

Capital's appointments include a breakfast DJ from Invicta Radio, who has apparently never been to a gig and considers the defunct Black Grape to be extending the boundaries, and the ex-Capital jock, fortysomething Jeff Young, in the lunch-time slot. Most bizarre of all, the venerable "Sir" Bob Geldof has moved on to the crucial drive-time show for 104 days (count 'em), in a blatant attempt to build up the RAJAR ratings figures. The current measurement system, which effectively excludes transient (but vital) listeners such as students and visitors, relies on a national panel of some 20,000, and counts 15 minutes on a frequency each month towards the statistics. Geldof seems poised to gain attention for the wrong reasons, after a gaffe regarding the health of an ill, but definitely alive, Ian Dury (Chris Morris couldn't have done it better), and his plea for advice on new music at his introductory press conference.

Capital seems to have little understanding of the culture it is dealing with. Whatever its faults (and there were many), XFM was inherently music- led, and therefore inspired fierce loyalty. Already a rock daubed with a plaintive "X" has flown through the window of Capital's famously well equipped Leicester Square HQ, and a wreath was reportedly sent to a senior executive there.

Ian Watson, of Melody Maker, the only music paper to make an attempt to oppose the sale, is disgusted but unsurprised by the volte-face.

"It's completely dishonest," he says. "They only got the go-ahead [from the Radio Authority] as long as the music policy remained unchanged." Where once the teatime show played MC5 records, Geldof opts for Van Morrison and Bruce Springsteen. "Old men's music," Watson complains. "I don't think they care if they lose every single listener from before. Honestly, it's worse than Capital FM. Or Capital Gold."

It leaves DJs such as Kennedy in a difficult position, finding themselves shunted around the schedules - currently overnight at the weekends - and subjected to a stringent music policy, something Radio One discarded years ago for its specialist shows.

This seems a waste of the talents of this unassuming, 33-year-old history of art graduate, already marked as the next John Peel. Kennedy loves music - all music. "I get sent lots of records, but even that doesn't satisfy me. I have to go out and buy more I don't know anything about," he confesses. He'd like to broadcast the side project of His Name is Alive's Warren Defever, but it's produced only in an edition on wax cylinder.

Such is his enthusiasm that he even seems to get excited over untitled tracks from unmarked CDs, breathlessly intoning "That was track nine" like a breakfast DJ with a Spice Girls exclusive. He even admits to having played a record which arrived with a blank sleeve and label - he deduced the artist through the matrix number scratched into the run-out groove.

Despite such esoteric knowledge, he disclaims any expertise. "Although I do know a lot about music, I don't see myself as a big expert or anything", says the former BBC record librarian.

So how many records do you have, then? "I daren't count them." How many rooms, then? "Five rooms out of eight in the flat. Which is ridiculous. There's no room for them. I've got walls of CDs that look like wallpaper."

Do you alphabeticise them? "I try to", he shrugs, as if unequal to the task. How does your partner feel about all this? He laughs guiltily. "She's very supportive, if somewhat baffled."

His obsessiveness is well known. One record-plugger claims to have tormented Kennedy simply by describing records the DJ had yet to obtain. He doesn't deny the charge. "If you're doing this job that's how you should approach it," he says. He has no time for those who close their ears to various forms. "I've heard journalists on the XFM review show say, `It's a rap record. I can't comment on that.' That's a cop-out. We've had rap music for 20 years; it's part of popular music, part of our culture. You don't have to like it, but you should try to understand where it's coming from."

He well understands that today's unlistenable racket is tomorrow's mainstream:. "That harsh breakbeat sound like Digital Hardcore is bound to cross over at some point, just because it's dead catchy, even though it seems like a din at first. You can jump around to it. And it's going to get bigger."

He also tips Fridge, post-rock teenage students, and their spin-off Four Tet, already raved about in many quarters. He explains warily, "The only thing that's not commercial about the Four Tet record is that it's 36 minutes long, so it doesn't fit into mathematical radio programming. It's got tunes... it's got millions of tunes."

Whether Kennedy's new bosses will be as far-sighted is unlikely, but this show really is the sort of gem - acclaimed, respected, intelligent -that Capital is notorious for cancelling. They should understand that someone's got to keep the door to the future open.