XFM Issues

I have an odd relationship with XFM. When I was at GCap I had quite a bit to do with its distribution strategy and business development, but little to do with programming and marketing. I actually think that’s a good way round, as you can be much more objective about things when you’re not very close to them. However at the same time lots of friends work (and have worked) at XFM so that creates a bond too.

This rambling introduction is to say that there’s been some more changes at XFM, with the axing of Xu (it’s non-stop-ish daytime format) and the re-establishment of presenters. Now, I wasn’t a big fan of Xu, but for different reasons to lots of other people.

Xu was actually a brave idea. It was never about cost cutting. Indeed the money you save from daytime jocks isn’t that much and they were replaced by people creating content – production, interviews, listener calls etc. At best it cost a little bit less, at worse it was probably a little more expensive. I saw the presenterless format as a way to differentiate the station and to provide a clutter-free, music-intensive envirnoment.

In reality, when I listened, there was much more clutter. Loads of voices and production, trying to make up for a lack of presenters which I think confused the lot.

Part of the reason something ‘had to be done’ about XFM is its relatively low audience figures. It’s built over the years – but a male indie rock station should be doing better than it is. It’s generally a great listen and daytime is very accessible, but the needle rarely moves. At the same time the last few years industry music flow have been dominated by indie music so surely it should be doing better? Unfortunately it’s a little more complex than that.

I think the biggest problem with XFM is, strangely, the name. It creates a paradox. To new listeners XFM screams alternative, different and probably a bit scary. X X X X X X X. It’s aggressive, left-field and a bit, er, grrr. However, the problem it faces is that if it delivers on that grrrrr brand message you won’t get that many listeners. Whilst there is absolutely a market for a properly alternative radio station playing mostly non-popular songs. There just aren’t many of them. To gain a decent commercial-radio sized audience you need to balance the alternative and the pop-indie together. Which XFM, generally, does well.

However, if you do do this, combining the two, you annoy the harder rock fans who were driven by the X X X X brand promise. But that should be okay for the other more mainsteam audience, then? Well, no. Because the people who would like pop-indie and some newer stuff in the mix are quite often too scared to come across and sample the station in the first place. The X drives them away. That’s partly the reason that XFM has always had to use big name talent on its programming. They act as mastheads to draw people in to sample the station and realise that it’s for them. However this and the marketing that goes along with it is expensive. Thus completing the vicious circle of XFM’s low audience.

I bring all this up partly because i’ve just read a good piece by Andrew Collins who talks about his time at NME and why he feels the magazine’s not doing very well at the moment. In the first half of the interview you can pretty much replace NME with XFM.

In a simiar way, the rest of the radio industry has co-opted XFM’s music, it playing indie is no longer unique and the audience has new ways of accessing new music, so you need a radio station a little bit less to do that.

5 thoughts on “XFM Issues”

  1. 1) This might sound stupid (never stopped me before) but how do we know XFM is doing less well than a male-focussed indie rock station should be? How well should a male-focussed indie rock station be doing? There’s only Kerrang! to compare it with, which is doing a bit better in Brum than Xfm is Manchester, but with a few years head start. Xfm London seems stuck around 5% reach, but Virgin obviously is more competitive there. Is there really this big “timid indie” market out there looking for an Xfm with a softer name that isn’t catered for by CHr stations or Radio 1 (or even radio 2)

    2) I agree that Xu wasn’t as bad an idea in principle as it was in the execution. far too cluttered, and the UGC was an example where the audience have nothingn to add – “I wanna hear The Killers cos it’s great”. More banal than some two-bit provincial deejay.

  2. One bit of evidence – when i’ve looked at any market mapping research when you see available audience for a specific type of music, an indie-rock station always looks like it should be stronger. Indeed Kerrang does 10% reach, admittedly with less competition than London which seems a bit more respectable.
    Audience data from other world markets show that it should be stronger too.

  3. I absolutely agree (which won’t come as a shock) that the execution of Xu was a terrible, cluttered, badly executed mess.

    What I don’t understand is if this was *nothing* to do with cost-cutting, why was the format rolled out across all four stations?

    The marketplaces in Scotland, Manchester and Wales are completely different to that of London. I’ll accept that Xu could have provided XFM London with a USP, but what about the others?

    Why did Scotland require “uncluttered” daytime output in a marketplace which isn’t cluttered and where the format itself is clearly a point of difference? Why win Manchester and South Wales on the basis that an alternative rock format will find an audience, and then change to a format that wasn’t researched in those marketplaces?

    As for cost-cutting, two or three producers surely cost a whole lot less then two daytime presenters.

  4. My understanding was that the budgetary differences weren’t much of a change from before to after.

    The reason they rolled it out everywhere was that tehy genuinely believed that it was the right thing to do and something that the XFM audience would respond well to.

    Manchester’s XU apparently does quite well, but I think judgements so early in its life are quite hard to measure.

  5. Well, as far as the “costcutting” issue goes, I know different. Let’s just say that XU was never introduced for the reasons stated at the time, and that process was mirrored when the whole sorry experiment came to a close.

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