Radio X – Moyles, Johnny Vaughan and Vernon Kay – The New XFM

One of the things that I admire about Global is that they’re not afraid to make big decisions. Whilst the control the three key executives have over the business is sometimes unfortunate for those underneath, it does mean that they’re able to do dramatic things. The XFM change to Radio X is a great example of this.

XFM has been troubled since the beginning. Launching on the day Princess Diana died was unfortunate. Whilst they had an enthusiastic fan base created through RSLs and their pirate days, a combination of a dead princess and launch marketing with the ridiculous “9 out of 10 listeners prefer Capital” strap-line – thank you Saachi and Saachi – didn’t really help it get going. If you ever want to hear an entertaining story, XFM founder Sammy Jacob on the launch’s first weeks is a great one.

It took the Capital Radio Group a little while to work out that doing their own version of Virgin was going to be troublesome before it found its feet with Christian O’Connell, Adam and Joe, Ricky Gervais et al. Whilst critically acclaimed, it still didn’t really generate the audiences everyone felt it should deserve.

Into the GCap days, XFM had too many bosses, most of which lacked the clarity to understand what to do with the radio station, resulting in the ridiculous attempt to do XU. XU – a kind of Jack-esque production and callers plus music mix wasn’t designed to save money. It was a genuine attempt to respond to the changing ways people were consuming music. The thinking was flawed and it didn’t last long.

Interestingly, the recently launched XFM Manchester, did XU too where it was better received (and produced). Partly this was because it lacked the heritage/baggage (delete as appropriate) that 104.9 had.

Indeed, over the years XFM has been caught between a rock and a hard place. Poor marketing and an alternative name – XFM – scared off people who would like a guitar/new-ish music station and those who would revel in the alternative would tune in and be mortally offended by Kings of Leon.

The trouble has often been around being ‘cool’.

I’d spent my time at GWR trying to bid for FM licences with our rock radio station The Storm. It was an early DAB station and whilst it shared quite a bit of musical overlap with XFM it wasn’t positioned as cool. It was pop and modern rock guitar-based music and presenters having a laugh. We spent a ridiculous amount of money bidding for licences and often coming close but achieving nothing. It was worse as we’d lost out to XFM in Manchester and Kerrang! in the West Midlands. In different ways, they were cooler and the regulator probably thought they had a better chance of success.

Then, as is the way, just as I lost the Manchester licence I was merged into GCap and now responsible for growing XFM’s footprint. We’d decided that XFM was the stronger brand when compared to The Storm, and we didn’t need two rock stations, sadly The Storm was despatched to the radio graveyard.

In the rubbish way evil conglomerates work, the Capital people were responsible for much of the planning of the licence bids, but it was my budget. As an ex-GWR person I was unknown and untrusted by their team who thought I was a parochial tosser and I thought they were all posh-o spend-heavy idiots. Neither, of course, was true. I remember however thinking, as I was given the responsibility, that I had to make my mark fast. A request came through to agree for the Newcastle RSL team to stay at Malmaison. I made them all share a student house. We weren’t really all on the same page.

It did get better though. Working on XFM you really did understand the power of the brand. It made everything much easier. It was cool and credible, it had an instant perception. The problem was that it scared off lots of people who’d like what it did on the air. Any other companies who wanted to work with us were obsessed with the cool-end – it’s why pretty much all of XFM’s ad campaigns have been crap – the ad agencies fell in love working on a cool brand without understanding the people who (should) be listening to the radio station.

Oddly, I did then win a FM licence for XFM in South Wales (now Nation Radio). Part of the reason I think we won was that I’d stripped back most of the bullshit elements. It was sold as a rock radio station that would be different to (then) Real and Red Dragon in the market and would share a lot of the back-office resource of Red Dragon, where it would be based.

I’d left by the time it had been won. By then mad Fru Hazlitt appeared, did a load of mental things to ‘save’ the company, including off-loading XFM South Wales, and then what was left was acquired by Global.

Out of all the brands, XFM hasn’t seemed to have had much love from Global. I don’t think this is particularly out of malice, but more that there were better places to spend the money.

Indeed, it’s always suffered a sort of third child syndrome. I remember when Johnny Vaughan was getting a multi-million pound ad campaign singing and dancing around London for Capital, Christian on XFM meanwhile got a couple of grand for some branded beermats.

Product-wise there’s always been a few options with what you do with XFM. Do you go very new, very pop rock, or something in between. Going very new would please the die-hards, but would be unlikely to be successful. New music fans are miserable bastards at the best of times – it’s almost impossible to satisfy them, there aren’t that many of them and you’re now sharing their listening with blogs, Spotify etc.

If you go the pop-rock end then you’re competing with Virgin/Absolute and the people who like guitars who listen to Radio 1.

Musically the middle position isn’t that bad – but without heavy marketing to define it or an anchor breakfast show, the incorrect perceptions, not helped by the name, are always going to hurt you.

What works well overseas is a slightly heavier more rock alternative. Kerrang! has a bit of that position, and a brand which supports it (even if it, too, over the years has been a bit all over the place musically).

The other issue that XFM has faced is 6Music. 6Music is really the evolution of the original XFM concept, a decent budget many times that of what X could afford, and with many of the presenters that X made famous. No ads also helps too. With 6Music creaming off the 20-40 AB web-designer crowd it was only a matter of time before XFM had to change.

Looking at the new Radio X that’s been announced they’re tackling many of the problems that XFM faced with some aggressive changes. The new Radio X is not really that connected to the old XFM. Of course it will aim to scoop up some of the old listeners but its main aim is to aggressively bring in new ones. Doing a 6Music-lite was never going to be sustainable.

Changing perceptions about a brand is hard. Marketing is essential to educate/re-educate people about what something is. This generally takes money. X I’m sure will have some cash to do this, but its DJ hires will also help it break through to non-listeners and, probably since launch, be the fire power needed to give new brand values to the name.

I imagine Radio X is going to be a male rock station – Absolute Radio with some newer records, but it’s not the music format, or music passion, that’s going to make Radio X a success or not. It’s Moyles, Vernon and Vaughan.

These are big, popular, mainstream personalities who will have no trouble being passionate about modern, accessible rock music, appealing primarily to men, but will be eminently listenable by women too.

As a radio fan, I’m excited that Global are building a radio station around personalities. I regard Moyles as one of the most talented radio presenters in the country, with a strong following, who I hope will be incredibly hungry to take a small station much larger. JV is a very funny, very intelligent guy – who, with the right team, will be able to do something very special.

I am surprised JV’s turned up at XFM. As a talkSPORT presenter, I thought he’d be an easy pick to put on the new Virgin Radio which talkSPORT’s parent company will launch in April. Indeed the new Radio X is seemingly doing very much what was planned with Virgin but with a more stellar line-up and doing it first. It’s also going to prove to be a tough challenge for Absolute. If Radio X is a slightly younger sounding, more personality packed station it could cause them some trouble.

With Radio X taking up a national berth on Digital One and launching before the 2nd national multiplex next year, Global are out of the blocks faster to build a national station that will grow from a decent proportion of its existing audience, as well as attracting new people from Absolute and Radio 1.

Digital Radio works well when strong, focused programming is delivered well, nationwide. We’ve seen it with 6Music, Absolute 80s, 4 Extra etc – XFM backed by real talent has a great opportunity too. It’s also much closer to our idea for The Storm – I knew we deserved those licences!