For my formative years, my scope of music was defined by, and limited to, the risquè conversations of 88.4 KISS 100, the faint English accents of Capital FM, the smooth jams of Easy FM, the throwbacks of Classic FM, not to forget the urban dancefloor hits of Channel O and MTV Base. This was the world of music that I, and most other children, occupied. The radio was the judge and jury of what constituted good music. Trendy music was good music, they were synonymous to each other.
X FM’s frequency only circulated around Nairobi and its outskirts. As an islander, I didn’t come to learn of X FM’s existence until I went to boarding school up country, having to traverse through Nairobi in order to get to school. 105.5 XFM was a lifestyle radio station under the Radio Africa Group, playing alternative, rock and indie music for an urban audience. The radio outfit officially left the airwaves in 2019 and shortly thereafter, X FM announced that they were going full digital on the Songa Platform hosted by Safaricom.
Prior to boarding school, I only held a vague concept of ‘other’ music, outside of the radio top 40. I heard it in passing: in the soundtracks of films, in clothing stores at the malls, in commercials, and read about it within the profiles of magazines.
But in the epoques before we held the internet in the palms of our hands – one either had to ask or guess in order to get answers to fundamental questions like ‘how does the universe work?’ and ‘where can I listen to music besides tv and the radio?’ Which prompts the question: How does a person without access to neither digital streaming platforms nor physical record stores discover new music outside the cycle of major label backed radio hits?
“Radio is all about the passive audience, the ones that commute and are in their car two to three hours a day. And who knows how long that will last, as we work more and more from our homes?” ~Allen Kovac, CEO Better Records, Variety Magazine.
From the launch of television in the 1920s to the dawn of the internet age in the late ‘90s and 2000s to digital streaming platforms in the 2010s – like a cockroach after a nuclear war – radio has somehow managed to survive the threat to its existence constantly posed by these shiny new mediums. The music industry has had to keep reincarnating itself in order to fit the standards of the zeitgeist.
But before the digital boom of the 2010s, alternative radio was all many had for counter-culture music discovery. Away from the aggressive marketing and distribution tactics of the major record labels whose job it is to ensure that songs turn into hits, X FM provided Kenyan music listeners of a certain demographic with the option of the ‘other’ during a time when the hold of mainstream radio and music television was so tight on the Kenyan psyche, that any genre of alternative music that was not played ‘round the clock on mainstream radio was largely (and reductively) considered ‘white people music’.
The word ‘alternative’ had not yet entered the everyday Kenyan lexicon. You were either listening to ‘Black’ music, that is the hip hop, R&B, Afro-beats and local anthems regularly making their rounds on radio. Or ‘white’ music. Everything else.
These days, thanks to the work of alternative radio stations like X FM, the lines between what is considered ‘Black music’ and ‘white music’ are obscurely drawn and can be easily solved with political correctness and genre theory.
According to Edison Research’s 2020 Infinite Dial Report, 465 of consumers aged 12+ who consider finding new music important say that radio, while ranking the lowest, is still one of the channels where they discover new music. While Youtube was the biggest resource for new music discovery. And family and friends ranked slightly higher than Spotify.
As music downloads and digital streaming overtook alternative radio (and the industry of radio as a whole), listeners harnessed the skills learnt from discovering the ‘otherside’ of radio music into creating their own niche spheres of interest. Whether it’s French House Music, Hungarian Metal, UK Garage, or Brazilian Folk. There are as many genres and subgenres in existence as there are stars in the sky. Except you can see the different stars and constellations now and decide which ones you want to put into your pocket.
“The legacy of X FM lives in the hearts of the many emo teens of the 2010s, now adults, who have fond memories. I love how when you hear a rock song from the 2010s and see someone jamming to it… I always go like “XFM” right? That station allowed people to be “weird” which in essence was them just being able to be themselves. It was not a station of pretense unlike most.
Alternative radio made people curious about bands they didn’t know they didn’t know about, so when the Spotifys and Deezers came through people were spoiled for choice.” ~Nick Ndeda, former XFM radio host.