Betrayed again: NME Radio goes the way of Xfm

In 2007, Xfm ditched its daytime DJs, then axed all the remaining DJs in a shift to a fully automated playlist solution. I had been a loyal Xfm listener since day one in the mid-90s. I had listened on FM, via satellite TV when I left London and was out of signal range, online when I was abroad and then on DAB when Kevin bought me one for Christmas.

When Xfm fired all its DJs I felt betrayed, hurt and disappointed. A station I has supported for years had got rid of the very people who made it special. At the time I said:

The loss of real human DJs – people who care, people who are passionate, funny, interesting, exciting, cute, intelligent, informed, connected – will diminish listeners’ feelings of loyalty to the station. People react most favourably to other people. We like it when a human answers the phone instead of a machine. We prefer to be treated as individuals, not en masse. We want to have conversations with people we like and care about, people that we feel some sort of fellowship with. We don’t connect with people who pop up with an intrusive message for their own little social circle, we simply aren’t wired to care all that much about strangers.

In 2008, NME Radio began. By then I knew Iain Baker, who had been one of my favourite DJs on Xfm, personally and was excited to hear that NME Radio had hired him. Iain is a great DJ with a taste in music that matches mine and a warm, friendly manner that makes him a joy to listen to.

I finally had a replacement for the enfeebled Xfm. NME Radio was fun, full of great music played by great DJs. My radio listening needs were being fully met, even moreso when NME Radio moved on to Twitter so that I could interact with the DJs in a medium that I found convenient. (Although I must say that their use of social media in general was lacking and they could have done a lot more with it had they been bothered to find out how it can all work.)

But today I discovered, several days late due to having guests, that NME Radio have fired all their DJs and are pulling back to become an internet-only radio station. DX Media, who had licensed the NME brand, have decided not to renew that licence, thus leaving NME Radio as a shell of its former self. Says Brand Republic:

The live NME Radio station, launched under licence from IPC Media by Xfm founder Sammy Jacob’s DX Media, is to close after DX Media decided to terminate the arrangement.

NME Radio will stop broadcasting on national DAB and on digital television on Sky, Virgin Media and Freesat, but an automated service will continue online at nme.com/radio while IPC reviews the next stage of development.

Perhaps they weren’t doing well, one might think. Well, it’s true that there weren’t as many ads as you might have expected, but according to Brand Republic, audience size was increasing:

According to the latest Rajar audience-measurement figures for the first quarter of this year, NME Radio had an average of 226,000 listeners a week, up 16.5% year on year and 27.7% quarter on quarter.

Today (14 June), media agencies expressed disappointment about the decision, citing the gold award the station won in the best use of branded content category for its Skins Radio work for Channel 4, as evidence of the station’s progressive approach.

So it would seem that DX Media simply didn’t have the patience to wait for NME Radio to read critical mass, despite the fact that the signs were good. If anything, it looked lie NME Radio was well on the up. The Guardian says:

NME Radio went nationwide on digital audio broadcasting (DAB) radio at the end of last year and also broadcast via Sky Digital, Virgin Media, and Freesat.

The station had an average weekly reach of 226,000 listeners in the first quarter of 2010, and just two months ago announced the signing of former Xfm DJ Alex Zane. It launched with a show presented by Ricky Gervais.

Once again, a great radio station has decided that the human voice is unnecessary or too expensive, and that us little sheeplings will continue to listen to an automated service that has all soul and personality of a brick. Well, I for one shan’t. If I want music without interruption, there’s Spotify, Last.fm, my iTunes folder, and a bazillion music blogs and podcasts that can keep me busy.

What I want is to be able to listen to Iain and his colleagues. Their voices gave shape to my day. Like the old town cryer calling “11 o’clock and all is well”, the sound of Iain’s voice was a reminder that I had better be getting on with my morning lest lunchtime creep up on me.

I feel betrayed by NME Radio. Hurt. Angry. I’ve been through the loss of my favourite radio station before when Xfm turned to shit, and this hurts even more because of it.

The strange thing is… just before Xfm lost the plot, it started broadcasting some really dodgy station idents that were repulsively puerile and insulting. They upset listener and DJ alike. I remember being quite shocked when I heard them or heard about them.

Only a few weeks ago, NME Radio started broadcasting dodgy station idents that I found repulsive and insulting. One featured a woman trying to ask her boyfriend to marry her, casting her as a needy, silly, unrealistic bimbo and him as an uncaring, selfish, emotionally unavailable twat more interested in his radio than the feelings of his girlfriend. That’s insulting to both men and women alike, frankly.

So now I’m lost. 6Music seems to be the place that refugees from Xfm and NME now go, but half their DJs bore me and the others drive me up the wall. I am again in the radio wilderness, searching for an indie alt rock home with charismatic and entertaining DJs to keep me company.

UPDATE 18 June 2010: I was pretty cross when I wrote this post. I think NME Radio’s fate reminded me so much of what happened at Xfm and opened up some old wounds. I’ve had an interesting conversation with someone closer to the action than myself, and reading this post back in the light of that additional information, it does sound a bit harsh.

Ultimately, DX Media and IPC were in a tough spot. Starting a new radio station just before the ad industry tanked and global recession set in was a piece of bad luck no one could have foreseen.

I have no reason to doubt the intentions and capabilities of the people at DX Media and IPC who worked on NME Radio. I do still think they could have done better at social media, but these have been testing times for all businesses that rely on advertising. I hope IPC figure a way to continue NME Radio, and perhaps even find the budget to hire back some of the great talent they were forced to let go. Indeed, I shall continue to listen, as they do still have the best playlist in town, and perhaps by remaining loyal through testing times I might help the station survive. One can but hope.

14 thoughts on “Betrayed again: NME Radio goes the way of Xfm

  1. “If I want music without interruption, there’s Spotify, Last.fm, my iTunes folder, and a bazillion music blogs and podcasts that can keep me busy.”

    I think this is the point. There are a lot of ways to consume music now, and although a lot of people may still prefer the personality and serendipity of human-programmed and manned stations, will they be commercially viable? In the UK, it’s even harder than the US because your commercial radio has to compete with high quality commercial free programming. In the most recent published RAJAR numbers, NME’s audience was larger only than Panjab Radio and Chill across the UK. It might be growing, but it’s still 1/5 the size of the audience of BBC 6 Music. That’s a lot of 16.6% year on year growths yet to go in a world where the future of monetization (and yes, I hate that word) of commercial content is unclear.

    In the US, personality-driven radio (which here generally means celebrity personalities who tend to be more expensive) has moved to subscription-based satellite radio, which runs about $12/month, or about the cost of a basic spotify subscription in the UK. In that context, if I’m a media outfit, I think I could probably make a reasonable argument that the human voice is, in fact, too expensive to sustain on a station with small reach. It’s not a good answer, but it’s probably the one we’ll see more and more as the Internet’s unexpected consequences continue its slow rumble through media.

  2. Excellent article thayt I fully support bar the comment on 6 music DJ’s – perhaps time to give it another go! Where will all the DJ’s go now? All very sad and I lived through same with GLR, XFM and possibly 6 music 🙁

  3. Edwin, your point is a good point but not perhaps in the way that you think it is.

    Commercial viability depends not just on audience figures but also on the relationship between audience and station (or blog or newspaper or whatever) and the behaviour of the commercial department. It’s too easy to write things of and say “not viable on the internet”, when the truth is that it could be viable if the commercial department put the effort into making the *right* relationships with the *right* advertisers who could build the *right* relationships with the audience.

    Kev wrote about htis in the context of newspapers yesterday: http://charman-anderson.com/2010/06/14/ending-the-self-fulfilling-prophecy-that-digital-content-doesnt-make-money/

    Did NME (or Xfm before them) really do their best to get the advertising in? Did they innovate? Well, they did innovate to some extent, but I’d guess that the Skins viewers are actually a different audience to NME listeners, so maybe they didn’t innovate with the right advertisers. That would be a symptom of not knowing your audience well enough.

    Did NME really do the best they could do to attract more listeners? Their Twitter account was passible. Their Facebook page is risible. I can tell you from listening to NME since they started that their integration of social media into the radio was almost non-existent for anything other than Twitter (and that they did not brilliantly).

    Did they combine social media and innovation in advertising to provide additional value to both listener and advertiser? No. I saw no evidence of that whatsoever.

    Did they use social media and radio together to create some sort of loyalty scheme or club that would help improve the relationship between listener and radio, thus reducing churn and providing another conduit for properly targeted advertising? No.

    Rajar is a bit of a mess, or so I’ve been told by people in the industry. Ad rates are tied to Rajar numbers, hamstringing traditional ad strategies which rely on volume, not quantity. That focus on volume detracts attention from finding other ways to extract value from the radio’s community of passionate listeners.

    As for subscriptions, if it was a case of ‘pay a sub or lose NME’ I’d have paid the sub. If they’d offered a sub with extra goodies, I’d have bought it. It was never offered.

    There was so, so much that NME Radio could have done to increase listenership, reduce churn, and create new income streams, but they didn’t do half of what I would have done. And what they did do, they didn’t do all that brilliantly. Even their “go to this site and buy the tune you just heard” tactic was poorly implemented and confusing.

    The one thing they did brilliantly was be a radio station. That’s not enough any more.

    Yes, it’s tough to make money online when there is so much competition, but that is why firing your DJs makes not sense – they are your USP! Automated playlists are easily replicable. DJs are not.

    So I don’t accept that the human voice is too expensive. I think that’s being pennywise and pound foolish.

    What we need to see is radio stations being much more imaginative on how they make money – just the same as every other content industry under the sun. Innovation. Community. Outreach. And most importantly of all, a commercial department willing to go all out to try new things and bring in more money.

    My bet is that NME Radio’s commercial department did what they have always done, and have found that getting what they have always got is not enough.

    Tim, thanks! I will try 6Music again when I get get at my DAB (office currently occupied by two 17 year olds!), but I can’t say it thrills me. DJs are all about personal taste and some of the 6Music DJs I already know annoy me. :/

  4. R.I.P. NME. My week just hasn’t been the same since I returned to a neutered radio station Monday morning (living in Canada, I was lucky enough to enjoy the nighttime DJs during my workday due to the time difference). It was the first (and thus far only) radio station I’ve ever listened to where the DJs didn’t inspire homicidal thoughts every ten minutes…bring on the subscription; I’d pay it!
    p.s. Yeah, what was up with those moronic ads? The only time I felt compelled to hit the mute key was when that pseudo-homophobic Nando’s commercial came on.

  5. OMG, the Nandos ad was awful! Yeah, I used to hit mute (or “off” as my mute button is known 😉 ) when the awful ads came on, or when they played particularly rubbish toonz. Which thankfully wasn’t often.

    Hours after writing this post, I still feel hurt and betrayed and somewhat lost. Where will we go now?

  6. I started listening to nme radio in late 2008. tuned in to Iain and listened through chris. This past year I mainly, and a bit more rarely, just tuned in to chris’s show and left it playing through morning. Do wish i had listened more. All of the DJ’s just really made you feel at home. Combining that with the top collection of tunes, nobody will beat what nme radio was. It will be hard for me to find a new music home. Really cant be bothered with searching and downloading new songs, thats what nme radio was there for me, i trusted them to find the best new music and still play all the indie classics.

    I reckon ill settle with xfm manchester for a bit. Will miss joining in on Chris’s request show every friday evening. Cheers for the read.

  7. It’s actually quite re-assurring to hear there’s more people out there who feel the same as me about the loss of the last truly great radio station. I’ll gladly live with the automation coz its still miles better than anything else out there.

  8. I wonder if it’s some kind of destructive spiral that all good, niche market, commercial stations have to go through?

    They get great DJ’s in, get the music side of things so right but screw up the money side of it and have to either cash in (with waaay too many inappropriate ads) or fold up.

    Sorry to see it go, RIP, but hopefully there’ll be another ‘startup’ station soon, and they’ll take Iain, Chris, Jon, Neil, Sturge and co, hopefully they can learn from NME Radio and make a better (at least longer) go of it?

  9. I’ve been listening to NME Radio in the US since 2008. The music plus DJ’s made the difference for me. It was great to hear a new track followed up by a story from Chris or Iain about the artist or song. The radio personality will be missed. What they have now isn’t much different than Pandora… I guess.

  10. Suw,
    Thanks for the response. I wasn’t trying to make a value judgement about the decision; indeed, I agree that NME could have done more and should have done more to engage their users. As we’ve all seen on the web, engagement can be a far better leading predictor of reach and market dynamics than pure profits, and I agree that an engaged listenership requires real people. AOL Radio (online in the US), for example, though smaller than last.fm and Pandora, is widely loved because there are real people behind it that take the time to understand and interact with their audience through Facebook, Twitter, and the online stations themselves. It’s built up a large and loyal following even though it doesn’t have the reach of some of the other more well-known online music services for just this reason. [Disclaimer: I used to work for AOL].

    But while *we* may know these things, my point was that looking at it at a pure dollars and cents standpoint, this is a justifiable decision. As you say, regardless of what Rajar measures, it’s what gets used for ad buys, and (unless you go with a subscription model or you’re lucky to have the license fee), ads are what pay the bills for radio – and indeed in most media industries. It’s easier (and far less risky) to reduce your cost structure than to come up with new revenue generation, and few traditional media industries will have the deep pockets, investment capital, or frankly the talent and capability to build out new revenue streams before the old ones wither away. If we care about quality content, if we care about human curation and commentary, and in making sure that we don’t see more media like the NMEs and Newsweek magazines and Christian Science Monitors of the world teeter or go away, then it’s up to us to help these companies develop these new markets and new streams. It’s up to us to help promote and distribute the content and delivery channels we care about and to show “old” media the path. Otherwise, as I said earlier, I suspect we’ll see more regrettable changes as the pace of “progress” moves forward.

  11. It is nice to have a human DJ because it is someone who you can interact with especially if you are requesting songs and stuffs.

  12. I only discovered NME radio about a year ago but really dug it since it always had great music, interviews and what not. Being from Los Angeles we really lack that. Bummer to now hear repeats of bad 90’s music.

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