PERSPECTIVE: Buyout of Xfm flies in face of licensing for listener choice

In a world where media mergers and takeovers come along as often as editors of the Independent, most barely cause a flicker of an eyebrow.

In a world where media mergers and takeovers come along as often as

editors of the Independent, most barely cause a flicker of an


But last week’s acquisition of Xfm by Capital Radio sent both my

eyebrows skywards.

When Xfm launched last year, I for one bought into its promise to offer

something a little bit different from the mainstream radio fare. Yet

it’s less than a year down the line and Xfm has, literally, sold out to

Capital Radio, which, ironically, lost to Xfm when the licence came up

for grabs.

And it’s a real shame.

When Xfm won its licence to provide an alternative rock radio format, I

visited the station’s quirky little office in Charlotte Street and

shared the bubbly with young, beaming enthusiasts for whom the award

represented a triumph after years of restricted service licences and two

failed bids. The ad industry got behind the station, too, hoping it

would satisfy an underserved sector and expand commercial radio


That this passionate belief and tangible support should have ended so

soon in a sell-out to the market’s dominant player and a station hardly

known for its experience of niche radio is a travesty.

I know both Capital and Xfm will rush to reassure all concerned that

more investment and resource will make Xfm bigger and better while

remaining true to its vision. Yet, while Chris Parry, founder and

visionary behind the station, will continue as a director, you can

already feel him slipping away. And the station’s idiosyncratic offices

will be left behind in favour of Capital’s brash but bland Leicester

Square headquarters.

The real worry, though, is that the Radio Authority can award a licence

which is then swiftly sold on for shed loads of money. I’m sure Xfm’s

backers ploughed investment into the launch of the station, but it seems

that winning a radio licence these days is like being handed a winning

lottery ticket. Where lies the listener’s interests in such money-making


Perhaps Xfm’s losses, pounds 1.7 million last year, meant sell or shut.

If so, that suggests the Authority awarded the licence to a company

without a sound business plan and pockets deep enough to see the station

through to stability. Or perhaps there just aren’t enough listeners and

advertisers interested in alternative rock - Xfm only took 0.6 per cent

of listening in London, according to the latest figures. But surely

that’s the purpose of test research, restricted service licences and the


Actually, I’m all for letting the market decide whether a radio station

sinks or swims. If Xfm fudges its remit, becomes Capital 2, and attracts

more listeners, then good luck to it. In which case, let’s drop the

charade of trying to cater for minorities - award licences to the

highest bidder and make them non-transferable. At least that way those

listeners genuinely interested in niche radio won’t feel betrayed and

radio licences will no longer be merely a licence to print money.