XFM: Sacrificing quality for … what, exactly?

I don’t really talk about marketing and PR much here, unless it has something to do with blogs or social media, but I’m going to make an exception for UK-based radio station Xfm. They are committing an act of such gross stupidity that I just can’t let it pass.

A little background: I have been a long-term fan of Xfm. Their playlist was probably the most closely aligned to my own tastes of any radio station I’ve every listened to, playing the best new indie, indie-pop, rock and indie-dance you could find, presented by the best DJs. For nearly ten years, they’ve ruled the radio roost, creating a real sense of belonging amongst those of us who listened and loved what we heard.

A couple of months ago, they shed some of their best daytime DJs in a move that I found mystifying and disappointing. Their playlist, too, has deteriorated over the last several months. Like a frog being slowly brought to the boil, I hadn’t really realised just how narrow their playlist had become until someone pointed it out to me. I’ve blogged about all this over on Chocolate and Vodka – if you want to get a feel for just how passionate I am about Xfm, just read the post.

But last week, I discovered that axing their best DJs was only their first move. Their coup de grâce is axing all DJs from 10am until 4pm each weekday, effective from Tuesday 29 May.

RadioNews.co.uk said:

Xfm listeners will be asked to compile their own playlists via SMS, phone and online and vote for the artists and songs they want to hear. The studio production team will then be on hand to send them straight to air.

Listeners will be able to build playlists and vote for their favourite songs, take part in discussions, and record messages for Xu which may well end up on air. All SMS’s will also be displayed instantly.

This is radio for the cable TV generation – in a VH1- or MTV-style move, the most popular songs of the day will be put on heavy rotation whilst the station rakes in the cash from all the SMS messages that they receive. I’m sure they’ll be putting together a nice premium rate phone line too, so that listeners can be fleeced whilst they leave messages that will never make it to air.

As the Guardian’s Organ Grinder says, Xfm are calling this “Radio to the power of U” – a hint that perhaps someone at GCap Media, Xfm’s owners, thinks that this is the radio equivalent of user generated content.

And MediaGuardian (subscription required), said:

A GCap spokeswoman said the changes were not a cost-cutting exercise, and said none of the presenters or production team would lose their jobs. The DJs affected will be moved to other slots, although the total number of hours they are on air will inevitably be reduced.

I am sure that GCap see this not as a cost-cutting exercise, but more as a revenue raising move – if you have six hours of air-time to fill with listener requests, that’s going to require a lot of texts and phone calls.

But surely, I hear you say (even if it is your evil alter-ego saying it), surely this is a good thing? UGC is the way forward! Giving listeners control is the logical thing to do in this age of consumer choice! Xfm’s Managing Director, Nick Davidson thinks so:

Xfm has always been an innovative radio station and we really felt that we were ready to push the boundaries again. We are all excited about handing over the airwaves of Xfm to our listeners – it’s a new era and we can’t wait to see what kind of playlists and discussions they come up with. Our listeners are used to being able to control what they watch or listen to as these days people are inundated with choice. Allowing them to shape their own content seems the next logical step.

Sounds nice, but it’s wrong, terribly wrong.

Think of the power law – the most popular minority gets all the love and kisses, the less popular long tail remains largely ignored. Perhaps the narrowing down of Xfm’s playlist was a preparatory move, getting us used to hearing the same songs over and over again, because that’s what’s going to happen when the Xfm make this move. The majority of people will vote for the minority of songs that they are familiar with. New songs, unfamiliar songs – the ones in the long tail of popularity – will have a very hard time breaking into the hallowed ground of the power curve’s spike, meaning they won’t make it onto the air.

Result: Xfm will become tedious and boring.

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.

Result: Xfm’s existing listeners will disengage and stop caring about the station.

I’m not the only one to think this is a bit mad. Nik Goodman says:

This move is a negative, defensive step and my predication is that it won’t have any significant positive impact on the audience. If anything, the loyal Xfm fan who tuned in to hear a knowledgable DJ get excited by music, will re-tune to find a station that has one.

Sorry Xfm. Bad move.

And ex-Xfm DJ Iain Baker says:

Oh dear, what a foolish thing to do. And the idea that the listener will suddenly be able to access a huge range of music is just absurd. They’ll get access to the daytime playlist. The end result will be exactly the same songs you hear now, just in a different order.


I was listening to Xfm whilst I was in the bath this morning, it just made me very sad to think how far it’s fallen. It was such a big part of my life and i’ll always have an affection for it, but it really does feel as though they are trying to squeeze the life out of the station…..

It has been suggested (in these comments) that GCap are attempting to strengthen Xfm’s brand, but if that’s the case, then they’ve taken possibly the stupidest step they could have. Xfm already had a strong brand which sprang from hiring really good DJs and playing a varied and interesting selection of the best new and old indie music. If they wanted to strengthen their brand, there are plenty of things that they could do around real co-created content, around social networking, blogging, podcasts, wikis and the like that would take Xfm into truly interesting and innovative territory.

But in this post from On An Overgrown Path, the author implies that Xfm’s move is actually a ratings chaser, following the lead of Classic FM who pioneered the computerised playlist in the UK:

Classic FM’s use of the computerised playlist has been devastatingly successful in the ratings war. In the first three months of 2007 Classic FM reached an audience of 6.03m listeners, up from 5.71m the previous year, while during the same period BBC Radio 3’s audience dropped below the important 2.0 million threshold, declining from 2.1m to 1.9m.

If Xfm are after ratings, then pandering to the popular via listen-led playlisting might not be the stupid move it feels like to those of us who actually care about music. Sure, Xfm might alienate all its existing listeners, but maybe it’ll get new ones. Lots and lots of new ones, people brought up on an MTV diet who don’t want to be surprised or introduced to new music, but who just want to hear what’s familiar, over and over again. In that case, tedious and boring won’t be a problem. Nor will a lack of talented DJs.

The thought that that might be true makes me incredibly sad. One of the jewels in the UK radio crown turns out to be made of paste.

But all might not be lost. Way back when, after the original Xfm was taken over by the Capital Group, the station went through a major reformatting, becoming much more mainstream. Listeners revolted, and Xfm was forced to its senses. From the looks of the discussion on the Xfm listener forums, people aren’t happy with what’s going on now either:

Sounds rubbish to me. XFM daytime will become as soulless as an automated digital station or crappy local radio in the middle of the night.

One of the reasons for listening to radio is for company while you work / lounge around. Not anymore. Bad move.

I’m sure discussion there will hot up when the change comes into effect. Maybe then, when people realise what this new format means, we can organise another revolt.

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