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.