Radio X — The day the music died?

Steve Taylor, former Xfm DJ and current Acting Dean for the School of The Arts, University of Northampton

Radio X goes live on Monday 21st September. This is the new radio station starring household names Chris Moyles, Johnny Vaughan and Vernon Kay plus the little feller from the Kaiser Chiefs and that X-Factor thing with the big chairs, whose name I can never quite remember. It is a station that will bring us “rock and guitar-based music” and will also seek to apparently rectify a major problem, because according to Vaughan, “Great Britain needs great banter”. Ok, a bit sarky, sorry about that. And yes, I will declare an interest: I presented shows on Xfm for ten years of my life, and it’s Xfm that has just been binned to make way for this new Radio X.

Xfm began its life in 1992 set up by independent radio pioneer Sammy Jacob, gaining a full licence to broadcast across London in September 1997. Veteran London DJ Gary Crowley launched the station with The MC5’s scandalous and frenetic garage rock anthem ‘Kick out the Jams’ which was made doubly scandalous that day because the Princess of Hearts had been killed in a car crash in Paris that very morning and as a result, the rest of the UK’s broadcast media had gone into fun lockdown.

While even Radio 1 defaulted to playing mellow instrumentals for the day, Xfm ploughed on with a playlist of indie, punk, powerpop, hip-hop, grunge and some Glen Campbell thrown in for good measure. I joined the station in January 1998 to present the evening show 7–9pm each night. Ricky Gervais, who was also Head of Speech (!), was my producer. Ok, so practically speaking, this just meant trying to put me off while I was doing a link, but now I think back, Gervais’ main contribution to the station was to flag up ‘muso’ pomposity or self-aggrandizement on the part of the DJs, journalists and record company types that made up the station’s staff. He helped keep it authentic.

I have stacks of memories of that year at Xfm, based in Charlotte Street in Fitzrovia. My favourite is probably getting a call to the studio while on-air from electro pioneers Add N to (X). They were outside in the car and had their new single with them. “That’s us, outside. Look down we’re waving. Do you want a copy to play on your show tonight?” Of course I did: cutting edge music, London band, great story to tell the listeners. That, in a nutshell, is how to do Xfm properly, I like to think.

Xfm lasted as a truly independent station from September 1997 until it was bought by Capital Radio and shifted down to Leicester Square. Gervais was initially ‘let go’ and only about six presenters actually made it down those three stops on the Northern Line. The music policy was reined in initially and there was little scope for DJs to express opinions and contextualize the music which was something that had been a key part of the original Xfm philosophy. Ok it wasn’t written down anywhere but everyone knew that the original independent Xfm was ‘music first, station second, personality third’.

A scolding from the Radio Authority led to the reinstatement of specialist shows at Xfm mark 2, and a return to more challenging music policy, at least after 7pm.

During the daytime, the station became a bootcamp for presenters who always wanted to work in alternative music radio, or had perhaps been told by brand advisers, to toughen up their ‘indie’ credentials. These included Dermot O’Leary, Zoe Ball, Russell Brand (for about 4 weeks… which was plenty!), Christian O’Connell, Jimmy Carr, Adam and Joe, Simon Pegg, Tim Lovejoy, Zane Lowe, and returning heroes, Gervais and Merchant, plus of course Karl Pilkington, who had joined the station as Head of Production but who was enticed on-air to work with Gervais. Once Karl opened his mouth and laconically spoke his mind, a star was born creating groundbreaking comedy and effectively launching idea of the individual show as a stand-alone podcast, which has transformed radio in the online world.

It was the specialist shows after dark that defined the station of course: Nick Luscombe’s Flo-Motion, Ian Camfield’s Rock Show, Eddy Temple-Morris’ Remix, John Kennedy’s X-posure and the likes of Iain Baker, Lauren Laverne, Guy Garvey, and Clint Boon at Xfm in Manchester, all bona fide musicians who now were also able to share their passion for music from every genre, new and old.

I managed to present shows in virtually every timeslot on the station between 1998 and 2008, but dedicated most of my energy to The A to X of Alternative Music which went out weekly, and where I was allowed total freedom to choose the music I wanted, blending new releases with archive tracks and rarities from artists that ranged from the psychedelic sixties to the lo-fi nineties. Sounds odd now I write it down. They actually let me do that!

Anyway, to the present, this week Xfm morphs into Radio X with a stated aim to appeal to a male-focussed audience led by personalities with views that speak for that most under-represented of groups, the contemporary English white middle-class male. Hmmm…

Well, it hasn’t begun yet so it would be wrong to pass judgment just yet. Moyles doesn’t inspire me with confidence but John Kennedy is still there, who just last week on his last ever X-Posure on Xfm introduced me to new music by Bright Young People and threw in a b-side (can I still call it that?) by Wolf Alice. Please Radio X, let John and others keep supporting new music in the great tradition of Xfm. I’m sorry but a diet of “rock and guitar-based music” (whatever that is), just won’t cut it.

It’s 6.50am on Radio X launch day as I finish writing this. Moyles started at 6.30am, and there has not been any music yet. I think I’m getting the idea.