Pirate on parade

The BBC's digital radio station 1Xtra does its best to sound like an illegal broadcaster. The real pirates are less than happy, reports Ian Burrell
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The Independent Online

When the BBC came up with the idea of in effect setting up its own digital pirate radio station, it was widely received as a fatally flawed idea. Listeners who wanted to hear the authentic voice of the underground were hardly going to turn to the state-funded broadcaster, which has had a hard enough time retaining the attentions of young people in the Home Counties, let alone representing the sound of the streets.

And in any case, all the digital radios in circulation were in the hands of white, middle-class nerds, not the urban youth that was the station's chosen demographic.

The genuine pirate stations bristled with hostility, suspecting an elaborate attempt by the Establishment to close them down once and for all. Yet little more than a year after its launch, the BBC's 1Xtra - with its undiluted urban music diet of hip-hop, UK garage, drum & bass, desi beats (bhangra) and R&B - has confounded media critics who said it had "a serious credibility problem".

In its first audience figures, announced last month, 1Xtra recorded a weekly reach of 331,000, making it the star turn of the BBC's digital radio output. The figure was well in excess of the predictions of some doom-mongers inside the BBC, who feared that the station might struggle to register six figures.

For a stand-alone digital network, unsupported by a parallel music television station - unlike Kiss, Kerrang! and Smash Hits, which all have TV channels - the achievement of 1Xtra is unrivalled. It outscored all the other new BBC digital networks, including 6 Music, Five Live Sports Extra and BBC7, the spoken-word station.

Matt Mason, editor of RWD magazine, which reports on the pirate radio scene, says the success of the BBC station had taken many by surprise. "People were really wary of it at first. There was a lot of distrust from those who thought it would be used as an excuse to shut down the pirates. But it has gone down an absolute storm."

In his first interview since the launch of the station 14 months ago, Willber Willberforce, 1Xtra's head of programmes, says he is attempting to combine the passion of a pirate station with the professionalism of the BBC. "The listeners are saying that we are bang in the middle of a pirate and a legal radio station," he says.

1Xtra, like all radio stations that can be accessed digitally, has benefited from the popularity of listening to digital radio through multichannel television sets, which was largely unforeseen when the idea for an urban music digital network was hatched back in 1999. In the past 12 months, the proportion of adults who listen to radio via the television has increased from 12 per cent to 20 per cent.

But the real key to 1Xtra's success has been its national reach. Willberforce, 36, admits that despite 1Xtra's inner-city feel the most enthusiastic respondents to the station's online message boards are those living in parts of the country that have never been within the signal of an urban pirate. "They say it's a godsend," he says. "They feel that at last they are connected."

To support this nationwide approach, Willberforce has taken 1Xtra around the UK, with 68 live events in the past year, from Northern Ireland to the south coast.

The station's presenters represent a similar geographical spread, with the likes of Richie Vibe Vee (a garage specialist from Wales) and El Double (a drum & bass DJ from Huddersfield), as Willberforce has deliberately stayed away from hiring big stars. Instead, he spends a lot of his £6m-a-year budget on putting 1Xtra on the international stage, attending carnivals in Trinidad and Miami and being the only European station present at the annual Hip-Hop Summit, staged this year in Puerto Rico.

The latter event established connections with American superstars such as 50 Cent and Alicia Keys, and put 1Xtra on a level that pirate stations can only dream about. "The pirates are about turning up and playing records to their local community and telling them about a gig down the road," says Willberforce. "Being passionate about the music is our pirate element. But when it comes to professionalism and going abroad to the events that matter, we are offering something that you are not going to get with a pirate station."