X marks the spot 

1 January 2004 tbs.pm/3200

September 2002 marked five years since a station threatened to change the shape of London radio – and challenge the capital’s giant, complacent stations. Unfortunately, it did the complete opposite – and the city’s biggest broadcaster was the one who benefited.

Xfm’s roots lie in an early-90s north London pirate station called Q102. In 1992, the team behind the station – who included NME journalist Steve Lamacq and programme controller Sammy Jacob – decided to go legitimate, and ran a series of Restricted Service Licence transmissions.

These were aimed at the boroughs of Camden and Islington, but their signal went a long way, and Xfm quickly built up a dedicated following. Chris Parry – whose Fiction Records label was home to The Cure – got involved and housed the station in his Charlotte Street offices.

The station was quickly adopted by the city’s indie music fans. As well as Radio 1’s Evening Session, London did have GLR – but the BBC station’s commitment to news, the odd bit of “quality rock” and “community” broadcasting meant new bands could only get a break during a couple of daytime shows.

In 1994 Xfm applied for a full-time licence, but was turned down in favour of the likes of Heart and Virgin.

The future looked grim – but in 1996 a new licence was advertised, the “last ever” FM frequency of 104.9. Xfm applied, and won it.

But much had changed in those two years. Cult groups like Blur, Oasis and Pulp had broken though into the mainstream and were even getting regular airplay on Capital – something that had been unthinkable earlier in the decade. GLR was breaking bands like Catatonia and the Supernaturals.

While there was now a huge audience for Xfm’s brand of guitar rock, it’s now clear – in hindsight – the station had a lot of catching up to do.

The launch date was set for Xfm 104.9 – 1 September 1997. Gary Crowley quit his GLR Sunday show to concentrate on the new station. An ad campaign challenged listeners to try something different with slogans like “Nine out of ten people said they preferred Capital” and “If other stations are middle of the road, we’re lying drunk in a ditch”.

The day before launch, Princess Diana died. The test tape was pulled and ambient sounds were played instead. As the rest of the media went into a week of mourning, Xfm’s management considered delaying the launch.

But with a week of gigs lined up to mark the launch, they decided to go ahead anyway.

So, at midday on Monday September 1, after Fake Plastic Trees by Radiohead, Gary Crowley opened his microphone and said:

“It’s Monday 1st September and welcome to Xfm, broadcasting on 104.9. We find ourselves starting a radio station today in circumstances we wouldn’t have wished, following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. As a mark of respect to someone we saw as someone going her own way… we wish to dedicate the activities of our launch day to her memory.”

Then it was MC5’s Kick Out The Jams, and into an hour-long launch show with Crowley, who would present a mid-morning show, and American DJ Eric Hodge, who had been given a breakfast show.

The daytime schedule featured ex-Radio 1 DJ Claire Sturgess, who also featured contributions from Xfm’s head of speech Ricky Gervais – his evening talk show was short-lived, but his comedy was all over the original Xfm.

Paul Anderson and Ian Camfield hosted evening shows, with NME writer Keith Cameron presenting his own choice of bands in The Carve-Up. John Kennedy presented a Peel-esque late show.

Other shows included a garage and psychedelic rock show on Fridays, a hard rock show, the “alternative chart show”, a record review slot which emulated Radio 1’s old Round Table show, and late-night dance shows.

Surprisingly for a specialist station, it also featured a lot of news and travel bulletins – but, just to be different, the news went out at five minutes to each hour.

But listening figures were poor – hovering between 220,000 and 240,000 – well short of its target of 500,000.

The playlist was a snapshot of the bands who would be playing Camden’s grimy indie venues at the time, backed up with a wide-ranging, but avowedly “alternative”, selection of classics from acts as diverse as Massive Attack, De La Soul, Prefab Sprout and David Bowie. Somehow, it all worked – repetition was never a problem, and the late Howard Rose – editor of the industry’s Radio Magazine – pondered whether Xfm’s style of “mood music” was the future.

A schedule shake-up in early 1998 saw Paul Anderson replace Hodge at breakfast, with young DJ Ian Camfield filling his drivetime shoes. Ricky Gervais landed his own anarchic Sunday afternoon show, assisted by Steve Merchant – later to become his partner in ‘The Office’.

As with Diana’s death, events elsewhere were to determine Xfm’s future. Capital Radio had just seen its bid for Virgin Radio trumped by one from Chris Evans – a bid it was so confident about, it had even built space in its new Leicester Square HQ to house Virgin. Capital investors got itchy feet, and something had to be done.

Over at Xfm, its shareholders – one of whom was concert promoter Harvey Goldsmith – had become disillusioned with chairman Chris Parry’s style of management, and rumours abounded of disagreements between him and programme controller Sammy Jacob.

At a Paul Weller concert at Crystal Palace Bowl, Goldsmith met with Capital’s managing director David Mansfield. They discussed the fortunes of Xfm.

In May 1998, Xfm’s other shareholders sold out. Capital – the company mocked in Xfm’s launch ads – announced it was buying a 91% share in the station for £15m, with Parry holding onto the remainder. Two months of uncertainty – never reflected on air – followed, before competition authorities cleared the deal. Meanwhile, Rajar figures were showing a healthy increase in listeners, up to 329,000. Capital would nurture its new baby, surely?

Xfm’s death was as quiet as its launch. Listeners suspected something was up when Keith Cameron failed to show for The Carve-Up on 23 August, and a decidedly iffy test tape featuring Alanis Morrissette and other mainstream rockers was played.

At midday on 24 August, Xfm vanished from the air. No warning, no announcement, nothing. Just that test tape with Alanis Morrissette. Listeners were left bewildered.

Xfm staff were fired left, right and centre – including on-air staff like Gervais, weekend breakfast host Mark Sheldon, while Crowley was offered an overnight show. He walked out and returned to GLR. Sammy Jacob walked out, and Capital eventually bought out Chris Parry’s share.

On the NME’s website, listeners started an online petition, which quickly picked up 4,000 signatures.

Xfm relaunched on 28 August with James Heming – of Capital’s Kent station Invicta – in charge of the breakfast show. Listeners’ worst fears were realised – the new Xfm was a tightly-playlisted station of US-style modern rock, not unlike Virgin.

Specialist shows were axed and the schedule was turned on its head. Remaining DJs like John Kennedy were forced to grit their teeth and play the Beautiful South and the Dave Mathews Band.

Having failed to buy Virgin, it seemed Capital was determined to create its own version. Bizarrely, Bob Geldof – whose Planet 24 was in charge of programming – was signed up for a shambolic drivetime show, which he told the Guardian he “hated”.

Listeners revolted, and figures plummeted to below 200,000. A delegation of listeners met David Mansfield and Richard Park to air their concerns, and a 500-strong group protested in Leicester Square on 10 October. Capital was so worried about the demonstration, it was rumoured it had moved its stations to a studio outside London for the afternoon.

Postcards were handed out, and the Radio Authority received a record 600 complaints. It responded by fining Capital £5,000.

But nothing changed – in fact, things got worse. Planet 24 stopped programming the station and laddishness took over. Music was an afterthought. Football commentaries were brought in – and survive to this day.

The laddishness ended when Xfm was fined £50,000 after a crack was made at breakfast time about bestiality and Capital suddenly had to concentrate on its latest outpost.

It took until late 1999/early 2000 for specialist shows to make a comeback, as Capital earmarked Xfm as a format it could use for digital stations. Slowly, people who sounded like they’d been to a gig in the past five years made a return to the station.

The current station is a mixture of specialist shows by night and near-mainstream music by day – the same formula that propelled Kiss FM to success in the 1990s.

Personally, I still can’t listen. Almost everything carries clumsy sponsorship, the matey Capital style of presentation still lingers, the playlist is still tight – or there’s an hilarious attempt to sound edgy and cool – and drivetime host Zoe Ball is hardly a shining advertisement for credibility. Ricky Gervais has been given his old show back – thanks to the success of ‘The Office’.

The formula’s starting to work, though – listening figures are now above 400,000, and Xfm’s future seems secure.

But what about truly innovative music radio – is its future secure? In London, the answer’s clearly no – despite the city having more stations than anywhere else.

GLR, having gained a few Xfm refugees, was shut down by the BBC in 2000 and replaced with a talk station more in line with its traditional local radio stations, alienating the GLR faithful and spurring them into starting their own (unsuccessful) campaign. And Kiss is now a chart-driven station like Capital.

With digital radio now offering BBC 6 Music along with a few specialist commercial stations like Planet Rock, it seems that, even in the nation’s capital, you’ll have to fork out if you want to hear rock or pop that’s more challenging than Oasis or Kylie.

Darryl Chamberlain is a journalist for BBC News Online’s entertainment section. He is writing in a personal capacity.

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