Music: A case of middle-of-the-road rage

Stephen Jelbert fears that the sale of indie rock station XFM to Capital Radio could mean the death of alternative music programming on London's airwaves

They never saw it coming. Staff at "London's Only Alternative," XFM, finally discovered that the station had been sold to the nation's largest local radio outfit, Capital Radio, at a hastily called meeting on the morning of May 1.

Although Capital's newscasts had been talking up a takeover bid for two days beforehand, the news came as a shock. Presumably no one had taken a minicab that week.

The brainchild of "radio enthusiast" (code for "ex-pirate") Sammy Jacob and music biz veteran and major shareholder Chris Parry had remained independent for exactly eight months.

Finally launching full time last September in one of the music businesses periodical downturns didn't help, but the news seems a sad end to what has probably been the most influential radio style in Britain this decade. XFM's eclectic style and music-led programming in its occasional forays on the airwaves before the full-time launch have had a profound effect on other stations, notably Radio One. The mainstream has been forced to take on "alternative" notions of programming, thus pushing XFM further to the margins. To its credit it has refused to compromise.

Its relations with certain major record companies have become uneasy as the station has followed its own path, most recently getting into a spat with Sony over not playlisting Kula Shaker's recent useless single. Music Week reported criticism from A&M's Osman Eralp, who obviously can't remember that decade when the alternatives were John Peel or nothing.

Many music professionals are saddened by the sale. Veteran plugger Scott Piering, who represents the Verve among others, is wary but hopeful. "Unfortunately for XFM, mistakes have been made, primarily in the marketing. The one thing that Capital does extremely well is to attract listeners. My worry is that the station will go the way of Kiss 100FM, once a cutting- edge dance music station," he says. "I'd like to think there'd be some cross pollination ... but mostly from XFM to Capital."

Despite five successful RSL (Restricted Service Licence) trials of a month each, XFM had to wait five years for a full licence. Even Capital's Ellie Smith feels "they should have had it years ago, when Virgin and Heart FM [equally bland middle of the road] got them". Smith concurs with Piering, describing XFM's marketing as "quite elusive", adding that Capital has no plans to "make it mainstream. It has a very tight 'promise of performance', and we have to abide by that".

That "promise of performance", required by all applications, defines the station's service as "innovative, youthful, generally guitar-led modern rock with attitude, featuring artists generally outside the mainstream". And these artists are the ones with most to lose from what is, after all, seen as the jewel in Britain's alternative radio.

Sean Newsham, who runs a small plugging firm, is aware of this. "People talk about it in the rest of the country. They want to know how it's doing and what it's playing," he says. Like most of the smaller businesses that need XFM, he worries about the implications. "There's a certain amount of information so far, and that rings alarm bells because no one knows what it actually means." Worryingly, the Radio Authority apparently told Jacob that his was the only new station that hadn't asked for a change in its remit within the first six months.

Mike Wyeld, of independent label Better Records, is also concerned, having managed to sell 10,000 copies of an unknown band's record after using XFM to advertise. A Canadian, he cites experience of similar stations in North America. "It's written into their licences that they will present an alternative point of view. I think it would be a sad thing if indie radio became Dr Fox playing Natalie Imbruglia back to back with Republica."

What it all comes down to is money. XFM, apparently pounds 1.5m in debt - over half of that rumoured to have been spent on marketing and redecorating its headquarters - has still been sold for nearly pounds 16 million. "Oh, they're more valuable when they have fewer listeners," says Piering, though he feels that XFM offered better value to advertisers, especially record labels, than bald figures suggested. "Their audience was so targeted that a time buy there was probably three times as effective as on any other station."

The licence is the asset here, and as stories circulate of boardroom bluffs and counterbluffs, the shareholders have walked away with large personal profits, rewards for failure if you want. Meanwhile the staff, working for less than the industry average, ponder their future, as rumours suggest that Capital already has surplus staff on contracts since its failed bid for Virgin Radio - which was apparently opposed by one Chris Parry, who must be aware that regulations prevent a company from holding more than two licences on each wavelength. Myself, I just hope that XFM continues to play the MC5 as drivetime and that enough complaints are put to the Radio Authority to ensure that at least one dissenting voice remains on the air.

You can complain to the Radio Authority on 0171-430 2724 if you think Capital is big enough already. I plan to.