Radio 1Xtra: No continental divide

The BBC's digital station for urban music lovers has been giving its listeners the chance to everyday experience life in Africa with a series of innovative broadcasts aimed at broadening awareness. Ian Burrell reports
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The Independent Online

In the past fortnight, with extraordinary broadcasts from Accra, Johannesburg and Nairobi, the BBC's urban music station has opened the eyes and ears of British youth to the worlds of their African contemporaries.

The series has been a mix of music shows that brought to life the youth fashions of Ghana and the kwaito street music of South Africa and documentaries recalling the pain of apartheid and slavery and the modern blight of Aids. It has sought to educate as well as entertain an audience of 16- to 24-year-olds normally immersed in designer gear and bling.

"We're trying to show the other face of Africa - that it's not all doom and gloom," says Willberforce, a pirate radio DJ turned BBC broadcasting executive. "They've seen the images of starvation, but what else does Africa have to contribute?"

As boss of 1Xtra, he is convinced that his station can reach an audience of young people - many of African or African-Caribbean descent - who he suspects were happy to let Live8 pass them by. He believes such youngsters may have ignored Sir Bob but engaged with the report from an apartheid museum in Johannesburg by DJ Jenna G.

"1Xtra in Africa was eye opening for our DJs, and because they mirror their audience they can send the message back in a way the audience can understand. That's something a Bob Geldof programme can do as well, but then will our audience tune in because of Geldof? Probably not," he says. "We had to connect with the audience primarily through the music and then fill them in on other subjects in other ways."

Three years ago this month, the BBC unveiled 1Xtra as part of its package of digital stations. Willberforce, chief from day one, will be looking out for next Thursday's Rajar three-monthly audience figures after registering a listenership of 351,000 in the last quarter. The station has been closely watched by some who are desperate for it to fail. Commercial rivals were not impressed by the arrival of a new BBC broadcaster pitching up with a publicly funded budget of £6.2m a year. At the same time, pirate stations feared they would be blown out of the water by a legal and heavily resourced new rival.

Some members of the African-Caribbean population voiced concern that, while the BBC set up the Asian Network with a mix of politics, culture and social discussion, they had to make do with a station targeted at teenage fans of black music. But 1Xtra reaches an audience that was not being catered for by the BBC radio portfolio. Surveys last week showed that only 60% of 1Xtra listeners backed a police shoot-to-kill approach in the wake of the Stockwell shooting, compared to over 90 per cent of the audience of more "mainstream" stations radio Five Live and Radio1.

Willberforce has had some difficult decisions to make of late as he tries to keep the station fresh for an audience that is highly tuned to the constantly evolving musical trends of British street culture.

That means he has had to put some young DJs out of a job, in order to make way for some of the even younger raw talent that beats a path to his door. "We are not like any other station in the way we use talent. Our DJs will get to a certain age and it will just be time to let them go," he says. "There are thousands of DJs who think they are better than the ones we've got."

The changes that Willberforce has from today introduced to his schedule give young women a greater prominence with 17-year-old presenter Ayesha holding down a Saturday morning slot after winning a BBC talent contest. Voicing a widely held view among radio station controllers, Willberforce says: "Women in radio is very important for me but finding good female broadcasters is still one of the most difficult things." He says he would like more women presenters but says they will be hired only if they can make the grade. "The truth is we don't get as many females who are as good as men in the industry." He points out that two of his DJs, Letitia and Ras Kwame, have graduated to working on Radio 1.

In its short life, 1Xtra has travelled the globe to report on black music culture in Miami, Trinidad, Puerto Rico, Germany, Japan and beyond. Such broadcasts can help to open the minds of young people, some of whose worlds don't extend much beyond the boundaries of their council estate.

"Some of our people who went to Africa were of African origin and the fact that they were working for the BBC and were only 24 meant that the local people regarded us as 'one of them'," says Willberforce. Kenyan-born DJ Edu, who presents 1Xtra's African show, already has a following in Nairobi. It is part of 1Xtra's remit to produce a live broadcast every week, but last year more than 60 were made, capturing the excitement of drum and bass nights in Newquay and hip-hop jams in Ayia Napa.

With the foreign excursions as part of the package, Willberforce is under obligation to ensure that the public is getting its money's worth. He says that he has been very conscious of the need to maximise the return from such events. "Some of the material that has been gathered up will be used for future broadcasts to mark World Aids day and Black History Month," he says. "It's like we have this massive backpack and we are travelling and picking up ornaments as we go. Along the way we are growing in stature and knowledge."