Radio: Can Xfm cope with without O'Connell?

Having won a licence to broadcast in Manchester, can Xfm cope with the imminent loss of star presenter Christian O'Connell? By Ciar Byrne
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The Independent Online

Baker is typical of Xfm DJs. He is the bloke - or lass - you might meet down the pub: into their music, but without boring you to death with the nerdy detail.

Comedian Jimmy Carr, ex-Kenickie front woman Lauren Laverne, Sony award-winning breakfast show host Christian O'Connell and TV comedy duo Adam and Joe were all hired because they are real people, a little rough around the edges, but good at connecting with their audience. Laverne says: "I frequently put on the wrong CD, or knock something over, but it makes you feel close to the person. I don't want to be [Radio 1 DJ Tim] Westwood. Which is lucky."

Xfm's owner, the newly merged GCap Radio, believes the time is ripe for the format to make the leap from niche London new music station to UK-wide alternative to mainstream pop radio.

The main catalyst for change is Xfm's recent victorious bid for a new FM licence in Manchester, where it saw off 18 rivals to open a station in the city in early 2006. In addition, Xfm is now available digitally in 18 major cities in the UK as well as online, while the indie rock music the station champions is enjoying a "moment".

If Xfm is on a roll, it has been a long time coming. The format got off to an inauspicious start when it launched on 1 September 1997 - the day after Princess Diana was killed. Xfm has its origins in a pirate radio station Q102 set up by indie and dance music fan Sammy Jacob. The station operated first from a friend's house in Walthamstow, north London, and later from Jacob's mother's house in Clapton, east London. One of the early presenters was Steve Lamacq, who went on to host Radio 1's Evening Session.

Jacob recalls: "Steve used to come in every Saturday morning to do his show with a bottle of Lucozade and a packet of crisps and do his best not to wake me as my bedroom was next door to the studio. We even had The Cure in at one stage and I remember Robert Smith telling me that my house reminded him of his granny's house."

Q102 came to the end of its lifespan in 1990, but the following year, Jacob applied to the Radio Authority - the predecessor of the regulator Ofcom - for a restricted service licence (RSL) to broadcast at the Reading Festival. The experiment was a success, and later that year he repeated it in central London.

"I was astonished when it was granted. I was the first applicant to apply and be granted such a licence in London," says Jacob. "I remember the Radio Authority asking what type of service I intended to provide, and when I told them an indie music service, they asked me if that was some kind of Indian music. The indie rock radio format simply didn't exist until then."

Chris Parry, the owner of The Cure's label, Fiction Records, got involved in financing the venture, which was housed in his offices in Charlotte Street, central London.

A string of RSLs followed, but harder to come by was a permanent FM licence. Eventually, after five years of trying, Xfm was awarded a licence in January 1997. By the beginning of autumn, the station was all ready to get up and running, with a million-pound advertising campaign designed by Saatchi & Saatchi and an unknown student union events manager called Ricky Gervais as new head of speech. Then disaster struck. How could any publicity campaign compete with a nation in mourning for a princess?

"Most of our marketing campaign was totally wasted. We never really recovered from that. Eventually, the money started running out and it was brought to the board's attention that Capital was interested in buying the station," says Jacob.

Xfm managing director Graham Bryce, who was in charge of acquisitions at Capital Radio at the time, says: "It had a pretty disastrous launch on the day Diana died. The guys who won the licence were really passionate about having a station like this in the marketplace, but didn't necessarily know much about radio. We didn't go to them; they came to us and said: 'It's not going very well. Would you like to buy it from us?' So we did, and there was a bit of an uproar, because the whole mentality and ethos behind Xfm was it was the antithesis to what Capital then represented, ie the mainstream."

Uproar is an understatement. So upset were music fans at the decision by Capital's programme director Richard Parks to switch the station off on a Friday, get rid of most of the presenters and reopen on Monday playing modern North American rock in the Alanis Morissette mould that they demonstrated outside Capital Radio's Leicester Square offices and complained to the Radio Authority in their hundreds.

About five years ago, Capital finally started to get its act together and reshaped Xfm. They installed specialist music shows and hired new presenters around an "anti-DJ ethos".

Today, Xfm has around 550,000 listeners in London, a figure that Bryce would like to boost by at least 100,000, plus about 150,000 people who listen digitally outside the capital.

Bryce has high hopes for the forthcoming station in Manchester, which he believes in some respects would have been a more natural city in which to launch Xfm because of its affinity with indie music.

"London is the hardest market in the UK for this type of radio station. in that it has never been a rock guitar city - it has always been a rhythmic city," he says, adding that he will be disappointed if Xfm doesn't double the five per cent reach it has in London outside the capital.

Is there a danger that importing a London brand to Manchester to play "Madchester music" could be viewed by the natives as patronising? Graham Hodge, the launch director of Xfm Manchester, insists that the presenters and programmes will be largely local, with only a few imported specialist shows.

Programme director Andy Ashton has the most important role on the station - deciding what tracks are played. A former aspiring musician - "like most people at Xfm, I should have really been up on stage with a guitar slung round me neck and groupies hanging off me trousers" - he is fully signed up to the philosophy of keeping the alternative accessible.

"In the very first part of Xfm's existence, there was too much of a barrier. It was almost like you had to be part of a secret club with a secret handshake," says Ashton, who is proud to have been in the vanguard of playing cutting-edge bands that have crossed over into the mainstream, from Coldplay to Franz Ferdinand, Snow Patrol, Scissor Sisters and Keane.

John Kennedy, Xfm's new music guru, who has been with the station since its first RSL, championing the likes of Razorlight, The Darkness and Dizzee Rascal along the way, believes Jacob's original vision has now been realised."I think Sammy would be much happier with the station as it sounds now than as it was in 1997."

Jacob, now living in Tel Aviv, is in two minds over that. He suggests that to be a true alternative to its sister station Capital, Xfm should throw more dance tracks into the current indie-dominated mix. "Is Xfm closer to what I had envisioned? Yes and no. Yes, because Xfm Mark II is now playing a better selection of indie guitar-led music as a result of the genre's increasing popularity. No, because there are some great, credible dance tunes still not being aired."